Boxing coach Jamyle Cannon spends some of his afternoons shuttling students from school to study hall. When Cannon and his students eventually arrive at DRW College Prep High School in Chicago, they hit the books before hitting each other. And they help transform this school cafeteria into an after-school boxing club called The Bloc. It's not your typical boxing club. It doesn't just churn out fighters, it also prepares students for college.
After an injury, Cannon, a former boxer and teacher, started The Bloc, a nonprofit after-school program that runs five times a week during the school year. It's run by a one-person staff, Cannon, and about 30 volunteers. The after-school program has trained 110 students this school year and about 250 students since its inception.
Diyonna Paige is a regular boxer at The Bloc and one of the few girls. She says: "When I first started, I was not comfortable. I was scared. I was very scared. I thought I was going to get, like, knocked out. I thought I was going to get my nose busted or something. But that was not the case. Mr. Cannon took that in consideration. And he made it a lot easier for me."
For seven years, The Bloc has been training kids like Daishawn Wheeler the basics of boxing as well as the discipline to do well academically, despite the challenges stacked against them. Wheeler says: "My grades now? I'm not going to lie to you. I had a lot of Ds and Fs. Probably a few Cs. Now, I got all Bs and one C."
This neighborhood is called North Lawndale in the West Side of Chicago. Two years ago, the Chicago Tribune ranked it the second-most violent community in the country with more than 280 shootings and 30 homicides. Crime is high and income is low — about 43 percent of the community's population lives in poverty. One columnist calls North Lawndale "the intersection of poverty and violence" and holds the city's systemic segregation "largely responsible for concentration of poverty" in the neighborhood and other predominantly African-American communities.
"I live in the Lawndale area, and it's rough. It's real rough," says Wheeler. "A lot of gang violence. You can't go to the store at all. ... I was taking out the trash, all of a sudden, as I was coming back to the house, they started shooting and bullets was flying everywhere, and I already know that they shoot a lot around in the North Lawndale area." Gun violence is the norm for some of these students.
Like Wheeler, Paige is worried about the violence. She lives in a neighborhood close by. "The only obstacle that would be my worry and my mom's worry is me getting hurt," Paige said. "Not here at boxing, but out in the streets while I'm on my way here and on my way back." Paige calls the boxing club a safe space.
Cannon has seen the difference in his student fighters. He says GPAs have increased and 100 percent of his seniors graduate and get accepted to college. Cannon also says he had 100 percent graduation rate for his underclassmen until this year, when one of his students failed. "It doesn't feel good to know, but also I had to look at what I could have done earlier," Cannon says. "I think there was a time period where he wasn't coming, I didn't go and hunt him down. … Ultimately, it's his responsibility, absolutely. But we could have done something to spur him to do better."
Despite that setback, Cannon's dedication to his students and his community is what keeps this program running successfully. He says: "When we talk about violence, we talk about crime. Those are foremost on everybody's mind here. I think a lot of times when people talk about Chicago, they think that nobody is fighting back. They think that nobody cares about the things that are happening in the city. And that's because they're not talking to people from Chicago. ... I'll see a woman sweeping off the street in front of our house or kids picking up trash. ... We wake up and fight every day, and it's a fight that I know that we're going to win because we're that strong. And it may not be covered [by the media] when we win it."
Tyler Matthews is one of The Bloc's success stories. He began boxing his freshman year, graduated high school and now attends National Louis University. He's won several boxing competitions, including the Golden Gloves and the U.S. Intercollegiate Boxing Association Championship. Even though he graduated high school, Matthews returns to The Bloc to spar with his coach. "It feels like another home for me," Matthews says. "It makes me feel like I'm a part of a family, in a part of a team. So I also wanted to help it grow over the years. That's why I decided to stay in Chicago, so I can I be a part of something."
Despite its successes, there were sacrifices. Cannon took a pay cut to run the program full time, and he relies on volunteers, donations, and grants. "One of the things I try to get across — and maybe this is me trying to model this idea to our kids — is that success is going to take sacrifice," Cannon said. "So if The Bloc is going to be successful, if I'm going to be successful, I had to sacrifice to make that happen. And hopefully that's something that they're picking up on."