The Cult of Pedagogy Podcast, Episode 207

Jennifer Gonzalez, Host

GONZALEZ: I remember listening to a conversation once between two men I taught middle school with. Some of the details are fuzzy now, but I still remember the gist of it: I think both were classroom teachers and both were coaches of our school’s football team. Midterm grade reports had just come out, and they were talking about one kid, a player on the team, who was failing one of his classes. According to the team’s policies, the student was supposed to face disciplinary action for this grade, something that amounted to being removed from the team temporarily, with the threat of permanent removal if the grade was not brought up.

Both teachers were clearly struggling with the situation. One of them said to me, “If we’re gonna have a policy like this, we have to enforce it or it means nothing. But if he loses football, ALL of his grades are going to go down. It’s the only thing keeping him on track.” 

I still don’t remember what they decided to do. Part of me thinks they made an exception — either negotiating with the teacher in question to arrange enough make-up work or extra credit to raise the grade, or just looking the other way for this one student, one time. But the conversation, the conflict these teachers were having, illustrates a much larger problem: In most schools, extracurriculars are used as a carrot to get students to perform academically and behaviorally. The assumption is that all students need is the right motivation, something they love enough to make them want to do well in school; if they choose not to do well, they lose the thing they love. I think most people who work within this system hope that they never have to actually enforce these policies, that they will work as intended and get students to do what they need to do. 

But when they don’t work, then what? What happens to the kids who are turned away from extracurriculars, away from the very activities that would help them thrive?

This is the question a young Chicago teacher named Jamyle Cannon asked himself about a decade ago. When he started a basketball team at his school and had to turn away dozens of students for their grades and behavior, he immediately saw a flaw in the way extracurriculars are usually run. When programs like these turn kids away, they cut them off from the relationships, support, structure, and mentoring those activities usually offer, factors that are often essential for achievement in schools. This realization prompted him to try again with a different approach: He started a club where kids could come and learn the fundamentals of boxing, a sport Cannon himself had been very successful in, and this time he didn’t turn students away. By the end of that first year, even though he hadn’t implemented any kind of grade policy, the grades of all students in the club had gone up. 

Cannon’s little boxing club has now grown into a full-blown nonprofit that currently serves hundreds of students on Chicago’s West Side. While the core activity of this after-school program is boxing, it offers so much more to students, like academic support, mentoring, field trips, facilities and technology for learning, even a food pantry. Students in the program, who attend schools in the surrounding neighborhoods, have a 100% graduation rate and an average GPA of 3.2. The name of the program is The Bloc, and in this episode I’m going to talk with Jamyle Cannon about how and why this program works as well as it does. It is my hope that the story of Jamyle Cannon and The Bloc will offer a model for other educators, a different path forward in the way we look at extracurriculars.

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Now here’s my conversation with Jamyle Cannon, executive director of The Bloc Chicago.

GONZALEZ: So Jamyle Cannon, welcome so much to the podcast. 

CANNON: Thank you for having me. I’m excited to have this conversation. 

GONZALEZ: So if we, I’m going to ask you a lot of detailed questions about The Bloc, but let’s just do like that, the elevator, you know, pitch. Just give my listeners, if you can, just a very brief overview. What is The Bloc and how has it positively impacted the lives of the students in the program? 

CANNON: Absolutely. So if you’re a kid on Chicago’s west side, and I ask you to join a mentor and a tutoring program, your answer is probably going to be no. But if I ask you to join a boxing program, you’re much more likely to say yes and then we get an opportunity to create a relationship with you that’s going to provide so many resources and opportunities in your lives. So kids say yes to us because of the sport of boxing, and we are able to then work with them on an individual level to provide, I think, the resources and opportunities that all kids deserve. So our young people come to us, have academic support, they have one-on-one check-ins with caring adults. We go on field trips, we’ve been to — in the past couple of months — University of Notre Dame, we went to a carpentry center. They’re just getting out and about all the time. And we have enrichment programs as well where young people are doing things like learning to garden and cook food, learning computer science. There’s a chess club. The world of opportunities we’re able to offer up because they’ve said yes to the idea of fighting somebody is really, is really impactful, and I think kids who line up to fight, those are the kids we need to be talking to. And they’re often kids who are rejected and pushed aside, so I think it’s important for us that we, we embrace those young people so that they can have the same opportunities as everyone else. So every single young person who’s come through our program has graduated high school and been accepted into college since 2016. Our fighters have ended this school year with an average GPA of 3.2 or higher every year. Last year it was a 3.3. We have an 83 percent college matriculation rate for this last year’s seniors. And you know, and they’re happy. I think that’s a really important point. Like, 90 percent of kids who come to our program come back for another session. They recommend it to their friends. They, they show up with a crew because this is something that’s really important to them, and they want so many kids to have it. And to me that’s the most important metric. Kids are happy. They’re going to be all right. 

