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How Detroit’s Downtown Boxing Gym trains students for life

Step into a renowned boxing ring, where the philosophy is books first. Presented by Chase for Business.

minute read


    Michigan has long been the epicenter of a public education crisis. With some of the most impoverished students in the nation, overall academic performance in key subject areas trails behind national averages. More than half of Michigan’s third-grade students cannot read at their expected level. Without sufficient funding, resources and opportunities, far too many kids fall through the cracks.

    In Detroit in the early ’90s, Khali Sweeney was one of those students. “Growing up, I couldn’t read or write,” he says. “People were constantly telling me, ‘You’re gonna be dead or in jail before you’re 21.’”

    Where there is a lack of access to critical resources, poverty rises. Education plummets. And the cycle persists. Rather than yield to systemic inequities, Sweeney saw an opportunity to harness the latent potential in his community — and come out swinging.

    In 2007, with the support of his neighborhood and a massive leap of faith, Sweeney invested in the heart of his hometown and founded Downtown Boxing Gym.


    Training the next generation of heavyweight scholars

    Though not a boxer himself, Sweeney saw the sport as an icebreaker — a compelling opener to the questions more students should be asked. A sparring round in the ring could be an opportunity to connect with a child and learn how they’re managing in school, in life and at home. To appeal to a population all too familiar with insufficient resources and hollow promises for change, Sweeney knew he needed to get creative.

    “Boxing is just one aspect of getting the kids to talk to me,” Sweeney says. By no means is it the focus. At DBG, as it’s more commonly known, boxing may be the hook, but education is at the heart. “Books before boxing,” he says. “That’s our motto.”

    Behind the rings, heavy bags, jump ropes and exercise equipment is an unassuming nonprofit delivering critical out-of-school-time programming that works. DBG offers long-term, personalized academic support and resources to students ages 8 to 18, with ongoing mentorship through age 25. This community of diligent students and dedicated tutors, trainers and support staff is determined to uplift one another. And it’s changing lives.


    Empowering young champions

    DBG’s completely free program provides everything students need, from transportation and year-round meals to continued support that extends through college, trade school and into job placement. The gym’s wide-ranging courses prepare students for college and a future career, while empowering them with essential life skills, such as cooking, that extend far beyond the classroom.

    “We go really deep with our kids to close the gap in all ways,” explains Jessica Hauser, the gym’s executive director. “We even have a recording studio. It is really hyper-individualized to make sure that every kid has the tools and resources they need to be successful."

    For those without internet access, essential technology or simply someone to believe in them, DBG is a place where students can tap into the resources they need and embrace the best versions of themselves.

    “I was able to change my path,” Sweeney says, “and so I wanted to share that with young people in my neighborhood.” Once immersed in a narrative others created for him, Sweeney found a way to take back his story. Now he’s equipping a new generation with the tools to write their own.


    How a one-two punch instills a lasting impact

    What began over a decade ago, with Sweeney and a handful of volunteers has grown into one of the nation’s leading after-school programs. Its proven track record of success — a 100% high school graduation rate for 16 straight years — affirms that access to education is the key to economic mobility.

    The gym boasts a growing roster of accomplished alumni, who have advanced to higher education and successful careers, and a waitlist of more than 1,000. DBG now has more than 40 employees and an operating budget of over $4 million per year.

    A recent acquisition of three parcels of land across the street kicked off an exciting expansion. Plans include the construction of a $3 million STEAM building that will house programs in science, technology, engineering, art and math as well as music and robotics.

    With the addition of the 17,000-square-foot building, DBG is set to almost double its current enrollment, welcoming about 400 students into the program each year. DBG will be able to offer even more opportunities for hands-on, experiential learning and creative exploration. This expansion underscores DBG’s continued commitment to inventive education that propels students toward success — however they choose to define it.

    In every aspect of the DBG model, community support is palpable and profound, as it has been from the start.


    Knowing — and teaching — the ropes

    For Sweeney, community has always been his driving force. And he’s showing the next generation why.

    By making a staunch investment in students, DBG is demonstrating that these kids are worth investing in. It’s a crucial paradigm shift for building a thriving community.

    What may appear to students as simple instructions on how to assume a proper fighting stance is really a lesson on how to fight for themselves, their futures and the people who have guided them along the way. As students grow, they advance into leadership roles to train the next generation of participants, seeding generational change one round (of reading) at a time.

    The gym cleverly uses the rhythm of boxing to instill lasting values. Students are encouraged to fight hard — perhaps even lose hard. And when they do, they learn from their losses, regroup and get back in the ring.


    In their corner, through and through­

    “We’ve got a 100% graduation rate,” Sweeney says. “But that’s just one leg of the journey. We still can’t let our guards down. We’ve got to keep working.”

    To achieve their ambitious goals, Sweeney and his team need the same long-term commitment to the gym’s success that they offer their students. That’s where Chase for Business comes in.

    “We had bounced from bank to bank trying to find the right support,” Hauser says. “ Chase for Business has been the only bank that really listened to what we needed. They’re continuously improving the resources they have available and are always really responsive when random things come up and we need help.”

    Each contribution to DBG, in any form — financial support, dedicated time or unwavering belief in the work at hand — is proof of what’s possible when a community comes together. With the right resources, and the right people in your corner, a better future lies ahead. And DBG has built the model.

    The students’ newfound confidence and their ability to read at or above grade level is a testament to the transformative power of education. It’s also a direct result of what happens when every student gets a fighting chance. Just ask Sweeney.

    “I see a lot of myself in them,” he says. “They’re at a place I once was, but they’re going far beyond where I’ve been.”


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