New kids on The Bloc: How one boxing coach is breaking down Chicago’s barriers

By Taylor Goebel

Jamyle Cannon and his young boxing students don’t play by the idea of keeping busy to stay alive.

“I have no interest in giving our kids busy work to keep them safe,” Cannon said. “What I want to do is give them opportunities.”

North Lawndale – where Cannon started the DRW Boxing Club and now, a new non-profit called The Bloc – is the kind of place where kids know the difference between fireworks and gunshots. It is home to families that have faced generation after generation of violence, a lack of resources, and little chance at upward mobility. Cannon helped found DRW College Prep, a charter school the Daily Beast named the 4th most change-making high school in the U.S.

“When you have an area of entrenched poverty, where you have an area where you don’t see a lot of people making it, you sort of assume that’s your plight too,” Cannon said.

He learned early on about how youths get trapped in crippling expectations.

He was seven years old when he moved from an affluent area of town to a nearby working-class neighborhood in Kentucky. On the first day at his new school, Cannon spelled words that were well below his reading level, connected dotted lines he’d long before drawn. He went home in tears.

“They think I’m stupid,” he told his mother.

At the time, he didn’t understand the socioeconomic significance, but he saw that the school was blacker and browner than the previous one.

“All of a sudden they expect less of us,” Cannon remembered.

“Less” followed him to high school, where a student could call him “n—–” or “monkey” and still get elected prom king. It’s a memory Cannon is only coming to terms with now as something that should never be normal.

He graduated from that high school and studied social work at University of Kentucky.

He’d heard rumors about his father being a good boxer.

“I never really had anything to do with my father growing up,” Cannon said. “I was curious as to whether or not, I don’t know, maybe something got passed down.”

And if by genes or natural talent, when he first stepped into the boxing match, it just made sense. He worked his way up to winning the National Collegiate Boxing Championship for his university in 2009. But after tearing his rotator twice in college, he took a break from the ring and – with the same feeling he had at 7 years old – joined Teach for America.

Cannon responded to the same call-to-action when he helped found a charter school in Chicago. He opened the doors to DRW College Prep as a reading teacher. He’s become a health and fitness teacher there, lead trainer at DRW Boxing Club, and founder of The Bloc, which will provide resources that help students develop technical skills and gain internship experiences with corporate partners in Chicago.

On a muggy July day at a North Side coffee shop, Cannon admitted, humble smile intact, that he won’t be coaching for a couple weeks. Another injury, this time a torn ligament. It’s a reminder of the strain and discipline of boxing, though it doesn’t faze him.

“Finances [for the school] are scarce,” Dean Cecilia Alcarez said. “Jamyle went above and beyond to get his own funding [for the club.] He took initiative.”

It took a lot of small talk and mingling with businesses throughout the city, but the self-described social introvert grew his club from just eight students in a classroom to 20 young boxers in a fully-equipped gym. That number grows year after year. Consistently, students’ GPAs rise as behavior reports drop for those in the program.

“I’m doing something better than getting in trouble,” sophomore Keyon Pass said. Before boxing, Pass knew he wanted to go to Harvard and become an FBI agent, but he wasn’t taking the steps to get there. Through Cannon’s program, Pass is opening his own horizons.

“My community is bad and I want to make a change,” he said. “Keep kids out of trouble, create programs so my friends won’t get on the streets. Taking away stuff that don’t need to be on the streets, like drugs and violence.”

This year, Cannon is making changes to the current boxing schedule. Students have regular boxing lessons twice a week, but on Wednesdays they either focus on studies or build the skills needed for the internships Cannon lined up for summer 2017.

The coach looked down at the table as he would several times before speaking, always careful with his words.

“I don’t want to make kids think they have to escape from where they are,” Cannon said, “but I want them to know that there are other things to aspire to and good things to bring back to the community when they find a way to reach success.”

For some students who will be participating in the internship program, this will be their first time in downtown Chicago. It’s not just an internship, nor is it just a boxing program: It is widening the optics of Chicago’s youth.

“A lot of students have changed in their demeanor,” Alcarez said. “They’ve changed from reactionary to feeling that they’re part of the community.”

Over the summer, attendance was low due to six of Cannon’s kids getting accepted into Summer of a Lifetime, a program that sends low-income students to colleges across the U.S. The program itself has a 10 percent acceptance rate at DRW Prep, but that rate increases to 80 percent for Cannon’s boxing students.

“It’s always a lot more than they expected it to be,” Cannon said, laughing. “For one, getting out there on their own – they’re living on campus in a completely different environment than what they’re used to. The first kid we got in – his name is Tyler – he came back convinced of his potential. He went from confident to convinced.”

Without raising the standard of what Cannon expects from his kids, and without recognizing the worth of education and providing students resources, getting into trouble is an appealing alternative to school for a lot kids.

“I view gangs as a problem,” Cannon said. “I also view gangs as a reaction to a situation.”

He’s not painting a church-boy image for the people who do bad things, but he’s not saying they should be written off as hopeless.

“That again stops us from doing what we need to do,” Cannon said, “from getting people out of a life that is detrimental to a community. I think a lot of people, when they talk about the West Side, they forget that the gang is not the neighborhood, that people have hopes and wishes that go beyond that life.”

That is one thing that news coverage tends to miss.

“Kids are kids,” Cannon said. “Kids are just kids and they’re worthy of our support and resources. And once you recognize that – if you believe that a kid on the West Side is a kid who is capable of being talented – you know that it’s not a hopeless situation. You know that something could be done, and that leads you to take action to do something.”

Keyon Pass is taking action for his friends.

“I always help them out,” he said. “My friends, they don’t think on their own. I try to help them think on their own.”

Cannon has been taking action on the rising sophomore about his academics. And the more he gets on him and nags him, the more Pass improves. But it’s not only about the grades.

“Mr. Cannon is like a father because I never had one,” Pass said. “Before boxing my life drew me away from what I am now. I came a long way.”

Photo at top: Jamyle Cannon, right, coaches a young boxer at DRW Boxing Club in North Lawndale. (Taylor Goebel/MEDILL)