GONZALEZ: Yeah. So it’s, it’s an after-school program, and the primary activity, even though you just listed a bunch of other stuff you do, is boxing? 

CANNON: Absolutely. 

GONZALEZ: And that’s the draw. 

CANNON: And it’s important, yeah. It’s important. So many times we, we plan activities and programs around what we think, what adults think kids should be doing. When in reality, kids are telling us what they want to do all the time. And I think there’s an initial recoiling act that comes along with the idea of youth boxing, and I think there should be. You should, you should scrutinize that idea. But it’s really important to recognize a couple of things. One, we’re going to approach this sport in a way that is going to be, to minimize the harm that’s being caused to young people. And the second thing, I think folks need to realize is, kids are out there fighting, you know. They’re out there, they’re getting in fights with one another. They’re fighting in schools. And they need a productive, a much more productive outlet than what they’ve been using so far. So we’re, you know, kids come to us because they want to fight. And I think it’s important we talk to them. 

GONZALEZ: So I’m going to dig for other details in a little bit more of the logistical stuff, but let’s sort of go back to the beginning. You started out as a language arts teacher, correct? 

CANNON: Yep. Absolutely. 

GONZALEZ: Yeah. And, and so you kind of started, there was this early iteration of this where you tried to start like a basketball kind of club, basically, at this school, and it didn’t go so great, and then you sort of tried again with boxing. So tell us a little bit about that history and why did the second try take?

CANNON: Yeah. So the idea around me becoming a basketball coach was just I needed a chance to interact with these young people outside of these school programs. But, you know, this was the first program that we had at that school. This was the first sports program, so so many kids wanted to be a part of it, and so when 70 kids showed up to this tryout, I realized I can only keep 12. So we cut 58 kids and I cut 58 kids thinking, you know what? It’s that you got to be good enough, you got to have the grades, you got to have the behavior to be a part of this program. I didn’t think anything of it. But to watch some kids, like, one, become dejected, two, not reach their full potential or spiral because they didn’t have the relationship they were looking for, they were coming to me because they wanted a relationship. 


CANNON: They wanted to improve in a sport. They wanted to be mentored. They wanted to have positive peer-to-peer interactions, and I just said, “No. You’re not good enough for that.” And that is, that’s what we’re doing across the, the sector. We’re putting up these barriers to entry. We’re saying that you have to be good enough to participate in these enrichment activities. We have to be good enough to participate in the things that are good for us, and that blows my mind that we, we haven’t rethought that. 


CANNON: I was a national champion boxer back in my day. This was something the kids in the school knew. And they were just kind of, you know, poking me about starting a boxing program at the school. And I thought, that’s the dumbest idea you could ever think of, but you know, I started a boxing club inside of my classroom, and we started off with just 12 kids and I checked their grades at the end of the year, and they had grown to a 3.18 GPA. You know, we got a little bigger the next year, and they grew to a 3.1, or rather a 3.2 GPA. And we just ended up getting so big that the school said, “You can’t do this here anymore. Kids are coming to us from other neighborhoods. We got kids taking the train to get to us.” We were becoming one of the largest after school sports programs on the west side of Chicago. And it became to be too much of a logistical and operational hurdle for the school, and that’s when I decided that I needed to start a nonprofit. I decided to leave my job in education, officially in education, to go full time on this idea of using boxing as a youth development device. 

GONZALEZ: I want to, I want to dig into this idea a little bit more, because you brought up such an important point about this, you need to meet certain standards in order to stay in the thing that you’re passionate about, and I, I see that all the time, and I have heard coaches in schools even talk about this, that it motivates kids to do better. It’s a chicken and an egg thing, you know. Like, if this is what’s going to motivate the kids to keep up the grades and keep the behavior so that they can stay in the extracurricular, and it sounds like what you’re saying is it actually doesn’t work that way, certainly not for every kid. 

