The Boxing Coach That’s Changing Lives on Chicago’s West Side

Dubbed “Chiraq” by those who would characterize the city as a warzone — and not the whole city, to be clear, but the parts of the city populated by mostly black and brown communities: the South and West Side — Chicago is often under scrutiny for its murder rate and gang violence. It seems almost routine now for police brutality apologists to cite Chicago when a police officer somewhere in the country kills an unarmed black citizen: “What about Chicago? What about that violence?” and “Fix your own community before you complain about the police!” Statements such as these derail healing initiatives and imply that because citizen-on-citizen violence exists, police are allowed to kill citizens with impunity.

Similar statements were made after the release of Spike Lee’s Chiraq: critics of the film — who charged Lee with exploitation and making light of deadly serious matters — were met with “So what are you doing to fix the problem?” and “At least Spike Lee is trying to address the problems Chicago faces! Make your own movie!”

Chicagoans have fired back: “We are.”

And it’s true. Local musical genius Chance the Rapper, for example, has recently joined with a nonprofit to provide coats to the homeless. Black Youth Project and other activists have mobilized voters to say #ByeAnita to the Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez, who did not charge 68 cops in fatal shootings. Programs such as Kids Off the Block have been created by people like Diane Latiker, reimagining the future of Chicago’s children.

And then there’s Jamyle Cannon.

What Started As An Outlet for His Anger Became Something Much More Important

Jamyle Cannon has a quiet demeanor: around 5’10” and with a quiet smile, he often gives off the impression of a man who doesn’t want to take up too much space; an impression that, when he was younger and a bit of a firebrand, led some to underestimate him — a mistake on their part. Cannon has always been a fighter, even before he found the boxing ring. From Kentucky originally, he attended the University of Kentucky and struggled to find a place to belong.
“I didn’t realize it — nobody did — but I was angry. Sports provided an outlet for that anger, but when I wasn’t playing sports, I was fighting,” he says.

He was a poet for awhile — he still is, though privately — but writing made him restless: his heart was looking for something. The restlessness forced him to seek out the thing that would make him feel truly at home, and eventually he followed it to the boxing gym, getting schooled on proper footwork by a man known only as Smitty. It was love at first punch. In 2009, he won the National Collegiate Boxing Championship as a welterweight fighting at 147lbs, and for the first time felt that he’d found his calling. As it turns out, his calling was much bigger than that.

Cannon never planned on being a teacher, but after learning about education inequality and the tragic outcomes of black and brown kids, he joined Teach for America.

“I moved to Phoenix, Arizona to start my career in education. The school was K-8 and unforgivably under resourced. I found myself coaching boys and girls basketball, flag football, and softball just to prevent the kids from having to forfeit their seasons. I was not the greatest coach. Our success ranged from an undefeated boys’ basketball team, to a softball team that scored three runs all year.”

But Cannon noticed something. Even with the losing streaks, every student’s grades and behavior improved once they joined a team.

“The experience made me realize what kids are capable of when they know they belong, and when they are connected to adults who love, support, and hold them accountable. Because of this, the way I thought about teaching and coaching changed from being a ‘my-way-or-the-highway’ authoritarian, to understanding that, like all people, kids crave relationships, and the stronger the relationship, the further they can be pushed.”

So Cannon decided to dig deeper, and digging deeper meant going back to his roots. So he started a small boxing initiative.

“I picked a few students to start training at recess. These were the kids who weren’t used to positive attention. Usually, if they heard their name, they’d just been caught at something. But while they boxed at recess, dozens of kids would gather to watch and cheer. I started cutting deals with them to improve their grades and behavior in order to continue, and they always rose to the challenge and earned training time.”

After TFA, Cannon’s teaching career brought him to Chicago, where he began teaching at DRW College Prep on the West Side, and where he has made his home. He never thought he’d be running his own boxing program, he says: “That’s for old guys with scratchy voices.” But at his school, he quickly identified that there were some kids who clearly needed something more.

“They weren’t interested in football and couldn’t play basketball,” he says. “They had no reason to come to school, no reason to push themselves, and for a large part, nothing legitimate to excite them. I offered an afterschool boxing class, and 10 kids showed up. They’d push the desks of my classroom out of the way and share boxing gloves. By the time they’d leave, the room smelled terrible. I think the smell of sweat and leather seeped into the pages of my books. Ruined them forever. But the kids loved it, and I started to notice the same improvement in grades and behavior that kids in Arizona made.”

The challenges that his students face are many and complex — but Cannon says that in boxing, there is hope. What follows is an interview with Mr. Cannon himself.

Building A Safe Space on Chicago’s West Side

Tell me about the issues that your students are up against.

