Take a look at the FAQs on Downtown Boxing Gym’s website and, under the question “What does Downtown Boxing Gym offer students?” the first thing you’ll see is one simple, two word sentence: “Endless possibilities.” Khali Sweeney, the founder of the Detroit youth tutoring, mentoring, and athletic organization, grew up being told there were no possibilities for him, especially not endless ones; in fact, it was drilled into him from an early age that his two “choices” in life were prison or death before the age of 21. But Sweeney ultimately didn’t accept others’ low expectations of him, and nowadays, he doesn’t accept any low expectations of the young people who come to him for help – and the astounding amount of work, resources, and dedication he’s poured into Downtown Boxing Gym is paying off in big ways for his community.
“Don’t Be the Next Guy in This Picture”
Life just started off on the wrong foot for Khali Sweeney: his parents gave him away when he was an infant and he, like so many children, fell between the cracks. He was understandably angry, and acted out and struggled in school; in fact, Sweeney says, “from about the third grade I realized I couldn’t read or write.” But his behavior and his academic difficulties didn’t get him the help he needed; instead, he was surprised to see good grades on his report card year after year, and was surprised to find himself elevated to the next grade year after year, until he reached the 11th grade knowing that he still couldn’t read or write. That was when he decided to take on board all of the negativity around him and give up on himself.
“I just dropped out…I saw my report card, I saw that there were good grades on it, and the only thing I kept hearing was the people around me, going through school, I’m talking 4th or 5th grade on up, just every time a teacher telling me: ‘You’re going to be dead or in jail before you’re 21, you’re going to be dead or in jail before you’re 21, you keep acting out and you’re going to dead or in jail before you’re 21.’ I started hearing my neighbors say it…and I was like, forget it. I know I can’t read or write, I got this good report card, I’m just being set up for failure, so I dropped out of school and I started running the streets. I started living fast because I figured I was going to die young anyway.”
So what changed for Sweeney? Fortunately, he has an older brother who didn’t give up on him and told him some hard truths: “He came to my neighborhood and was like, ‘Bro, you do understand that the rest of the world doesn’t live like this, right? There’s nothing around you but death and destruction. There’s no resources in your community, there’s nothing for you guys to do but get in trouble.’” Sweeney didn’t want to hear it, but his brother insisted he look at a picture of the guys from Khali’s neighborhood, pointing out that all of his friends were ending up dead or in prison. “He was like, ‘Bro, what do you want to do with your life? Don’t be the next guy in this picture.’”
His brother’s words finally hit home and Sweeney started questioning what it was he really did want to do with his life. And the first thing that came to mind? Learning to read. He decided he would go back to school, and once Sweeney got started on a new path, he fully committed to it: “I made myself a promise that I was going to change my life and just always try to do the right thing, and I did that…[before] I was on a suicide mission…so now let me turn that energy around and use that energy in the opposite direction to do everything humanly possible that I live a long and prosperous life.”
“I See a Kid Who Hasn’t Been Heard Yet”
Khali Sweeney indeed kept his promise to himself, and transformed all of the negative energy he’d been putting toward hard living into positive energy, spending his time working, reading, and surrounding himself with people who deserved his time. He felt like he had lost time to make up for, and threw himself into working three jobs, until one day his supervisor demanded that he do something extremely dangerous on the job; remembering his promise to himself, he walked off the job and into the next chapter of his life.
Sweeney decided it was time to not just focus on living his best life, but to also focus on changing lives in his community; he found some resistance until he decided that he could do the most good by getting involved with the young people in his neighborhood: “When I tried to talk to my peers about changing course, nobody could hear me because they were set in their own ways, living their own life…so I said you know what, the key to this thing is to actually concentrate on talking to the young people, as young as possible – and if we can get them headed on the right course, the better off we’ll all be.”
He recognized that changing kids’ lives would mean changing the dynamics in the entire community around him: he remembered back to his struggles in school, struggles that were ignored because there just aren’t the resources in underserved communities to give every kid the attention they deserve:
“You’ve got people who are literally doing their best…you’ve got parents who are busting their butts to put food on the table, to make sure that the lights and gas are paid, they’re doing everything humanly possible, and they entrust their children to the school system. But what happens is, they don’t understand that the school system is overwhelmed…you know, I don’t fault any parent at all…and I understand that when you’re dealing with the amount of money in the inner city school systems, they’re strapped for cash…it’s just a crazy dynamic.”
Sweeney describes a vicious cycle of kids in underserved communities not having what they need, then acting out, then being disciplined and sent home to a parent who would need to take time off of work…and on and on. And according to Sweeney, that means “the problem never gets fixed for that young man or young woman.” They end up on the wrong path, but as Sweeney told CNN in 2017, “[Youth criminality] is a culture that’s being created. We have to break that culture, and we have to counteract that culture. I don’t see bad kids. I see a kid who hasn’t been heard yet.” His mission was clear to him: to find a way to make sure the kids in his community were heard.
“I’m Doing It for the Right Reasons”
Once Khali Sweeney made up his mind to leave his job, he jumped in head first:
“I took the money I had invested and I went ahead and opened up the youth program, because that was where my mind was at…trying to get the kids [in my community] off the path that I was on. So many guys that I was seeing in my neighborhood were on the same path…people were like, ‘Talk to him, tell him how you changed your life!’ And now I’m talking to them and I’m like, ok, how do I spend more time with these kids? And one of the things I read was that you learn more about somebody from an hour of play than from a lifetime of questioning…so let me start showing them what I know with boxing…I saw the potential in it, because I saw the discipline and the focus and the drive that it takes to [box].”
