Coffee & Conversation – Transformational Leadership with the Downtown Boxing Gym

What Transformational Leadership Looks Like

At I100MD, we have discovered over the past 5 years that our grant review committees, through their excellent process, and our members, through their votes, are drawn to transformational leaders. Three of our four grant recipients went on to receive national recognition from CNN, ESPN, and others. What makes these leaders “transformational” is not only their complete dedication to their cause, but also their ability to think creatively and move quickly when needs and circumstances change. In our current world, this kind of leadership is absolutely crucial. Our conversation today with Jessica Hauser, Executive Director of the DBG, shows us exactly why the organization not only won our 2017 grant award, but why they were recognized by both CNN and ESPN for their incredible work.

About the Downtown Boxing Gym:

  • Don’t let the name fool you! The Downtown Boxing Gym is an academic organization. The boxing aspect does provide kids with athletic opportunities and with physical education and exercise, but is most often a way for kids to attend the program without “losing face” at school. Going to the gym just sounds cool!
  • The program serves 150 kids, 8 – 18 years old, most of who attend 3 – 5 days per week (there are 1,300 kids on the wait list for the program).
  • Kids are tested to see where they are academically 3 times per year and individualized curriculum is tailored to those test results.
  • They have 8 vans to pick kids up from school and take them home after the programming each day.
  • The ultimate goal, which they are achieving, is to make sure that all the kids are ready for college. 100% of the kids in the program graduate from high school, and all of them went on to post secondary education or meaningful employment.
  • Perhaps the most important thing the kids gain is HOPE. By three months into the program, the kids believe they can succeed in life.

A transformational leader:

  • In 2007, founder Khali Sweeney had completed one remarkable journey and begun another.
  • Sweeney attended Detroit Public Schools, being passed from one grade to the next each year, until he dropped out in the 11th grade still unable to read and write.
  • He entered the life that many kids default to in the city, one full of gangs and drugs, having been told time and again that by age 21 he would be either in jail or dead.
  • When, in his late 20s, he was neither, he decided that it was time for change. He became literate, and decided no other kid should be without opportunity to escape the life he had lived. That’s when he started the DBG.

What transformational leadership is able to do in times of crisis:

  • Basic needs are paramount. Vans that transported kids to the program are now delivering 200 meals and 25 boxes of supplies to families each week, and food resources are being expanded to serve not just the child or children in the program, but their whole family.
  • In addition to using all the food the DBG had on hand, they have expanded their buying programs, supporting local grocery stores and buying food from closed restaurants. The owner of Supino’s Pizza was moved to tears by a DBG purchase, which enabled him to pay all of his workers for their last week of work prior to having to close.
  • Vans and drivers are being shared with other agencies to enhance their food delivery capabilities, with a special emphasis on agencies serving seniors.
  • Academically, the main goal is that the kids not only don’t fall behind, but actually move ahead of where they might have been before the crisis.
  • With the first food box, each student received an academic packet tailored to his/her individual grade level and need.
  • Tutoring has is now via mandatory Zoom classes. Parents are also required to meet, which provides mentors with a glimpse into how the families are coping, and what needs they might have.
  • DBG has set up a tech lending library for laptops and tablets, and is working with providers for low cost or free family access to the Internet.
  • Administrators and volunteers are providing help for family emergencies from fixing a broken refrigerator to finding baby formula.
  • Athletics are not left out because exercise is important to physical and mental health. Coaches virtually meet with kids for an hour every day, and all the kids meet on Zoom each evening for a group workout, when coaches can gauge kids’ mental health by watching their levels of energy end enthusiasm.

Why DBG families still need more help – a lack of resources:

  • The fear we are all feeling is exacerbated for these families because they don’t have resources others do.
  • Many have no car, so cannot access to food or medical resources. Testing for the virus is almost exclusively drive up, so even that is not available.
  • Households are often multigenerational, putting at-risk groups in close contact with younger family members who may have to go to essential but high-risk jobs in grocery stores, etc. If parents get sick, they worry their children will be the only ones who can care for them.
  • Federal or state programs like unemployment are hard enough for all to right now, and this difficulty is harder to overcome for families lacking access to technology.
  • As many as 25% of DBG families are in “transient” housing, living with other families or in abandoned homes without electricity or running water.
  • Academically, underfunded school districts like the DPS cannot provide the on-line learning opportunities that wealthier districts can, but all of Michigan’s kids will still be competing for the same job opportunities in the future, leaving kids and families feeling left behind.
  • With so much stress on the whole system, the DBG is finding that partner organizations that usually provide food and other necessities are now unable to help as they once could, so even the DBG is faced with a lack of resources.

Looking at the positives:

  • The DBG is now feeding and educating not one kid, but whole families. Siblings sit in on educational meetings, and food boxes feed everyone.
  • DBG volunteers share their time with other organizations, delivering food and hope.
  • Through DBG academic programs, kids spend increased time on more individualized and advanced curriculum than they would if they were at school, so DBG teachers hope they will not only not fall behind, but may actually be ahead of where they might have been otherwise.

How we can help now:

  • Funding – donations provide money for food and supplies first and foremost
  • Volunteers – food packers and drivers are a big need, and the gym is practicing excellent cleaning and social distancing procedures to ensure helpers are safe.
  • Project goals – leaders are needed creating programs to help with:
    • Emergency resource matching to help families meet immediate needs
    • Access to accurate COVID-19 information like a list or database of sources that provide real and easy to understand data rather than the things available on social media, many of which are not true
    • Access to State and Federal programs like unemployment, stimulus checks, rent deferment programs, etc.

Into the Future:

As the DBG and all nonprofits move into an uncertain future, continued support of our nonprofit heroes will be of utmost importance. Many, if not all, organizations will face a lack of funding. Transformational leaders and organizations will continue to find ways not only to avoid cutting services, but also to expand them as we move past the current crisis. The DBG was poised to expand their program from 150 to 250 kids by the end of 2020. They have not given up on this goal, even while they realize that this may take longer now than anticipated. The academic goals they are most focused on all involve a desire to educate the children as they would be educated if they lived in any of the best districts in the state. This includes hiring the best teachers, offering the best programs (like STEAM), and giving access to technology. Achieving these goals will ensure that the kids will move on to post-secondary education or meaningful employment, leading to success in life.

Be a part of the solution! Volunteer now by going to COVID-19 Volunteer Sign Up, or visit the DBG website at to learn more or to donate.