Leaning into Change: Carlo Sweeney, Downtown Youth Boxing Gym

In a sport as explicit and intense as boxing, there is little room for ambiguity. There is an understanding between two fighters, an agreement that the outcome of their square-off will result in a winner and a loser. When those two gloves touch in the middle of the ring, both know there is no gray area, no second place. 

Neither diplomacy nor negotiation guarantee victory in the canvassed boxing ring, only an abiding resolve to destroy.

Carlo Sweeney’s plain-spokenness is the result of a stark youth and over three decades of boxing. Sweeney, 42, who goes by "Khali," grew up on the city’s East Side. Hemmed by Poletown and Hamtramck, Sweeney says his neighborhood had no real name. It was an unpretentious place known by the confluence of two streets – "Harper and Van Dyke."

Sweeney says growing up, there was little in the way of constructive recreation. At the few venues he and his friends would visit, the threat of unexpected and total violence loomed. Fights, gunshots and sometimes murder would interrupt an evening of skating at the local rink or a round of bowling.

In founding the Downtown Youth Boxing Gym in 2005, Sweeney wanted to offer an avenue for the city’s youth to be more meaningfully engaged. His goal, he says, was to "give kids something positive to do with their lives" -- something he didn’t have himself growing up. 

The Gym instructs kids in three areas; physical (boxing training), academic (tutoring and counseling) and community service (volunteering). With a current enrollment of 65 students (ages 8 to 18, all who attend at no cost), the program is determinedly maintained, with limited resources, by a small staff of two: Sweeney and Jessica Hauser. 

Hauser, a former elementary school teacher is the Gym’s administrative director, managing its operational affairs. Hauser played an integral role in transitioning the organization to a registered nonprofit, formalizing its program offerings and slowly building its funding base. Hauser’s focus on running the Gym allows Sweeney to do what he does best: motivational speaking.

"The best way to dodge a right is to lean into it," offers Sweeney in response to the apparent paradox of teaching boxing – a violent sport – to a young urban population overexposed to violence. Sweeney’s hope is that the kids he teaches choose the controlled violence of the boxing ring over the destructive and wanton violence of the streets. 

Indeed, "leaning into a punch" -- as a counterintuitive reaction to danger -- is an apt metaphor for Sweeney’s approach to teaching, which has helped the Gym produce more champions than many better-equipped and staffed facilities.  

While proud of their champions, the Gym does not require all students to box. They must participate in the training, as well as the academic programming and community service work. Boxing, Sweeney explains, is their entree into other learning. 

Consequently, the kids enrolled in the Gym have seen a marked improvement in their grades and overall self-esteem. Sweeney believes a fundamental factor in this is trust. The kids know they can count on him being available, and this allows for an environment of learning that is comfortable and non-judgmental.

This trust is critical because the stakes are high. Sweeney knows there are dire consequences for kids who are not positively stimulated. "Every kid is at risk of going to jail," he says, including the youth enrolled in his gym. 

The antidote to this uncomfortable reality is what he refers to as "release points" -- activity that harnesses their energies, frustrations and anger into productive outcomes. He speaks of boxing as a release point, no different from basketball or chess, where kids expend their fury responsibly.   

Without these outlets, Sweeney warns of a grim future. "By the time they rebuild Detroit, we will be dead," he says with a brutal frankness that is hard to ignore. For him, the real fight is showing others another way.

Originally published for the Urban Innovation Exchange (@UIXDetroit). Profile and photo by Tunde Wey. Video by Stephen McGee Films.

To support the Downtown Youth Boxing Gym, visit Detroit Big F Deal to donate to their training and tutoring programs and buy tickets for their charity boxing event “Rumble on the River” this Friday, July 20, at 6:30 p.m. at the Detroit Yacht Club. 

Portrait of Carlo Sweeney by Marvin Shaouni

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