Cannon: There were four shootings within a half-mile of our school this past Monday alone. Three of them happened between 4 and 5:00pm — right when our kids leave school. You don’t have to be doing anything wrong to be robbed or killed out here. You just have to be here. Our kids’ brains are wired to ensure their own safety. That’s their primary concern. They’ve learned behaviors and thinking patterns necessary to stay alive, and, while these behaviors make zero sense in a safe school environment, there is no “off switch” they can flip when they walk through the door. That’s one reason academic progress seems to be so slow in areas with high poverty and violence. There are social and emotional barriers that need to be addressed before we can ask a kid to sit still and learn about the Industrial Revolution. If there’s credit to be taken for the growth that kids in the boxing club are making, a large part of that comes from the fact that they have extended time in a safe environment where they have an adult who cares about them, fusses at them, and lets them be teenagers.

Because that’s what they are, after all: despite the seeming insistence of media outlets, police officers, etc. to view black kids as adults — they’re teenagers.

Cannon: Yes. Kids. Childhood is a luxury not often afforded to black and brown children. Our kids are come in with a wide range of talents for a wide range of reasons. Some are looking to find a reason to be confident. Some think they’re coming to learn how to fight, but instead learn how to control that impulse. Some just want to be around somebody who cares about them, so they linger after practice for a half an hour just to stand around and talk. We’ve had kids from 12–17 years old, and no matter how tough the exterior…it doesn’t take long to find that they’re all just kids. They have huge dreams for themselves and no clue how to catch them. They can finish a fight without a problem, but can be brought to tears if I express disappointment in them. They need boxing because they need to know that they matter immensely to somebody who could choose not to care. In boxing, they have someone to hold them accountable, cheer them on, and help guide them.

So you decided to build a boxing program?

Cannon: Yes. So I decided to build a boxing program. Because it works.

It’s hard to get the funding for standard sports in underserved schools and communities. Has that been a struggle?

Cannon: We knew we’d have to do some serious fundraising to get things started. But in the beginning it was small — I had a small team and needed about $2,500 to get the gym started. This was in December 2014. We raised that money in one month. I bought a few heavy bags and stands, boxing gloves, competition gear, and paid for registration. But kids kept coming. I had kids approaching me on the bus stop and in the hall: they wanted to be part of something. So, in November of 2015, I set a goal of $12,500 to fully equip and fund a boxing club. We raised $15,000 before the New Year.

Wow. Did you expect that kind of response? How do parents feel about all this?

Cannon: You always hope that people will care about your cause. It’s more than I could have ever hoped for. The looks on those kids’ faces as I shared with them the money that was being raised with their success as the goal…well, there aren’t words.

Parents have been supportive, too. About half of our kids came back from winter break with new mouthpieces and hand wraps they’d gotten for Christmas. It’s such an accessible sport, so all of our parents have a story of a cousin, uncle, father, or grandpa who fought in the Golden Gloves or had a brief professional stint. There’s a certain pride our parents have when they see their kids progress in the classroom and in the ring, and I think, deep down, many of them are wondering, “What if my child becomes a champion?”

So with this funding and support, you are bringing in kids who otherwise may not have anything to feel passionate about.

Cannon: That’s right. That’s what so many people miss when they (sometimes actively) misunderstand these kids: they don’t have a whole lot to believe in. Boxing is an oasis for a lot of them, and they flock to it. To join the club, all students have to do is ask and show up. Everyone promises to fight only in the ring. From there, the only requirement is progress. That looks different for every kid. I push most kids on GPA or misbehavior. I had a middle school girl last summer and her only requirement was that she stop saying that she couldn’t do things she had never tried. I have a sophomore that has to tell me something helpful he’s done for someone every day. I’ve only ever asked two kids to leave the club — one for violence, another because he didn’t keep his promise for attendance to school after multiple chances.

And how are you seeing your kids live up to those standards?

Cannon: I could tell you about their GPAs. The GPAs of students in the DRW Boxing Club have climbed every single month since the club was created. The chart will show you how those GPAs compare to the rest of the student population.

But I see their growth in other ways. At a boxing event last year, I watched a typically bashful kid walk up to a group of strangers, tell a joke that cracked them up, and walk away like the coolest man in the room. Boxing has benefited all of our kids, but some kids have really found themselves in the sport. I’ve watched kids gain confidence and hope and change the way they carry themselves in ways I can’t put into a graph. But those graphs do tell the story. Students in the boxing club, despite starting the school year with below average GPAs, ended the first semester with an average GPA of 3.32, compared to the school-wide 2.7. Students in the boxing program through Semester 1 grew 14% more on standardized tests than the student population. Last year, male students entering the boxing club in Semester 2 received 52% fewer discipline reports than they received in the semester before entering the club. The longer students are in boxing, the stronger their results. One of the longest lasting students just had his ACT score grow 7 points.

That is incredible.

