Travel down Pulgas Avenue in East Palo Alto any evening during the week, and you’ll eventually come across an open garage door. Rap music turned up to full volume is punctuated by the staccato beat of fists colliding with punching bags. The evening light casts shadows on a black concrete floor lined with mats and in the center of the room, a boxing ring stands four feet off the ground.
Look around, and you might notice Rodney Mason, an ex-gang member turned competitive fighter, as he ducks and weaves, sparring with an imaginary opponent. On the other side of the room, Jessyca Montes pounds a punching bag. Next to her, Aaron Guerrero weaves hand wraps between his fingers, sunlight illuminating his bright orange Nike T-shirt that says “Stay laced up.” Overlooking the scene are posters of boxing legends Floyd Mayweather, Manny Pacquiao, Muhammad Ali — and the watchful eyes of the owner, Johnnie Gray.
Born and raised in East Palo Alto, Gray founded East Palo Alto Boxing Club in 2003 to give “at-risk” youths of East Palo Alto a place to exercise while learning the discipline and work ethic they need to succeed in life. The club aims to provide a refuge for members of the community despite a lack of financial support from the city and local businesses.
In the 11 years since the club was established, Gray has transcended his role as a boxing trainer and mentor.
“The majority of youngsters who come here — they change their lives,” Gray says. “I mean, they graduate from high school … go on to be law-abiding citizens, politically active — and that’s what this [club] does. Because it’s not just about boxing anymore. It’s about life.”
A Tale of Two Cities
“Over there [in Palo Alto], you never hear ‘at risk,’” Gray says. “They put a name on kids here, ‘at risk,’ because of the lack of opportunity and programs.”
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 97.6 percent of Palo Altans over the age of 25 have a high school education. In East Palo Alto, this number drops to 63.7 percent. This is partly due to the fact that students in East Palo Alto do not have the same level of educational and extracurricular opportunities as those in Palo Alto. Gray believes that the influence of drugs and alcohol have also created a downward spiral, particularly for its youth.
“It’s all a cycle,” Gray says. “Lock them up, let them out. . . Put them in a drug program. Lock the young people up, don’t give them a job, don’t give them opportunities. Even if it’s just cleaning up this community … Give them something to do.”
According to Gray, the programs that exist in East Palo Alto are not targeting the young people most in need of help. He aims to fix this problem with his boxing club and a community center targeted for the general public, where students can receive free after-school help and tutoring.
“They don’t have a program that’ll help these kids get on track,” Gray says. “Kids are in high school that ain’t gonna graduate — they need help. So that’s why I’m gonna help kids that are off track.”
Five years ago, Rodney Mason was arrested with links to East Palo Alto’s notorious “Taliban gang.”
“My life, as far as doing stuff that was illegal, it was all about money to me,” says Mason, who dropped out of high school during his junior year.
Today, he sits in Gray’s office in his mid-twenties, clad only in black shorts and a pair of worn, red Everlast boxing gloves. Though he has only trained at the club for two months, Mason is the epitome of everything that Gray has been working towards the past eleven years.
“When I was in jail I had to figure out what I wanted to do with my life, and I really love to fight so I took on boxing,” Mason says. “It’s really keeping me off the streets and keeping me from doing anything bad or anything like that. It’s keeping me focused.”
Although he initially involved himself in street fights rather than fights within the ring, Mason’s interest in boxing eventually won over.
“I don’t blame the environment for the way I am,” says Mason. “Because the environment can make you do certain things as far as what you grow up around but I believe that’s not an excuse.”
Mason is lucky to be boxing at all, given his arrest record, but says his probation officer has permitted him to stay in the ring. He goes on runs and trains in the gym daily, all in the hopes of someday making it into the ring as a professional fighter.
“I figured this is the best opportunity for me because I’m good at boxing,” Mason says. “I might as well channel my energy into something that’s positive.”
Standing outside of the gym, hands on her hips, Jessyca Montes, 16, makes up for her petite stature with an air of confidence. The wind tousles a loose strand of hair from her ponytail, framing pursed lips and round, brown eyes accentuated with winged eyeliner.
Before joining the boxing club she suffered from anxiety and struggled with anger management as a child.
“I had a lot of anger, and I was moving around schools, not getting along with all the people at the time,” Montes says.
Conflicts with her peers soon turned physical; throughout middle school, Montes was involved in multiple fights. She tried different sports, mostly soccer, to help channel her aggression, but soon found that the only effective activity was boxing.
