Derek Brown is a former gang member and current founder and director of the North Lawndale Boxing League – Boxing Out Negativity, a boxing and mentoring program that seeks to protect eight- to sixteen-year-old youths from gang violence in Chicago’s North Lawndale neighborhood. Every week, Brown conducts two to three sessions combining boxing lessons and motivational and problem-solving discussions. Enrollment in the program is free, though students must pay by completing school homework and following other rules. Brown has a waiting list of seventy students and spends about twenty percent of his annual salary to keep the program funded. We spoke for almost thirty minutes about Brown’s background, his approach to training and mentoring, and the outcomes for kids in his program. Due to the length of our conversation, you can read the first half of our interview below and the second half on June 12.
Greg: Let’s start at the beginning for you personally. I know a little bit about your background from having read previous media pieces. What prompted your shift from gang member to mentor for at-risk kids?
Derek: I joined a gang at the age of twelve years old. In my community, it was the only resource that I had that was out there for me. So quite naturally, I was going to be a gangbanger. It looked fun, the TV glorified it as something that was great—watching The Mack, watching Superfly, watching all these movies, of course. But again, once I joined the gang, I wanted to go deeper. I wanted to be the gang leader. So I was a kid with dreams and ambitions. I didn’t want to be a doctor or lawyer or something, I wanted to be a drug dealer. It wasn’t a second thought. It was like waking up and drinking a glass of water.
But what came with the gang was me going to jail, me getting jumped on and shot at, me getting arrested, just a whole lot of hell. And as time went by, I went to the penitentiary at the age of seventeen. By the time I was nineteen, my best friend was shot and killed. Other friends was getting life sentences in jail, some getting twenty-plus years. Some of my friends was strung out on crack, and so just a lot of hell.
And at this time, I was just tired. At the age of twenty-two, I was tired. I was tired, but still, no resources. I go to jail, I come home, and I’m a grown man with children, how am I going to be able to feed my family? I tried to get a job in the working force, couldn’t fill the application out. And when I turned twenty-five, I was a full-fledged gang leader, guys was following me, and [I felt] it was my turn, even though there was somebody ahead of me.
Then one day, this guy got killed, when I was like twenty-six, the guy who ran all the Vice Lords. And I was out there, and when they went and killed the guy, one of the guys turned the gun on me, and God just seen it for me to live. So I lived, and they jumped the guy who ran the gang. And it was like God was saying, “Are you going to lead the people on the path of righteousness or the path of destruction?”
Again, I still didn’t have a way out. One day, I was getting chased by the police and ended up getting away. I was caught dead to rights and I prayed to God that he’d get me out of the situation. And I said “I will never sell a piece of drugs again in my life,” and I didn’t go to jail for this case. I was already out on bond on two cases and finally got caught with this last case, and it would have been over with.
But I stuck to my word. I didn’t shoot up no more drugs, I beat both of the cases, spent a lot of money on it, and I was broke. And by me being broke, it just made me realize, who was I working for? Was I working for me or was I working for the court system? And all the money I done made, I never even enjoyed a dime of it. But my lawyer, the judges, the system, they enjoyed my money more than I did. I was the one who worked hard for it, got shot for it and robbed for it, you know all type of hell.
These were like the antennas that stood up before me, and I just didn’t want to see another child going through the hell that I went through. And by the grace of God, He just put me in the right position, and I got out.
So the work that I’m doing right now, and if you could really see the work that I’m doing, you would say that I was always watched over, like I’m powered by a spiritual being. It’s not me. It’s my physical body and everything, but who I was, is no longer. I’m definitely somebody else. I’m not that ignorant young man that’s coming through the system that thinks he knows everything, thinks he’s grown. I guarantee I can tell you stories, and there are miracles. I just had to be here where I’m at right now, and the change that I’m making in people’s lives with something as small as boxing.
A lot of people think that my training and me teaching youth how to box is brutal, but that is the only way. Boxing is sexy to them. Boxing is something to glorify because the fight is everything. To learn how to fight and to learn how to be constructive and to hold your ground… Everybody wants to learn how to fight. But once they get into my program, they learn discipline, they learn how to love themselves. And all of that aggression that they get, it vanishes. It disappears, and it’s a controlled aggression. It’s wanting to learn, wanting to help others. It’s learning to love yourself, learning to respect yourself.
And once you’re able to love and respect yourself, that’s only when you can go and love and respect someone else. I take some of the worst of kids that people done gave up on, failing kids, and I get them wanting to learn and go from F students to A students.
“Everybody wants to learn how to fight. But once they get into my program, they learn discipline, they learn how to love themselves.”
Greg: Can you say a little more about that transition? As you mentioned, critics of your approach might say that you’re attempting to steer kids away from a violent lifestyle by teaching them a violent sport. So how exactly do you use boxing to make that switch from an aggressive mindset to one of self-control?
Derek: First off, I teach kids to love themselves. I start by asking, “How many people love themselves?” Everybody’s going to raise their hands. And I ask them, “How many people get in trouble?” Of course, they raise their hands. “How many people get in trouble more than three times for the same thing?” Everybody. Unfortunately, everyone raises their hands. “How many of y’all gets whuppings? How many of y’all gets yourself hurt? How many of y’all go back and forth to jail?” And some raise their hands, and I keep going on and on and on.
And then I go on to tell them how much I loved myself when I was their age. I say, “This is how much I loved myself. I loved myself so much I joined a gang. I loved myself so much that I got in trouble, I kept going to jail.” Then they start looking at me, and I start talking about all the madness I did and I ask them, “Does that look like I loved myself?”
See, they haven’t been taught how to love. They haven’t been shown love. They haven’t been shown respect. So once you get them to look at themselves in the mirror and check themselves, that’s when they begin the process of loving and respecting themselves and others. It’s a process. Everything that I do is a process. It’s just like when I tell a kid, “Run around the block.” Well, you get a kid that first comes to you and you tell him to run around the block—because running around the block is normally a punishment—he’ll say “What did I do?” Because he’s aggressive.
Now, they don’t even have to do nothing. I can just say “Run around the block,” and they do it without fussing. That’s the hidden discipline that they’re getting that they normally wouldn’t listen to. Normally, they don’t want to listen to nobody, and somebody walks up to them and tells them to run, they’re like “Are you crazy? You done lost your mind.” And they always question, they always ask, “Why?” But it’s a sneak discipline. Once you get it to that point, that’s when you know your discipline has kicked in. And then it’s time to take the boxing steps to another level.
Greg: So if I understand you correctly, it’s really a matter of getting kids to love themselves and realize there are things they want to accomplish, things that are important to them, whether that’s boxing or any other pursuit. And once they realize that, then they want to take the necessary steps to reach those goals.
Derek: Right. But anybody can teach this, but they don’t want this teaching from just anybody. You got to give a credible message. It has to be someone that they’re looking up to. When I was on the street, I seen some messages that says no to drugs. Most of my friends used drugs. It was because it wasn’t the message, it’s always the messengers. Their messengers was high on drugs, which was their gang chief, which was somebody they looked up to, which was somebody they seen every day.
To change these types of behaviors, you have to find advocates like myself who have been through the turmoil. Like I don’t use drugs, I don’t smoke, I don’t smoke weed, I don’t drink, I don’t do anything. How can I go to an addict and tell the addict how the addict should feel and tell the addict, “Don’t do it?” Versus an ex-addict, because that ex-addict understands and feels the pain he feels.
Follow the North Lawndale Boxing League on Facebook to stay up to date with Derek Brown and his organization. Visit northlawndaleboxingleague.org for more information or to make an equipment or monetary donation. And stay tuned for the second half of this interview on June 12.