CANNON: No, and it’s a, it’s a punishment that’s unrelated to the action, and if we think about providing natural consequences to young people, the natural consequence of your action. If you are failing in a class at school, the natural consequence actually isn’t a punishment to stop you from doing other things. The natural consequence is support. You can support when that happens. And we often look at kids and we think, like, they’re just not motivated enough. But that’s just not the case. You know, young people are motivated to do well. They want to be their best selves. And we need to provide the space and the opportunities for them to do so. So the idea that punishing young people is a motivator, it’s shown to be false across so many different, across a range of settings, and it’s no different when it comes to after school activities. And what we’re finding is the longer we have a young person in our program, the better their academic results, the better their behavioral results, the better their social emotional learning becomes, and the more confidence they have. So if we are only creating programs for kids who are good enough, for kids who are smart enough, for kids who have the grades, we are intentionally removing the kids who need us most from our sphere of influence. 

GONZALEZ: The assumption is you already have the tools and the skills to do well. We just need you to want to, and then you’re naturally going to be able to do it, so we’re going to hold this carrot out, and that’s not it. They need all that support in order to learn how to do better. 

CANNON: And, and the idea that they have the tools that they need to do well is actually true. They have everything that they need to do well. They need the space in order to, to bring that out. They need, sometimes need some additional resources so that’s possible. Sometimes we have to change our metrics. Like, what are we looking for this kid to do well in? Because, you know, it’s like, a fish is never going to win a tree-climbing competition. When we are, when we’re looking at kids from, from a strengths-based perspective — 


CANNON: — we can see, like, these kids are great at a lot of things, and maybe we can stop judging them by someone else’s, someone else’s standards. 

GONZALEZ: Yeah, and I want to sort of rewind and make sure that I’m clear about what I was saying when I said they don’t have the tools. I didn’t necessarily mean internally but sort of the external resources because I don’t want to come at it from a deficit mindset either. 

CANNON: I, I understand that; I just wanted to kind of turn it a little bit. 

GONZALEZ: Yeah. So, so when you first started the boxing in, within your classroom in the school and you said just even that first year the GPAs started to go up, you were not enforcing any kind of a consequence. It just sort of organically happened? Or were you also adding some study time along with the boxing? 

CANNON: We actually didn’t have any study time. We had no academic interventions at all. We was just boxing and kicking it. 


CANNON: And what we found was there were young people who started having a more positive relationship with the school, started to want to do better, started to show up to school more often because they had something good to look forward to. And it’s amazing how much having something good can change your day and make you more willing and able to learn at that point. Now, what we did find is so, you know, these kids, freshman and sophomore year, we’re seeing these gains. Junior year, kids start getting into honors and AP classes, and we started seeing grades fall. So our GPA actually went down in Year 3 of our programs because they were getting into classrooms that actually a lot of them weren’t necessarily prepared for, they were just super motivated when they were going into these classes. So that’s when we started bringing in academic support. We had some volunteer tutors come to help some young people do homework and make plans to organize your day so that you can do your homework and then support them with some of the hands-on technical support that they needed with subject-specific classes. 

GONZALEZ: I think that’s a good sign. They were taking on bigger academic challenges so that’ll happen. 

CANNON: And they were academically confident enough to do that and motivated enough to, to get their way into those classes. And we just needed to make sure that they didn’t sink when they got there. 

GONZALEZ: Yeah. So you have now a physical facility. Near where your school was? This is in the west side of Chicago? 

CANNON: We’re on the west side of Chicago. We’re a few miles away from where our school was, but we actually have a transportation program where we’re going and picking kids up and bringing them to us. So we have a critical mass of young people who are coming from the school where I started this organization. And then kids from all over the west side of Chicago. We renovated a 10,000 square foot church. So we brought in some kids, we had to hammer out some pews and take down alters and stages. I’m glad we didn’t get it on video. Some people would be very upset. But our kids actually came in. Young people came in and helped build the boxing ring, helped set up the heavy bags, helped create this space and just gave them a whole new sense of pride in what they were working on. So, you know, we have, we have art in our building. So there’s a Liz Flores piece, beautiful piece. It’s in a, in a strength and conditioning room. And we have 10- to 18-year-olds in there training, and nobody ever touches the art, you know. Nobody, you can run your hand underneath any desk or table, and you’re not going to run into any gum. And we don’t have rules. We never talked about not doing those things. We’ve, we have co-created a space that they value, and we treat them with love and respect, and they return that with the way that they treat our facilities, each other, and the personnel that we have. 

