Inside a gym on Chicago’s West Side, young people are learning the discipline of boxing from proven trainers. But the benefits go beyond the sport – these same youth are receiving life-changing support.

“Education is not what happens within a school, but the totality of experiences that shape a young person’s reach, potential, and understanding of their place in the world,” said Jamyle Cannon, executive director and founder of The Bloc.

The nonprofit organization empowers kids to attain high school and university degrees through daily mentorship and a holistic approach to educational success. 

“One hundred percent of The Bloc’s members have graduated high school and been accepted into college since 2016,” Cannon said. “Despite having no academic barriers to entry, full-year members have ended each school year with an average GPA of 3.2 or higher.”

Cannon was recently recognized as a Luminary by The 1954 Project, a Black-led education philanthropy initiative to fund diverse leaders. In this Q&A, he discusses how The Bloc uses sports-based education to help students reach their full potential and transform their lives. 

How is your organization helping to create a more equitable landscape for education in the U.S.? 

As a country, we view education through a narrow lens. It is important to recognize that racial gaps in educational achievement did not emerge solely from classroom practices and policies. There was a multifaceted system created specifically to disadvantage Black students and all students of color. For that reason, our approach to racial equity in education must be multifaceted. We must engage youth in their communities, respond to their lived experiences, and provide the holistic resources and opportunities that create the conditions for success.

The Bloc approaches this challenge by offering an activity demanded by the youth we seek to support – boxing – and using the relationships we build to share transformative services and experiences. Boxing allows us to attract our target audience – kids who are concerned about their safety. Many of these young people exhibit behaviors that cause them to be excluded from other outlets. We embrace them.

Once engaged, we can introduce protective factors and enrichment opportunities that contribute to their holistic success. Youth in The Bloc receive daily academic support, and check-ins with mentors. They complete weekly enrichment courses, including, computer science, photography, money management, screen printing, and gardening classes. They embark on college visits and field trips to expand their horizons. 

What do you see as the biggest challenges facing students of color in the United States today? What makes you optimistic? 

The biggest challenge facing students of color in the United States today is the unwillingness of adults to examine the systems they engage with. An overwhelming majority of our time and resources are spent trying to make students of color fit into a system that was not designed for their success. When we truly question our practices and adjust them to the needs of those who are harmed by our education system, we will create an environment where all young people have the tools to succeed. 

What gives me hope is the growing recognition of the inequities in our systems and the surge of educators committed to advancing equity. From restorative justice practices to holistic approaches for academic achievement, we are rapidly seeking solutions that focus on systems instead of the perceived inadequacies of students of color. Increasingly, these solutions are being met with funding. We are at the beginning of a new age of thinking about education with the power to spark movements that will create multigenerational community impact.

What results do you hope to achieve with The 1954 Project's support and funding? 

With the strength of our academic results, I feel a responsibility to expand The Bloc’s impact beyond our modest beginnings. With funding from The 1954 Project, we have the seeds to grow our capacity from 250 young people yearly, to become an option for every kid on Chicago’s West Side.  

An important strategy for our growth is in-school expansion. We will train young adults to implement The Bloc’s programs at schools across Chicago’s West Side. In doing so, we will create meaningful jobs in our community, engage youth with mentors who are authentic messengers, and empower them with academic and social resources that are the bedrock of holistic success. 

Funding from The 1954 Project enables us to pursue the staffing, curriculum development, and partnerships that will fuel our growth to make a substantial impact on the after-school education landscape.

How can donors help reimagine our education landscape and better support Black education leaders in the United States? 

It is important for donors to examine our systems for equity by asking “who is advantaged and disadvantaged by our practices?” When we find that, for example, young people with untreated trauma are disadvantaged by our systems, we can seek to create remedies within our communities and schools. This currently stands in contrast to the dominant approach of the education and nonprofit community – an approach that focuses on individual behaviors instead of solving the underlying issues.

Additionally, donors can recognize the importance of supporting the whole person to impact educational attainment. Tutoring and mentoring will be futile if youth are not nourished physically, socially, and emotionally.

What are the advantages of sports-based education over other approaches? Can you share an example of a success achieved with this approach? 

Sports-based education approaches create an environment where young people actively seek to better themselves. Teachers suggest tutoring for kids. Parents seek mentors for their children. Kids demand sports programs. When we meet that demand, we expose kids to life lessons and habits that translate well beyond the sport. They are given passion projects that improve confidence, connectedness, and inform their moral compass. Repeated exposure to these elements builds the bedrock of academic, social, and personal success.

I met Tyler when he was 14 years old. Repeated exposure to violence had made him a painfully shy and reserved child. He joined The Bloc because he wanted revenge for violence he had endured. Once he started boxing, though, he started building confidence and a stronger sense of self-worth. His mastery of the sport earned him popularity. He committed himself more deeply to his school work and grew nine points on his ACT that year.

Instead of continuing to seek revenge for violence, he sought to lead others in preventing it. Tyler became a peer mediator at his school to mediate conflict between students. With fellow mediators, he helped lead a 500-person march for peace on Chicago’s West Side. He was selected as a Peace Exchange Ambassador and traveled to South Africa to learn tactics to promote peace in his community. In 2017, Tyler won the Chicago Golden Gloves Championship, graduated high school, and enrolled in National Louis University. He graduates college with a bachelor’s degree in psychology in June. He works at The Bloc as a Youth Development Coordinator to help kids like him. 

Tyler joined The Bloc because he wanted to fight. We embraced that energy and he directed it into his holistic success. He then used his growth to help others. When we meet kids where they are, with the enrichment they demand, we can change communities.