“It’s a way to let out your emotions and anger,” Montes says.
Although she attends the boxing club consistently, Montes has yet to participate in a competitive fight due to the lack of female boxers. Even so, her teammates at East Palo Alto Boxing Club encourage her to box competitively one day.
“They’re really inspiring, and they give really good advice,” Montes says. “It’s like a family here.”
The youngest competitive fighter sits at the table in Gray’s office, arms crossed, his piercing blue-grey eyes staring straight ahead. Aaron Guerrero, 12, has enjoyed boxing his entire life, but began formally training three years ago.
Aaron is an “outside” fighter, meaning he relies on speed rather than brute force — avoiding getting hit by his opponents until he can deliver the final blow. This style of fighting cultivated by Gray and inspired by Muhammad Ali is used by many other competitive fighters at East Palo Alto.
“I [like] how [Ali] named himself ‘The Greatest’ and didn’t really give anybody a choice, so now everybody knows who he is,” Aaron says.
His father, Robert “The Ghost” Guerrero, is a professional boxer who has won titles across three weight classes. Aaron’s father is a childhood friend of Gray’s, and helped donate money to form the club. It’s no secret that Aaron gets his competitive passion for boxing from his father.
“I see myself as an Olympic gold medalist in the 2020 Olympics, and then going pro and being the junior multi-champion of the world,” Aaron says. “And eventually being one of the best ever.”
Though Aaron is inspired by famous fighters such as Ali, he says he does not look up to any of the competitive fighters at East Palo Alto Boxing. When asked why, he responds with a solemn, straight face:
“Because I’m better than them.”
East Palo Alto Boxing Club has been struggling to receive financial support from local businesses but still hopes for general expansion, which would include the completion of a community center.
“Johnnie is so involved with just the coaching aspect of [this club],” says Hannie Kruggel, Director of the board of the club. “We want to free up his time to do that, so we try to do a lot of the administrative functions.”
Kruggel, 27, initially joined the club to have a place to train, but decided to take on more responsibility for the club’s finances when she realized no one working there was getting paid.
“I was like, ‘How can I help?’ I have a business background, I was working in tech at the time,” Kruggel says. “I found opportunities to. . . take over some of the leadership capacity.”
In addition to fundraising, the club receives grants from the city of East Palo Alto due to its status as a violence prevention program. However, these grants are not enough to keep East Palo Alto Boxing up and running, so the board has been attempting to reach out.
“We have not had any luck getting any grants from really any business around here,” Kruggel says. “And we’ve tried. . .We don’t really fit the criteria because we’re too small … since we’re volunteer-operated.”
The lack of support from the surrounding community only adds to the club’s financial troubles.
Looking to the future
Despite these problems, Kruggel says that the club managed to raise more than $50,000 this year and the community center has started to get off the ground, despite the lack of a budget.
“We’re going to try to still … use [the community center] even while improvements are going on,” Kruggel says. “We want to have that [remodeling] be a hands-on learning experience for people.”
Overall, East Palo Alto Boxing hopes to expand into an organization that caters to everyone in the community, whether they like to box or not.
“We’re already really focused on character development, and teaching kids focus and discipline, and skills through boxing,” Kruggel says. “In the future, we want to be doing more for the community as well.”
Bridging the gap
The club is currently searching for volunteers to tutor and do other tasks.
“I need high school interns from Paly [Palo Alto High School] and Gunn, seriously,” Kruggel says. “I need people to help us with video editing, website stuff, and even photography. It’s something people can do remotely… You don’t need to be that good — we just need basic help.”
Kruggel hopes that her mentality about East Palo Alto Boxing Club can extend beyond the city’s borders.
“There’s so many resources outside of East Palo Alto, but it’s been hard to connect and leverage that,” Kruggel says. “I’ve been able to bridge that gap a little bit, but not as much as much as we need.”
As the sun sets, the shadows on the backs of the boxers begin to fade. The light-filled gym slowly darkens, and the rap music is switched off. The staccato beat of fists begins to diminish, and people start shuffling towards the exit of the warehouse, while Gray places his boxing gloves back on the shelf.
For him, the message of East Palo Alto Boxing is quite simple:
“We live and die, we treat people the way they want to be treated, and that’s just the way life should be,” Gray says, staring off into the distance. “That’s what I talk to young people about in this program.”