GONZALEZ: I just was reading a thread this morning on Twitter about the idea of giving away pencils and notebooks and paper to kids. And the number of teachers that were chiming in about how “In my school, the kids just break it right in front of me, and they step on the calculators,” and I thought, “Something is wrong at your school.”

CANNON: Yeah, that’s the problem. 

GONZALEZ: This is not the kids. Something has gone horribly wrong with the culture of your school. And so what you’re telling me is that you’ve got really, you know, kind of valuable stuff in the building and they’re not messing with it because they feel valued and they, and they value the space. That’s beautiful. 

CANNON: Yeah, we, you know, we have one laptop for every two people in our building. You know, we, they can use those laptops whenever they want to. We try to get the absolute best of everything. We don’t just want to be good enough. You know, I came up in a lot of spaces that were just good enough for, you know, Black and brown kids. And good enough actually is almost never good enough. So we try to get the best of what we can, the best equipment, the best educational supplies, the best facility, and they take care of it because I think they know that they are valued. 

GONZALEZ: So this, I was going to ask this a little later, but let’s just do it now because of what you’re talking about. And I’ve mentioned this before we started recording, but I found you on TikTok, and so I know that on TikTok you talk a lot about this stuff, the motivating of kids and the program. But then a lot of your other content has to do with being a nonprofit leader and working on that funding piece. And there’s a lot of complicated stuff that we’re not going to get into there. But how, I mean, you’ve clearly raised money very well and continue to raise money very well for this. And so I’m thinking people listening to this are thinking, “I’d like to try to do something like this in my community.” How big of a deal is the fundraising piece for you? How much of your week is spent on that kind of stuff? 

CANNON: Yeah, I’m fortunate to now have a director of development who, that’s the world that she lives in now. She’s doing a great job. I think the most important thing early on is your programming and your fundraising kind of have to connect because you don’t have time to do both of those things separately. So when I think of, when I think of fundraising when we were first starting off, I wasn’t running big, elaborate fundraising campaigns. I was saying, like, hey, you come in here and see what we’re doing, work out with some kids, help a kid with their homework, give if you can, bring somebody back with you. So we, the programming and the fundraising ran hand in hand. So I didn’t have to step out of my role as, you know, the leader of these young people to fund it. It was actually doing the thing was what funded the organization. And then, you know, using social media is something I’ve always been serious about, but using social media in the sense that I just need to show you all what we’re doing. If I show you all what we’re doing, then you’re going to want to support it. If I show you that we just took a kid, took a bunch of kids on this college trip, that we’re taking kids out to dinner, that, you know, we’re experimenting with how to bring our heart rates down faster. If I show you all these little things that we’re doing on our day-to-day, you’re going to want to jump in and support us. So to me, fundraising should be a more organic process and built on the relationships that you have with people. One of the things I think surprises people is when you give to The Bloc, you got a really good chance of talking to me within a couple of, within a couple, no matter how much you give, right. We had a call with, with a group of donors, about 20 donors. It’s like, you give $5, we’re talking. You give $1,000, you’re on the same call with the $5 person. 

GONZALEZ: I, I mean I’ve got a handwritten note from Amy, I think it was. 

CANNON: Yeah, yeah. 

GONZALEZ: And that was the first time that’s ever happened. I could tell it wasn’t a form letter, and I was like, wow. This is really nice, yeah. 

CANNON: Yeah. We are serious about connection, you know. We, that’s something that runs through our entire organization, our connections with young people, connections between young people, connections with the people who are supporting our organization and connections between the people who are supporting our organization. Connection is not, you know, is not a, is not a gimmick. It’s something that we are truly about. We want to know you. We want to love you. And we want you to love us in return. 