Nephews, cousins, neighbors…neighborhood kid after neighborhood kid came to Sweeney, not just for boxing, but for direction, and he knew he needed a space for them. He found the space that would become Downtown Boxing Gym, and the rest is history, even if it was a very bumpy one. Sweeney was so dedicated to getting DBG off the ground that he poured literally everything he had into it: not just his heart and soul, but all of his money, and even his physical health, as he tried to get the word out about what he was doing.
“Those guys [that know me in Detroit], they saw me go from 218 of solid muscle down to about 140 pounds. They saw me literally walking the streets everyday…I ended up living in the gym because I lost my house, I couldn’t pay the bills and pay for the building [that housed Downton Boxing Gym so I lost my house]…I ended up sleeping in my car. I was like, I sacrificed my life for so much other stuff, I can do this for the kids and the community…That’s what I would tell myself, every time I would wake up in my car, I’m doing it for the right reasons.”
Sweeney was about to close up shop and head back to work to save more money to put into DBG, when he had an idea that would end up bringing in the help he needed, and get him off the “hamster wheel,” as he calls it, of keeping his organization afloat. Adults were coming in, asking to use the gym to workout, or for Sweeney to train them, and he offered them a deal: tutor a kid and you’ve got gym rights. That’s how the current executive director of Downtown Boxing Gym, Jessica Hauser, got started in the organization: she came to the gym to workout, stayed to tutor, and ended up believing in the mission so much that she poured all of her money into the organization as well.
But it all paid off in the end, all the pavement pounding and making cold calls, even the times when Sweeney and Hauser ran out of their own money: they gained the trust of the community and the corporations in their area. “We started having that buy in, and when people started buying in, a lot of people started helping lift the program. It was a lot easier with more people trying to lift it than just me…I had founders’ syndrome to the fullest, I was in the way of the program, I was trying to lift it myself…I’m not a business person…you know, I’m skeptical of everything and everybody…I was like, man, these kids trust me, the community entrusted me with their children, and so I’m going to do everything to protect that trust and not compromise it for anything, anyone, or any amount of money, and I’m going to make sure these kids continue to get 100% graduation rate, and we’re going to make sure they have a safe environment, and so for me I was just super protective of it. When Jessica came around, I started to ease up…and we started growing from there.”
“Books Before Boxing”
Even though Khali Sweeney can look back and reflect on the mistakes he made financially or resource-wise while building the organization, the idea behind it was always incredibly solid, focused, and effective: “It was always about academics. I just needed the draw – so if you told me to come to the Downtown Afterschool Reading Program, I would have said, ‘Man, get out of my face!’ But if I say, why don’t you come down to the Downtown Boxing Gym, you’re not just going to come by yourself, you’re probably going to bring all your friends, too. Because it’s cool…but once they get in the door, they realize it’s my rules, and my rules are: books before boxing. That’s my motto.”
And Sweeney’s “books before boxing” philosophy has worked, and been extremely beneficial for the young people lucky enough to be involved with DBG: the 100% graduation rate mentioned above is no exaggeration. By 2017, nearly 300 young people had completed the Downtown Boxing Gym’s program of tutoring, mentoring, college and career prep, and social-emotional skills building (and yes boxing, if they want!), and not one had failed to graduate from high school – and Sweeney has maintained that perfect record. Not only that, but 98% of their young people go on to college.The organization currently serves around 150 young people ages 8-18 (and has a 1,300 person waiting list!), giving them 100% free access to the academic and social support they need (as well as fun stuff like a rock climbing wall, a STEAM lab, and a music studio – they have an impressive list of extracurricular activities), and adding on necessities like access to technology, free transportation, healthy meals, and medical care when they see the need: “We just started putting the pieces of the puzzle together, little by little. We’re still trying to do that now, we’re still growing, still trying to put the pieces of the puzzle together, just to try and fill in the blanks wherever we can help.”
And where does Khali Sweeney want to take Downtown Boxing Gym in the future? He’s hoping to take all the knowledge he’s gained and replicate his program in other places that need it: “I want to go wherever the need is, if there’s a need, I want to be there and just lend my support to the community…this whole thing is about the community as a whole, not just in Detroit, but everywhere.”
The idea behind Downtown Boxing Gym might seem simple, and totally intuitive: give kids what they need and they’ll thrive, but somehow it’s a lesson we all still need to learn. In Khali Sweeney’s own words to CNN, when he was named a Top 10 Hero in 2017, it’s as simple as this: “Just imagine if you just fell in a hole and broke every bone in your body. It took you 20 years to crawl out of this hole, and the minute you crawl out, you see a young kid about to run right in that hole. You just move out of the way and let them fall in there? I can’t do it. So, I’m going to do everything I can do to stop people from falling in that hole. I’m going to cover it up; I’m going to block it. Whatever I’ve got to do.”
The work that Khali Sweeney and Downtown Boxing Gym are doing might just be, as he calls it, the piece of the puzzle needed to stop the cycle of neglect and acting out, show them kids what they deserve and how they can achieve it, and change underserved communities for good. If you want to find out more about DBG or how you can help, head to their website; to donate click here. And if you want to hear more about DBG in the words of this year’s graduating class (which we highly recommend!), check out their blog.