Cannon: I have a million stories like this. Our longest standing member, Tyler, now a junior, competed in the Golden Gloves recently. He lost. There was only one decision booed by the crowd, and it happened after the judges gave a win to the opponent Tyler had clearly beaten for 3 rounds. But while the crowd booed? Tyler congratulated his opponent and helped him out of the ring. You can’t tell me this program doesn’t work. That same kid — Tyler — has been selected into the Peace Exchange program, a highly selective program that sends proven student leaders across the world to learn strategies that advocate peace in order to implement them in their communities.

One more thing: Our school participates in the “Summer of a Lifetime” program by an organization called The Right Angle that sends high achieving sophomores to get experience on college campuses. School-wide, about 10% of boys have been accepted into the program. In the boxing club, 85% of sophomore males have been accepted into Summer of a Lifetime to study on campus at UNLV, Syracuse University, Virginia Military Institute, the University of Chicago, and UCLA. What we’re doing works.

Amazing. Are there many girls in the club?

Cannon: Yes. And they are just as inspiring as the boys. Rarely does a girl wander into the boxing club by accident. I think the girls that join are driven to be here. They show up for a variety of reasons, but every reason seems to be rooted in the pressures that come with being young black women in this community. It’s hard to maintain healthy self-esteem when the images and messages about you deny your worth and beauty, or ignore you altogether. When you’re inundated with depictions of “ideal women” who don’t look like you or come from where you’re from, or when it’s socially safe to compare Serena Williams and Michelle Obama to animals, it becomes easy to believe that the problem is with you and not the media.

It’s also impossible to feel safe when, as a 14-year-old girl, grown men lurk at you on the bus and follow you for blocks after your stop. Society doesn’t typically allow women to be strong and assertive without labeling them bossy, at best — and it’s even worse for girls of color — and some of our girls come to boxing in defiance of what girls are ‘supposed’ to do and be. I once assigned the girls fewer pushups than the boys, and that almost sparked a mutiny. They want to be held to the same expectations and judged by the same standards. My hope is that boxing can help them defy expectations in their future careers and everyday interactions.

How much have you raised for the DRW Boxing Club so far?

Cannon: To date, we’ve raised about $19,000 for the club. The majority of the money went toward equipment. The sheer amount of stuff needed to run a gym is unbelievable, and the implications of working in a school that’s a historic landmark only adds to the list. Our school was at one point the coal powerhouse for the original Sears Tower. It’s not meant to be a gym. Our ceilings are 30 feet above our heads, so I can’t hang a heavy bag from a ceiling, which means every heavy bag needs a professional bag stand. I can’t drill into the ground because the building is an event space, so every piece of equipment must stand alone — adding to the cost. And the space has to be shared with PE classes and other sports, so everything has to be portable.

There are obvious purchases like gloves, punching bags and stands, a ring, punching mitts, hand wraps, jerseys, headgear, and mouthpieces. Then there are expenses like gauze, disinfectant for equipment, athletic tape, round timers, latex gloves (for working in the corner of a fight), towels, and a bag to carry all that stuff in. Once the basics are in place, the club and every student in it need to be registered with USA Boxing to receive insurance — which costs money for each person. For boxing matches, we use money to cover gas and pre-fight meals.

My goal is to start using money to create experiences that change the course of our student’s lives. I want the club to be an extension of the family for our kids, and I’m tired of all the opportunities our kids miss out on because they don’t have money or guidance to capitalize. I took a kid to a restaurant once, and it was the first time he’d ever had a server. He tried to clean the table himself because he didn’t believe me when I told him our server would take care of it. Our parents are great. They are hard working people who love their kids and would do anything for them — just like any parents. But most don’t make the money to do for their kids what an average American family might be able to do. I have a senior who has been accepted to a college he’s never visited. I’d love to be able to take a weekend trip to go check out campus — not only because that would make him more likely to succeed, but because that’s something an average American kid receives in that situation.

We have a 3-stop overnight college tour being planned for April. Depending on the outcome, I’d like to plan more like it. I’m also hoping to host a summer program for all students in the area. The goal would be to build great boxers while eliminating summer academic regression and preparing kids for high school.

Where can people donate to the club?

Cannon: We have a rolling fundraiser set up here at DRWBoxing.org. All donations are tax deductible.

Anything else you’d like to add?

Cannon: This program has made me take a critical look at the level of disservice we are willing to tolerate for our children in America. All of our kids are poor and black or brown, and we seem to have a pretty high tolerance for the suffering of people who fall into those categories. We’ll let poor kids go without lights and proper nutrition. We’ll let black and brown kids feel ostracized, feared, and undervalued. For a kid on the West Side, the stakes are high. For all of the people working to better the community, it still stands that being somewhere at the wrong time could literally change or end a life. In a way, this club is a space where I get to say, “Come, be a kid. Have fun. Make mistakes. Learn from them. Be your best self.” I want people to know what all kids are capable of if we invest in them — if we stop letting them go without their basic needs of safety, belonging, and love. Things don’t have to be like they are.

You are creating many kinds of champions.

Cannon: They are my life’s work.