“When you say, ‘I’m doing this for you, not for the money. I’m doing this for us.’ …That’s the healing process.” As a founding member of the Oakland chapter of Concerned Black Men (CMB), Saleem Shakir is dedicated to engaging young people, particularly young men and boys, in positive self-reflection and mindfulness.
Shakir brings over two decades of experience as a former science teacher and youth trainer to the Scientific Boxing program. He also runs the program with his longtime collaborator and mentee, John Adams, who is a counselor with Larkin Street Youth Services. Shakir started the program about five years ago, not only to teach students the elements of boxing and other martial arts, but also to instill a sense of discipline and self-confidence in troubled youth.
While Shakir instructs his students on the techniques of jabs and blocks, he also teaches them about parts of the body and how they work. He brings real-world context to their math homework by having the kids run around the gym, then take their heart rate, blood pressure, and figure out their lung capacity.
“By middle school, there are gaps in their learning… They’ve developed coping mechanisms to not deal with the fact that ‘I don’t know, and no one’s gonna help me,’” Shakir explains. But he believes that learning becomes interesting and engaging through these types of exercises, and those gaps can easily be filled. “It often takes more time to find the gaps than to fix them,” he says. In this way, the positive outcomes of the program are threefold: students get exercise and build self-esteem through practice, all while learning biology and math skills.
For Shakir and Adams, what makes the program so successful is their adherence to keeping it authentic. They don’t take attendance, and when they do they make it clear why they have to by either tying it to grant funding or a specific school program. The workout is their tool for communicating health messages, but the relationships they build help students begin to work through their trauma.
During their sessions with youth, Shakir and Adams teach focus techniques to allow the students to look for answers inside themselves. An important part of this work is redefining what success is: “Staying out of jail takes skill! It is not a right of passage,” Shakir says. He wants young people to realize that this kind of posturing really exposes a lack of power–that true power comes from clearing your mind and not allowing people to set you off. This mindfulness training addresses the traumas of young people, Adams explains, “in an organically holistic way–without the incense and candles.”
As summer wraps up and the new school year begins, Shakir and CMB are gearing up to launch a mentoring program in Oakland schools. If you would like to get involved with the program, contact Lance Dennis at firstname.lastname@example.org.