GONZALEZ: A couple of logistical questions. So students are there. They come straight from school, and you said you’ve got, now you’ve got funding for transportation to come get them if they’re not within walking distance. 

CANNON: Yeah. 

GONZALEZ: And how late do they stay? 

CANNON: So we have a couple of groups that students have rode through. So we have some young people, a younger group, they show up about 2:45, they get out of school early, 2:45, 3 o’clock, and they’ll be there until about 5:15. We have another group of people that tend to be older, high school students. They show up at about 4:30, and they’re there until about 6:30, so it’s around two hours of programming for that group. They, some kids come five days a week, so Monday through Thursday and Saturday. Some kids come three days a week, so either Monday, Wednesday, Saturday or Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday. And we run 10-week sessions, and every 10 weeks a young person has the capability of signing up for the next 10 weeks, so they get first priority within that next group. So we’re not about, so this is not about, like, we need to find more, we need to reach more kids. It’s like, we have a natural stopping point where you get to make a decision about what’s best for you. Ninety percent of the kids within the school year are going to come back for more than one session. 


CANNON: And to me that’s the most important metric that we could possibly track. Because like I said before, if kids are happy, if kids are doing something that they love, that they have a passion, then they’re going to have great results, whatever that means for them. 

GONZALEZ: Do you have to turn kids away, like just out of capacity reasons? 

CANNON: Right now we do. We, there’s, there’s, we have about a capacity for 160 people within the course of a 10-week session to be in our program. We, you know, we’ve got a list of about 300 young people that, you know, in one way or another, and it may not be every session that they want to be a part of it, but 300 young people will say that they want to be a part of this program. So we’re working on changing that, fixing our capacity issue by expanding out into schools across the west side of Chicago. What we want to do is train teachers to teach the basics of boxing, you know, the footwork, the, the punches, the blocks, and things of that nature. And we want to support those teachers along the way. We’ll have a coordinator that shows up once or twice a week to support them. They’ll have an opportunity to come to our building once a week as well to get some instruction from the trainers and coaches. But we want to go to the young people where they are in the buildings in their resource-rich environments with teachers who work at their schools who know them and know the coach or that school. And we want to empower those teachers to implement our programming. 

GONZALEZ: Wow. That’s a, that’s incredible growth, considering you started this in 2016. 

CANNON: I’m excited about it because this essentially lifts the lid off of how much we can grow, you know. We no longer have a space constraint. Now it’s about how many people want to do it. 


CANNON: If you want to do it, we can figure out a way to make it happen for you within your school. 

GONZALEZ: Do, do your kids, is it all in-house? Or do they actually compete somewhere? What’s the end point? 

CANNON: About 10 percent of our kids in our program compete. About 90 percent of them come in saying they want to compete. But 10 percent of them, you know, it’s hard. It’s hard, and I let them, and I let them know from the very start, like, you don’t quite know what you’re asking for when you say you want to have a boxing match. Or you have no idea what you’re saying to me right now. But we let them adjust their preferences. So when every kid comes in, they get an intake. And one of the things we ask in that intake is, why are you here? And some kids want to get in shape. Some kids want to learn to defend themselves. Some kids want to be world champions. So depending on what you want out of the sport, we can change your experience. Some kids, if you just want to get in shape, feel good about yourself, they’ll work towards a mitt work session at the end of their training session. Then they’ll have a showcase where they’ve learned the combination. They’re going to show off their mastery of that combination in front of folks. People who say they want to actually take a boxing match, they have a sparring showcase at the end where they, basically we have 16-ounce headgear, 16-ounce gloves. We put a couple of young people who are around the same level in the ring, and they have, and they have a short sparring match. And there are some young people who’ve already sparred who are going to go on to compete at the end of their 10 weeks. We do have a couple of Golden Gloves champion boxers. We have a young man who was a, started with us as a freshman in high school, went on to become a national collegiate boxing champion. You know, if we’re going to compete, we got to, you know, winning ain’t everything but it ain’t nothing. It’s important that if we’re going to do it, we do it well because that’s what’s going to keep kids coming through the door. 

GONZALEZ: Yeah. Let’s talk for a minute because you kind of went through the list of sort of wraparound stuff that you do, you know, and there’s definitely like field trips and stuff like that, but I can’t remember where I saw this. You’ve got screen printing? Or is that just, was that just a temporary thing? 

