Earlier this month, West Side nonprofit The Bloc won a $1 million monetary award from the 1954 Project, a philanthropic initiative spearheaded by the Chicago-based Cleveland Avenue Foundation for Education (CAFE) Group that identifies established leaders and supports their innovative ideas to improve student outcomes.

Five organizations were chosen for the 1954 Project Luminary Awards. The Bloc founder and executive director Jamyle Cannon will receive the $1 million check during a virtual ceremony scheduled for April 28.

“I’m excited about what this means for our future and our ability to pursue our goals because I believe that our goals are going to be good for Chicago and set an example for how we go about engaging youth in a way that’s going to impact entire communities,” Cannon told The TRiiBE on April 26. 

Founded in 2016, The Bloc is a boxing club based out of the former Mission of Christ Evangelical Lutheran Church building. The nonprofit uses boxing as a means to provide academic support, mentorship, and college and career readiness opportunities to young people in grades fifth through 12th on the West Side. Since 2016, The Bloc has maintained 100 percent high-school graduation and college acceptance rates, according to its website. This year, there are 150 students enrolled in the program. The Bloc has trained more than 700 students since its founding. 

Cannon said some of the $1 million award will go toward creating a tutoring curriculum, and hiring and developing more boxing trainers. 

 Cannon, a Teach for America alum, came to Chicago in 2012 to launch DRW College Prep, a charter high school that is part of the Noble Network of Charter Schools.  As a ninth-grade high school teacher at DRW, he sought ways to connect with students outside of the classroom. 

First, he coached the school’s basketball team, but didn’t like the idea of cutting students for not having good grades or behavior. Once the students found out about his boxing background, they asked him to start a boxing club. While growing up in Lexington, Ky., Cannon was a regular in the boxing ring. At the University of Kentucky, he was named National Collegiate Boxing Champion in 2009. 

“I thought they were being ridiculous,” Cannon said about his students. “I thought there was no way we could do it, but I decided to give it a shot. They won that argument.”

As a child, Cannon had a lot of repressed anger. He was arrested at age 12 for fighting outside of school. He had to complete a court-ordered anger management class, and he was suspended from school. 

“I got interested in boxing because I wanted to knock somebody out. I just wanted to fight,” Cannon said.

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Although he started boxing at 13 while sneaking into neighborhood gyms, he didn’t take it seriously until college. He trained and eventually joined the boxing team at the University of Kentucky. 

Unfortunately, an injury he sustained during the fight for his national title ended his boxing career. So he decided to join Teach for America because while in college he became passionate about education inequality. He also hoped to share his boxing skills with students outside of the classroom. 

At DRW, he started a boxing club in 2013. They boxed in classrooms and later the cafeteria as the club grew in size. In 2015, Cannon bought a portable boxing ring to use in the cafeteria. In September 2016, Cannon started referring to the program as The Bloc. 

By the end of the school year, those students’ grades improved drastically. The average GPA among the group was 3.18 by the end of the school year. 

The Bloc is a boxing club based out of the former Mission of Christ Evangelical Lutheran Church building. Photo provided.

“They went through a lot of growth in that time just from hanging out and being in a positive environment,” Cannon said. 

Interest in the program grew. Soon, there were too many students for it to remain an after-school program. So Cannon left teaching after the 2016-2017 school year to run The Bloc full-time.

In its early days, The Bloc operated in DRW College Prep, KIPP One Academy, Frazier Prep Academy and Al Raby High School. The organization moved into its current space in 2020.

Although boxing is often viewed as a violent sport, Cannon says it’s not about that. It was an outlet for him as a child, and it’s now an outlet for his participants. It also gives kids access to career options such as screenprinting and money management

“There are young people in our community that honestly are going through things that make them want to hurt somebody. We need to be talking to those young people in a way that doesn’t just say change everything about who you are before you can talk to me,” Cannon said. “We need to be talking to them in a way that’s affirming to them. One of the things that we can do is to give as safe an outlet as possible and, along with that outlet, provide other resources and opportunities on top of it.” 

(L to R): Tay and The Bloc cofounder and executive director Jamyle Cannon are pictured here running boxing drills. Photo by Jacob Pesci.

The Bloc is free, and supplies the materials — boxing gloves, wraps and more — to participate in the sport. It also offers free transportation services to participants.

“We try to knock down all the barriers to entry that could exist that would stop a person from engaging in our program fully,” Cannon said. 

And The Bloc is even touching the community outside of boxing. In 2020, Cannon started a food pantry after seeing a need for access to fresh produce and groceries during the summer uprisings following the police murder of George Floyd. The pop-up pantry is located in West Humboldt Park at 1345 North Karlov, and is open to community members bi-weekly on Fridays from 12:00 p.m. to 3:00 p.m. 

“Four hundred and forty people showed up to that first food pantry and we just kept it going. We saw it as our responsibility to support our broader community more directly,” Cannon said.

is a multimedia producer for The TRiiBE.