Savoy Howe, Boxer, Coach, and Advocate
Savoy Howe is the head coach and founder of the Toronto Newsgirls Boxing Club, Canada’s first female-owned and trans-positive boxing club. Savoy has been honoured with a CAAWS Breakthrough Award from the Canadian Association for the Advancement of Women and Sport and Physical Activity for breaking through traditional barriers and paving the way for girls and women to participate in sport, a PRIDE Toronto Award recognizing outstanding contributions that have made an impact on the quality of human experience in the GLBTT community, and an Ontario Coaching Excellence Award recognizing outstanding coaches and their contribution to both their sport and athletes in Ontario.
NGDG: Tell us about Newsgirls.
SH: I started boxing in 1992 at the Toronto Newsboys Boxing Club and coaching in 1994. In ’96 when Newsboys folded I carried on as the Toronto Newsgirls. Newsgirls is in its’ 21st year and in our 11th year of having our own gym. We spent the first 10 years renting space in men’s boxing gyms.
We offer recreational boxing for women who have no desire to get punched in the nose and competitive boxing for people who want to play the game while learning how not to get punched in the nose. We let the fellas in 3 times a week and take pride in providing a safe space for members of the transgender community. Another one of our programs was a free boxing program for survivors of violence called ‘Shape Your Life’ which I ran for 10 years. This program has now transitioned in another free boxing program called ‘Outside the Ring’. The goal of OTR is to offer 2 four month memberships each month to each of these four communities; Indigenous, LGBTQ2, New Canadians and People with Mobility Issues. Our gym is wheelchair accessible and most equipment (heavy bags, speed balls and double-end bags) can be adjusted for height so that people who happen to use wheelchairs can access the equipment.
NGDG: How important is it that all of us have people and places in which we can see ourselves?
SH: It is so important that gyms do outreach, open their doors and provide a space for women, survivors of violence, people with mobility issues, all genders and all cultures. Our gym has been referred to as ‘the gym for the gymless’.
NGDG: How much of what we can accomplish is wrapped up in how we think about ourselves or how we feel about ourselves?
SH: So much of how we move through life is based on how we feel about ourselves and the beliefs we hold. When people have access to physical fitness, for us boxing, people can be reminded pretty fast of how strong they already are. Sometimes the belief that one is weak gets shattered in their first boxing class once the participant is taught how to hit safely and then given access to a heavy bag.
NGDG: How does your coaching fit within the context of doing good or making a difference?
SH: I like to start off a boxing participant’s journey by showing them how strong they already are through hitting heavy bags. Then teaching them grounding and a form of defence. This training carries over outside the gym because once someone knows that grounding, offence and defence are an option in life, they carry themselves differently which helps them change their beliefs, the beliefs that play over and over in their heads. I also offer them options for beliefs at the top of exercises, for example, before we do 10 minutes non-stop on heavy bag I will say “Here are two mind sets available on the buffet today….I’m so tired, I’m weak.” or “I am the strongest I have ever been!” Then I say “Pick one” and ring the bell.
NGDG: Are those of us who care doing enough to make the path easier for those who come next?
SH: I can’t speak for others but I try my best. As I enter the beginnings of my 50’s I have started training more and more coaches so that should something happen to me, that Newsgirls will live on. I also do a thing every couple of months at the gym called the “Path”. It is a goal-setting adventure that I have been facilitating for over 15 years. It’s ideal for people who are either in a rut, at a crossroads, looking for direction or trying to start a new business. It doesn’t have much to do with boxing but since we have the facility, may as well use it. Over 800 paths have been done at the gym over the past 11 years.
NGDG: There’s this great Jack Dempsey quote, “A champion is someone who gets back up when he can’t.” What is the role of resilience in the act of making a difference?
SH: There have been so many times when we were not able to make rent over the years but we did. It forced me to invent last minute courses that eventually turned into some of our best programs. Crisis equals opportunity.
I think my best story of ‘would I get up’ was after discovering an AVM (Arteriovenous Malformation), a knot in my brain that burst in 2004. Usually an AVM takes you out but thankfully I was hanging out with a female fire fighter when it happened. I spent 21 days in ICU and a year later had open head surgery to have it removed. I was pretty bummed because I had always wanted to fight as a heavyweight, just once. In 2010 I fought the 3-time Canadian Champion as a heavyweight at the Nationals and walked away with a Silver.