CANNON: So we have a rolling list of opportunities for young people, and whatever they’re into, we try to figure out how to make it happen. So if some kid’s like, hey, we want to make some T-shirts, okay, let’s figure that out. So we found an expert. She’s a master’s fine arts student who loves screen printing, has her own shop. And she came and spent Saturdays with a handful of our fighters. They created a design, digitized that design, and then printed that design on, on T-shirts. It was a fascinating process. And the shirt that they made I can’t wear anywhere. It says, “Get ready to catch these hands.” I can’t walk around with a threat. 

GONZALEZ: Wear it inside the building. 

CANNON: I can’t wear it anywhere. But we really want to follow student interest. But the interest we haven’t been able to capitalize on just yet is music. We have people who are interested in music, instruments also. People were interested in music production. So we’re working on getting a partnership with one of these music studios to see if we can come up with a project for some of the young people to work on. 


CANNON: There are a couple of things that I’m really excited about and proud of. So our food club. Young people in the program started a garden that was led by our program manager Erica. They used the food from that garden to prepare snacks for kids in the organization. And when the harvest season was over, they started preparing for a full course meal for their family and friends. So they spent 10 weeks working on one recipe. It was the, the, it was a very fancy recipe. It was like shrimp and tofu burger on a rice bun or something along those lines, jicama fries. Like, what are you all? So they worked 10 weeks on those recipes, and then at the end of it all, they had their family and friends over for, like, a restaurant service. So, you know, you walked in, you got seated, and they let you know what was on the menu. They had a service. They were in the kitchen. It looked like a professional kitchen. We had Jamila in the middle shouting out orders. They were “yes, chef”-ing them all over the place. It was, things like that where the young people have an opportunity to, to produce a product that they’re proud of, really like, that makes me proud as well. 

GONZALEZ: It sounds like your approach really is pay attention to the kids, get to know what they’re interested in, and then if you see a spark, see what you can do to help them really develop that in-house. 

CANNON: And run with it, right?


CANNON: Take off running with it because that’s where you’re going to see them come alive. They’re going to start finding themselves. We know that they’re going to be very few, and actually like thankfully so. There are going to be very few people who come through this program who end up being professional boxers. They’re going to go on in something else, and it’s important for us to nurture their interests. And I think that’s one of the things that’s really missing across the, not only across the sector but particularly for kids on the west side of Chicago. If I am in an affluent area, and I’m, I don’t know, into dinosaurs, then I’m going to be going to the zoo, I’m going to be getting books. I’m going to be, I’m going to have so many resources related to dinosaurs that I’m going to be able to dive into that and figure out what to do with this love of mine at some point in my life. But young people can have an interest and have no access to explore that interest, to develop it, to learn more about it, see if it’s really for them. And to me that’s just a, such a driver of inequality, such a driver of, of the disparate results that we’re seeing for young people on the west side of Chicago. 

GONZALEZ: Yeah, yeah. What happens, well, my question is what happens when a kid in your program either gets in big, some sort of disciplinary trouble outside of the program? Or it starts really doing poorly in school. Like, what is the response? Do you, do you have any point where you’re just like, “Sorry, you’re out”? Or do you just continue to try to support them until things get better? 

CANNON: The, the point where we would say “Sorry, you’re out” is if there’s, if you’re refusing to take accountability for anything that’s taken place. Like, we can’t even enter a process to make whatever is happening right then. We’re not the people to help you. We can help you find the people who can, who can be of import in your life. But the, the most important thing is, like, we always take accountability, and we do, so, you know. Somebody gets in trouble in the program. We’re going through a process with them, so we figure out, like, you know, who was harmed by these actions? What was the harm? You know, what were you thinking at the time? What have you thought about since then? Helping them process, and then figure out what it is that they can do to make it right. So what do you do to help repair the harm that you’ve done through your actions? So we want to take a restorative approach. And then, I think a lot of people hear restorative justice and hear about restorative approaches, and they don’t realize that it’s actually one of the highest forms of accountability that you can have. Because we can punish you and say, you go away for two weeks, and then you come back, and you’ve done nothing to fix the situation that you got into to begin with. 


