Story by Ron Fournier
Story by Ron Fournier/National Journal

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.” (Read the story at National Journal).




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.”