DETROIT—Khali Sweeney can still feel the shame. Thirty years later, there is no forgetting his worst public school memories—those days when a textbook passed slowly from student to student, finally reaching Sweeney, and a teacher would ask him to read aloud. A cold knot clenched at the teenager’s stomach. Shame.
And rage: “I’d start a fight,” Sweeney, now 46, tells me. “Every time that book got to me, I’d drop it and started a fight with the closest guy next to me. Anything to avoid admitting that I was a young man getting passed from grade to grade, totally illiterate.”
Sweeney is still fighting. He’s battling to curb illiteracy and hopelessness in Detroit. He is founder of the Downtown Boxing Gym Youth Program, an after-school academic regimen that uses boxing as bait: Lured to the gym by the promise of a safe place to fight after school, students are required to first complete structured classwork.
“Books before boxing” is the program’s motto.
In addition to an individualized academic program, each child is taught life skills, such as how to prepare for interviews and resolve conflicts. Sweeney had to learn these on his own, the hard way, long after he left high school to run the streets—where he got in trouble, got shot, and finally got his act together.
“I decided to stop being a victim,” Sweeney says.
He remembers the day he stopped: He was in his early 20s, a cocky kid, when his older brother showed him a framed photograph of Sweeney with several teenage buddies. “Shot,” the brother said, pointing to one of Sweeney’s friends.
The finger moved to the next face. “Shot.”
Next face: “Killed.”
Next face: “Killed.”
Next face: “Life sentence.”
Next face: “Shot.”
Next face: “30 years to life.”
Next face: “Dead.”
“That’s enough,” Sweeney told his brother. He started working construction, outhustling his coworkers to become a foreman. Hard work, but safer than the streets.
Sweeney taught himself to read, and wondered why his teachers had kept promoting an illiterate. Long ago abandoned by his parents, he wondered why the couple who raised him couldn’t save him. He looked around his neighborhood and saw too many kids walking that same path.
So he started the mentoring program in 2007, with a handful of kids in a 4,000 square-foot gym carved out of an abandoned car wash.
“Show me a guy who’s fighting in school, and I’ll show you somebody with acceptance problems,” Sweeney tells me on a visit to his new gym, a 27,500 square-foot complex that includes two boxing rings and a suite of classrooms. At 5 feet, 7 inches, Sweeney looks every bit the boxer—solid and sweaty after coaching a sparring session.
“Show me a funny guy, a kid like me—I was always cracking jokes—and I’ll show you a guy who can’t read or spell,” Sweeney says. “He’s overcompensating.”
A girl, about 12, runs between us to give Sweeney a playful punch on her way to class. We’re blocking the entrance. Sweeney notices a teenage girl climb into the ring with a slightly smaller teenage boy. “Hey, no!” he shouts to an adult supervising the ring. “She’ll hurt him!”
Both teenagers nod and smile.
This almost didn’t happen. In 2011, four years into the project, Sweeney couldn’t afford the bills. He had sold everything he could and borrowed money from everyone he knew to keep the place afloat. He wasn’t eating. He was living in the gym.
That’s when he met Jessica Hauser, a suburban woman working on a doctorate in international politics. One day, her personal trainer had a conflict and referred her to Sweeney for a workout, not telling her about the after-school program. She showed up at the ratty gym early and watched Sweeney with the kids. “There was,” she says, “a glimmer of hope in their tiny eyes.”
After her workout, Hauser peppered Sweeney with questions about the boxing-before-books program. His answers were curt, and he finally confided that he had to give up.
“You can’t do that,” she said.
So began a remarkable partnership between an African-American mentor from one of Detroit’s harshest neighborhoods and a white doctoral student from the suburbs.
Hauser created a tax-exempt nonprofit organization to support Sweeney’s program, raising money from city leaders such as Quicken Loans owner Dan Gilbert, and using the board’s ties to generate publicity. Soon, metro Detroit-bred celebrities such as Madonna and Eminem donated time and money.
“It is funny how life leads you in the direction you are supposed to go,” Hauser told me. She plans to finish her doctorate work, refocusing her research on the nonprofit realm.
In August, the Downtown Boxing Gym and its "books before boxing" program moved to this 70-year-old industrial building last occupied, in an ironic twist of fate, by a book bindery. The company had made car manuals, a product gone digital in the postindustrial age.
Beneath a sawtooth roof, the nonprofit installed new wiring, LED lighting, a new fire suppression system and wireless Internet access for the gym, classrooms, administrative offices, a computer lab, and a music room.
The group spent $280,000 for the structure and $530,000 to bring it up to code. The budget for 2015-16 is $750,000, which includes plans to add another 75 students.
The waiting list has more than 550 names on it. That’s 550 Detroit kids whose lives might depend on their learning how to fight for the right things.
The annual cost per student is $1,200. You can donate here.
“The streets,” Sweeney says, “have no waiting list.”