Brothers Tony and Sylvester Raggs recently started a youth boxing club in West Garfield Park. The club, Boxing Off the Block, is intended to teach young people from ages 13-18 discipline and the skill set of boxing. The club is located in Bethel Lutheran Church & School, and training is held on weekdays from 4pm-8pm. It is the Raggs brothers’ goal to encourage good habits in young people through the club and provide a space in which they can feel safe and have positive role models in an area where gun violence is a serious problem. 

A Boxing Club that Provides a Safe Space for Youth

Boxing Off the Block serves as a haven for families in and around West Garfield Park. Tony, a 2021 Chicago Peace Fellow, has worked in violence prevention since 1981 and has served as a volunteer street outreach worker in West Garfield Park and West Humboldt Park. He and his brother Sylvester have worked alongside one another on projects working with youths and adults dealing with issues of violence and community outreach. They have used music and entertainment as a way to build community, with boxing later becoming an addition to that work. Over the course of the last two years they have found  funding, trainers, and a space for their youth boxing club. They have been holding the club in Bethel Lutheran Church since October of 2022. Though the club is intended for teens aged 13-18, mothers and younger children also come to workout, box, and watch the teens spar. 

The club is stocked with workout equipment and trainers that provide the necessary tools for young people to learn boxing. The space includes a 10’x10’ ring that the brothers built themselves, punching bags, weights, and stationary bikes. They have hired two boxing coaches as well as a conditioning coach to train the young people who attend and they provide dinner for them as well. Activities are split between two groups with ages 13-15 training from 4pm – 6pm and ages 16-18 training from 6pm – 8 pm. Each group has around 15-20 young people attend.

 Coaches Provide Mentorship and Structure

The coaches at Boxing Off the Block are often teens’ first mentors in boxing, providing them with training regimes and encouraging them to keep up their routines. The strength and conditioning coach, Travis Whittington, mentioned that he uses the discipline of training as a way to encourage good behavior in the gym, “when kids act out I ask them to do push-ups or run a lap so that they know what we’re here to do.” Travis provides personal coaching for the teens, giving them regimens to do outside of the gym. This is often teens’ first structured workout regime, so it provides them with a structure for building a habit of exercising. 

The two boxing coaches, Shawn Boyd and Levelle Whittington, emphasize the technique of boxing and its demands for control of the emotions.  Shawn stresses that boxing acts as a form of stress relief and that a cool head is required to win rounds in the ring. He noted that the young people he sees excel at boxing are those who “are able to keep up a technique in a fight rather than resorting to street fighting.” Part of their hope in encouraging this kind of mindset in the youth through boxing is to help them deal with the possible threat of violence on the streets. They hope that by practicing the skill of emotional regulation in the ring, teens will be able to keep calm when confronted on the streets to know when they should back away or practice restraint.

Coach Levelle Whittington sees himself and the other boxing coaches as positive role models for the young people. He noted that many of the young people who attend the club have lost family members to gun violence and lack guidance. Boxing coaches can provide some direction and guidance by teaching the value of discipline, technique, and emotional regulation. Levelle also noted that boxing has the potential to distract from other more dangerous behaviors because it is something that can be framed as cool. Being cool allows boxing to compete with other interests, such as drugs or guns, and channels that energy into a positive direction. 

Boxing is not the only thing taught at Boxing off the Block, with a community of trainers, coaches, and students teaching the value of cooperation, self-control, and the study of technique. The club is quickly growing, with members from outside of West Garfield park also joining to learn the skill of boxing. It is the Raggs Brothers’ hope that the club will continue to gain both resources and members so that they can build community and encourage positive values in young people on the West Side.