NGDG: There’s an unfortunate tendency with doing good: the blush falls off the rose. Things that were getting lots of attention, money, and effort fall off the radar. Worse still, there’s a lazy way of thinking that somehow things are solved because we’ve achieved a partial victory or made some progress or liked a post on of Facebook. How do we think about keeping momentum going?
SH: Three ways. I love my job and cannot think of doing anything else (except a bit of theatre once in a while), our rent is incredibly high, boxing is not a money making business. The combination of these three things keeps me on my toes, keeps me constantly inventing new ways to keep my boxers engaged. These new ways keep it exciting for me too.
Plus, things are not getting easier for transgender people, Indigenous people, New Canadians and people with mobility issues. We are providing just one way to hopefully make things easier and it’s easy for us, aside from the rent paying.
NGDG: You told VICE Sports Muhammad Ali was an influence on you. He’s maybe the most fascinating athlete of the 20th century; as much for what he said and did outside the ring as what happened inside it. Does success of any kind come with an obligation to speak, to act?
SH: The success of being one of the many community builders out there does come with certain obligations. The obligation to provide a safe, accessible and sometimes free space to people, to show up in numbers at rallies that fight for human rights, to share what has worked for us and what hasn’t worked, and to do our best to be good role models and mentors, to name a few.
NGDG: This year, you did NEWSGIRL, a one-woman show at Soulo Theatre. Was that different than being in the ring taking punches? Are we all too afraid of the spotlight?
SH: My other passion is theatre. I got a theatre degree with no intention of ever getting into boxing. I was doing stand up comedy, improv comedy and plays when I met the boxing ring, the best stage in the world for a show off. So combining theatre and boxing AND performing it in the boxing ring made a lot of things come full circle for me after 25 years in the sport of boxing. A friend once asked me “Aren’t you afraid up there doing stand up?” I responded “I am an amateur boxer, that’s nothing.”
The Now Go Do Good Five Questions
In addition to the questions we ask the people we interview which are specific to them and their work, we also ask everyone we talk with the same five questions as part of our conversation with them. We call them the Now Go Do Good Five.
NGDG: What good thing/act/idea are you most proud of?
SH: Rollerblading 1600 kms around southern Ontario in 1994 as part of Blade for AIDS, an AIDS awareness tour. Two of us skated from Toronto to Sudbury to North Bay to Ottawa to Kingston and then back to Toronto. We skated 80 kms a day for 21 days.
NGDG: What do most of us get wrong about doing good?
SH: Maybe making it about ourselves. I learned early on the difference between trying to save someone vs. trying to help them save themselves. It was a hard lesson. But the latter is way more self-sustaining.
NGDG: What’s the best advice you’ve ever received or the most important lesson you’ve learned?
SH: I was training for a fight and had to go to Florida for work. While there I found a gym that would let me come in and do my training. Once and a while this fellow would come over and without saying anything he’d adjust one thing in my technique and then walk away. And his adjustment, once I figured it out, made a huge difference in how I was punching. He did this several times over the week. When I returned home I showed his business card to my coach and he said “Do you know who this is!!?” I didn’t. It was Angelo Dundee, Muhammad Ali’s coach. What it taught me as a coach was to keep it simple, give your athlete something to think about and then walk away. Let them figure it out.
NGDG: What’s the most important thing people can do to start doing good now?
SH: Treat themselves good.
Be nice to everyone.
NGDG: Give us something to read.
Check out our previous Now Go Do Good article, Dr. Dan Gillis, Community-Engaged Professor:
Now Go Do Good is a project to inspire more people do more good by sharing conversations with people already making a difference — big or small — in their community or around the world. If you like what you read, share it. If you’ve got a story to tell, let us know.
Sean Yo builds products and communities, usually at the same time. Sean has worked in Tech since the 90s and is most interested in diversity, digital accessibility and raising generations of makers. He is the Co-Editor of Code Like A Girl, published on Medium.com.
Danny Williamson is interested in making the world a better place. He’s currently a director at a not-for-profit where he is focused on building better access to community. Danny’s philanthropic pursuits include tenures on several not-for-profit boards. He is a co-founder of Farm To Fork and Goodworking.