CANNON: With a restorative approach, you often have to look in the eye of the person that you’ve harmed and hear about it, and then acknowledge it, and then do something to fix it. And I think that’s a much, there’s much more accountability in that, in that process. 

GONZALEZ: Right, right. So there is, and I know I kind of keep hammering away at this because I think this is one of the biggest differences between what you’re doing and your typical extracurricular activity at any school. It’s, there’s not this, your GPA has fallen below this mark’ you’re done. It’s just, now, is it extra time in the study hall? 

CANNON: So what we have is we have young people who are getting check-ins at least every other week. Some of them if they’re in an emergency level of assessment, they’re going to check in every week. With grades, there’s an academic repair plan. So it starts with the student go into the school with a sheet that says, like, these are the things that I’m missing, or I didn’t do well on and asking their teachers if they can get makeup work on those things. 


CANNON: They then bring that to The Bloc and before boxing training every day, that’s what they’re doing for the first 45 minutes with the support of staff and volunteers. If that doesn’t work, then we can reach out either to parents or to the school to see if we can, to see what other assessments that we need to be taking to support that young person’s growth and development. We try to put as much of it onto the fighter as possible, but also, I maintain open communication with the schools so that we can just be of support. We’re reaching out also to outside resources for, for tutoring, so subject-specific tutoring. We do a good enough job at, like, homework help, but somebody really needs help at trigonometry, I’m done. 

GONZALEZ: You need help then? 

CANNON: Yeah. So, so we, an area where we’re going to need some more support is like that subject specific remediation process for young people. But as of right now, there’s, there’s a lot of good that’s coming from, you know, putting it into their hands so that they can go and find the things that they need to do, bring those things back to The Bloc and get the support that they need to complete it to satisfaction. 

GONZALEZ: And I should mention you do have a pretty big staff of people, and it looks like a lot of them do have a background in education of some kind. Or they’re alumni of the program at this point. 

CANNON: Yeah, yeah. We have quite a few alumni on staff. We’ve got lots of folks with education and youth development backgrounds. We’re looking to expanding on the number of social workers on staff. 


CANNON: So that’s going to be our next. I have an idea to hire a social work team. People think I’m out of my mind. But I’m ready to roll on that. So that may be what’s next for us. 

GONZALEZ: Do you ever have kids come to you and say, it looks like y’all having such a good time, but I have no interest in boxing? Like, what do you tell them? 

CANNON: Yeah. There are people who just, like, want to hang out, you know. 


CANNON: They want to, it seems like something good for them. They want to be around. And unfortunately, we’re not in the space where we can say, like, hey, come on in and, like, you know, go into one of our team time rooms and hang out and play board games and things of that nature.


CANNON: What we are starting to do is partner with other organizations. So we’re going to partner with Chicago Run. They do running clubs for kids. And they have a, like a team-building social emotional learning component that goes along with it. So every week, there’s a focus and they’re going on their runs and reflecting on that focus. We’re, we, oh, it’s a little early to talk about this one. I don’t know if it’s going to work out, but we really are, I’m going to put it out in the world. We really want a partnership with Kitchen Possible. So what we did with our young people and at 10 weeks where they’re cooking the same meal and then putting on a restaurant, that’s what they do. They have young people — 

GONZALEZ: All the time, yeah. 

CANNON: — yeah, work on recipes week over week to come out with their finished product. And we, you know, they probably do it better than us. So, so I’m reaching out to them to see if we can get a partnership going. We’re working with Urban Initiatives for a, how do I say this, it’s like a, a month of play where young people are going to different organizations and just doing the thing that they do for a day and then that, in a, in a field day. So the, we’re going to get stronger through partnerships. We’re going to be, get stronger by working with people in organizations that can, that can bring in resources that are going to benefit the entire community, not just in kids who want to fight. 

GONZALEZ: Yeah. That, well that sort of answers my next question, because I’m thinking, there are going to be people listening to this and going, “I love this model. I am not athletic. I don’t know to box. How can I do this same thing with some other idea?” And it sounds like your No. 1 principle is find something the kids are actually going to be excited about. 

CANNON: Yeah. You, you really listen. You listen and you go after what you hear. You also have to take a look at your strengths, right? There are, you know, I had a teacher ask, like, “How can I do this at my school?” And so you don’t. You absolutely, you absolutely don’t. You do the thing that you are great at, and if you have a passion for it, you’re going to find other people who have a passion for it. 


CANNON: And it, you cannot. What you can’t do is try to create something for every kid, which is, you know, there’s going to be something for every kid if we all focus on what we do best. You know, I love piano. I should not start a piano club. I love to sing. I’m terrible at it. I should never start a choir, right? But I was a national champion boxer with a master’s degree in education. So I get to combine those two things on the day-to-day. 


CANNON: So really find your strengths. See where your strengths align with the young people that you’re in contact with. Listen to what it is that they want and, and use that as your guide to, to help support them. 

GONZALEZ: I love it. I love it. So before we finish up, something else that you’ve talked about, and I’d love to close with this idea is terms like “disadvantaged” and “at-risk.” because that’s the population of kids that you have reached, and they often get those labels about how we should not be using those labels. Can you say more about that? And what you think is the better alternative? 

CANNON: I like thinking about this through the lens of Chicago right now because I’m thinking a lot about the city with the mayoral election coming up. And in Chicago, Black people came to this city as refugees fleeing racial terror in the South. They got to Chicago. They were told they can only live in these certain neighborhoods that were segregated. When the neighborhoods started becoming segregated, they were redlined, literal red lines were drawn around those neighborhoods, and those areas did not give loans. Property values started going down. The tax base starts decreasing. The services, the education system, everything starts to go down. Businesses start to leave. And we look at those areas now and call the kids “at-risk.” It wasn’t a passive thing that happened. There were so many intentional, malicious government actions that took place to get to this point. And to say “at-risk” makes it a passive statement like they’ve done something to deserve it. When in reality, something has been done to them. It would be more appropriate to call them “under siege.” It would be more appropriate to call them “under attack” than “at-risk.” So I, the calling a kid at-risk or even underserved, underprivileged, one, underserved, that means that people are over-served, but we don’t call other people over-served and that’s what it would be. That would be a more accurate depiction of what’s happening. But we are saddling them with a label and with a burden that we’ve placed on them. We have, and they’ve done nothing to earn that. They haven’t done anything to earn that. 


CANNON: So I’m much more of a fan of describing young people in a way that they’ve earned, when you’re coming to me, you’re being determined, right? When you’re coming to me, you’re taking accountability for your life. When you’re coming to me, you’re being ambitious, you’re being responsible, you’re being peaceful, you’re being all these things that aren’t “at-risk.” And, you know, it would piss me off as a kid to go to an organization, spend my time, you know, growing and learning and doing the best that I could, and then have them call me “at-risk.” To having described me in that way is so reductive.


CANNON: So a circumstance that I had nothing to do with. I didn’t earn that. 


CANNON: You know, I am, I am an individual. I should not be lumped into this group. So I think it’s really important that we watch the way we talk about kids because the way we talk about kids also informs the services that we provide. And the services you’ll accept for an at-risk kid are different than the services you would accept for an ambitious kid or a gifted kid. There’s a lower level of services that we find acceptable all of a sudden when a kid is at risk versus when a kid is determined. 

GONZALEZ: Yeah, yeah. If somebody wants to learn more about The Bloc and what you do, where’s the best place to send them?

CANNON: You can follow us on Instagram, @theblocchicago. We are The Bloc Chicago on Facebook as well. You can go to We have lots of great information on our, on our website. The Bloc has no K in it. 




CANNON: Please remember that. And I hope you will, I hope you will follow us. I hope you stay in touch. I hope you come to love the kids on the west side of Chicago that we’re working with every day the way that we do because they’re awesome. And you’re going to see so much talent, growth, hope from these kids that I think it’s going to add to your day. So follow us on social media. 

GONZALEZ: Thank you so much for, for giving me what is apparently a very rare opportunity to appear on a podcast. 

CANNON: Yes. I’ve done a podcast interview now, so. 

GONZALEZ: Thank you. 

CANNON: I’m glad to do it. 

For links to all the resources mentioned in this episode, visit, click Podcast, and choose episode 207. To get a bimonthly email from me about my newest blog posts, podcast episodes, courses and products, sign up for my mailing list at Thanks so much for listening, and have a great day.