“Don’t be the next guy in this picture.” Those were life-changing words for a young Khali Sweeney, whose brother pointed out most of his peers from his Detroit neighborhood were either dead or in prison. Immersed in gang culture, illiterate at the time and without resources or mentors, Sweeney decided to forge a new path for himself — beginning with learning how to read. Now the CEO and Founder of the non-profit Downtown Boxing Gym (DBG), Sweeney is offering hundreds of economically challenged students and their families classroom and life skills training so they can chart a better future for themselves.
With the motto “Books before Boxing,” DBG’s unique combination of education, physical training, mentorship, and intervention has yielded a 100% graduation rate among its high schoolers since 2007, and a waiting list of more than 1,300 children. For this work, Sweeney is a 2017 CNN Hero Top 10 finalist and a 2018 recipient of Michigan’s Governor’s Service Award for Mentor of the Year.
In a conversation with Salesforce.org Chief Operating Officer Sam Allen, Sweeney and DBG Executive Director Jessica Hauser discussed how putting education first, and providing support and safe spaces for the next generation can help our youth become powerful and productive members of our community.
The following are highlights from the conversation with Sweeney and Hauser, in their words, lightly edited for clarity.
Telling his story to inspire Detroit’s youth
“We don’t see bad kids, we just see kids that haven’t been heard yet.” – Khali Sweeney (KS)
KS: You can find out more about a person in an hour of play than in a lifetime of questions. I noticed kids liked when I was teaching my son how to box, so that became the key to getting their attention. I would have conversations with them, asking them how their grades are, what they plan on doing with their lives, and where they see themselves in five years. I’d give them my testimony about how I’ve made a lot of mistakes and wrong choices — like not being able to read even simple things like a menu — and how I’ve watched a lot of my friends make similar mistakes. And so we’d develop a bond and people would start trusting.
My message to them is not to follow somebody else’s narrative, but to create their own path and to make positive choices, and to use the resources we make available to them now. I tell them that future planning is the most important thing, and education is the key to most everything that you want in this life.
Modeling community to serve the community
“We have the opportunity to really find the ‘light bulb’ moments to grow and build upon.” – Jessica Hauser (JH)
JH: The goal for us is to replicate the successful model that very well-funded school districts have. It’s social capital and the enrichment opportunities that kids are exposed to over and over again. We have breakfast, lunch, and dinner when kids are with us full days. We have a full time academic staff of six and additional part-time staff that are all paid. That’s the beauty of DBG — our kids are with us five days a week, all year-round — for years — so we have the opportunity to find the ‘light bulb’ moments to grow and build upon.
We have to be expansive — it’s about the students, their families, the larger community, our neighbors. For every decision we make, we always think about the impact on the larger community. We try to uplift parents, but we do it in a more natural, informal way. We bring parents into the fold by first having them be coaches, so they’re infused with the values of the organization, feel safe, and can open up and have dialogue. Then you can explore opportunities to support them from that place.
Supporting schools, parents, and students during COVID-19
“Their full day will be just like the school day, with a little DBG spin on it.” – Jessica Hauser
JH: In the fall, there are additional relationships and dialogues we have to maintain with the schools to make sure kids are fully supported. A big hurdle is getting all of our plans functioning in a way that fully supports virtual learning, and supporting the teachers of our students to make sure that they know we’re doing our part. It’s important that kids have a safe space to go to with parental supervision, because most of our parents don’t have the luxury of being able to work virtually.
We’re going to be open full days. We have a schedule set up that’s going to be aligned with the various students’ schedules. There are blocks of time to help them with their homework. There will also be some enrichment, physical fitness, and meals added in. Their full day will be just like the school day, with a little DBG spin on it.
An ambitious mission, without compromise
“We want to scale, but we don’t want to have a kid get lost in the shuffle — that’s just not something that I’m willing to live with.” – Khali Sweeney
JH: We began in 2007 with a 4,000 square foot building that was barely able to serve our 65 kids. It lacked access to public transportation. We needed food and a paid academic staff because our kids were starving and lacking that intervention. Since then, we’ve moved into a 27,000 square foot building and now we have just over 150 kids in the program. We now have seven vans to pick up and drop off our kids from school and home. Pre-COVID, our goal was to get to 250 kids by the end of 2020, and we already have over 1,300 kids on our waiting list.
KS: I would hate for a kid to not get the full experience of the program because of overcrowding. We want to scale, but we don’t want to have a kid get lost in the shuffle — that’s just not something that I’m willing to live with. We want to be able to do it the right way.
Every day is memorable at DBG for Sweeney and Hauser because they’re filled with stories of kids the education system has forsaken, or who once believed they would never make it through school. Now they are honor students and high school graduates. “Those days really change your life,” says Sweeney. “We are failing kids all over the country,” says Hauser. “The greatest gift is having my eyes opened to what is really going on, and being able to make an impact.”
To learn more about how you can support Downtown Boxing Gym, visit dbgdetroit.org. Watch the full interview with Khali Sweeney and Jessica Hauser at the link below.
This conversation is part of our Leading Through Change series, providing thought leadership, tips, and resources to help business leaders manage through crisis. Prior video interviews include: