“I had a childhood with a fair share of ups and downs. We dealt with poverty, drug addiction in the household. I was upset about a lot of things,” he said.
When Cannon was 12, he had to undergo court ordered anger management classes after getting arrested for a fight.
“I didn’t have the ability or the skills to turn down a fight and I let anger control me,” he said.
When Cannon took up competitive boxing in college, he found an outlet to channel his energy.
“I didn’t know what anger felt like on its way up, and boxing forced me to confront it,” said Cannon, now 31.
He became a National Collegiate Boxing Champion in 2009 before injuries made him take a break from the ring. After graduating, Cannon spent two years with Teach for America, feeling passionate about tackling the issue of education inequality.
In 2012, with a master’s degree in secondary education, Cannon moved to Chicago and helped found a charter school on the city’s turbulent West Side.
His students lived in neighborhoods plagued with violence, and Cannon knew they would benefit from an afterschool program that gave them a safe space to learn and grow.
“There is a lot of violence in the community,” Cannon said. “When violence is on your mind constantly, you can’t just turn that off when you walk into school. It impacts everything that you do. It impacts the way you interact with people and your comfort level, wherever you are.”
Cannon decided to start a small boxing club at the school.
“Kids would come to the club thinking they were going to learn how to fight, but instead learned how to control those impulses—and they did better in school,” he said.
“When you have the unconditional acceptance that we offer, when you have the support that we give, you are no longer going out and fighting in the streets,” Cannon said.
His organization, now in three schools, uses boxing as a hook to get kids in the door and then provides them with tutoring and mentorship, ultimately laying the groundwork for success.
“We push them academically, help them out socially, and are a resource for them in all the other areas of their lives,” Cannon said.
Since 2016, the co-ed program has helped more than 300 students. The group has maintained a 100% high school graduation rate and 100% college acceptance rate among participants who apply.
CNN’s Laura Klairmont spoke with Cannon about his work. Below is an edited version of their conversation.
CNN: In what ways did the sport of boxing help you personally?
Jamyle Cannon: It didn’t take much to make me angry. I was fighting a lot. There’s an urge to fight that you can’t pray away, you can’t meditate it away. It’s something that’s there. And it’s something that has to be acknowledged and dealt with. It’s easy to see how I could’ve stayed on a destructive path if I would’ve kept that up. I needed an outlet for this feeling that I had.
I walked into the boxing gym and the sport really made sense to me. As I got deeper into the sport, it made me assess my relationship with anger. You can’t get into a boxing ring and be angry and be successful. One of the most important things I had to learn was I had to stay nice and relaxed. I had to control my anger. In order to control my anger, I had to start recognizing what does anger feel like. Instead of going and acting on the anger that I had, taking it out on another individual, I had to learn how to process that internally. And learning how to stay in the moment, learning how to let go of the things that had happened previously so that I could keep moving forward, I think that’s how I came to master my own emotions so that I could be successful, regardless of how uncomfortable I am.
CNN: What is the significance of accepting kids into the program regardless of their grades or behavior?
Cannon: If you’re a kid who doesn’t have the grades or behavior to be involved in school sports, there’s nowhere for you to go. There’s nowhere for you to be pushed to your best (self) or no adults in your corner. You’re not on anybody’s team. But there are plenty of people on the streets who will say, “Come on with us, and we’ll accept you as you are.” And once you have that bit of acceptance, you’re willing to do anything to keep it.
If they don’t find acceptance here, they are going to find acceptance in the street. A lot of our students are ineligible to do things that they know would make them better. There’s a reason kids want to play sports—because they know it’s something positive for them to do. But so often we’re turning them away and telling them they can’t do that because they don’t meet the requirements. So (they) are just pushed aside and left to fend for themselves and come up with their own outlets—and those outlets are often destructive.
So, one of the things that I knew I had to do was find a way to bring these young people into the umbrella. If you’re a Chicago school student and you’re interested in boxing, you can come to our program. We’re not going to do a background check or a behavior check to make sure that you are fit for our program. We want you in if you want to be here.
CNN: How do you use boxing to help these kids in all aspects of their lives?
Cannon: We’re using the sport to teach kids how to fight for their own success. The boxing part is a necessary hook to get the kids who we need to reach the most.
Homework always comes first. There is mandatory study time. We have one-on-one tutoring. There are some days where a kid will come in and just do homework the entire time. They just need a place to do their homework.
We go on college trips so that they can get their feet on college campuses and see what college life is like. We also do some trips around the city. We have kids in the Bloc who’ve never been downtown, despite living in Chicago their entire lives, or who’ve never seen the lake or gone to the football game, gone to a farmer’s market. So, we expand the horizons for our kids and expose them to how great the city can be.
The impact has been incredible. Their grades are going up. They’re staying out of trouble in school. They’re not getting arrested, or re-arrested if they’ve been arrested before. They’re graduating high school. They are getting accepted into college. And they’re happier. Most kids are looking for a safe place to be the best version of themselves.