(Photograph by Benjamin Moldenhauer) 

“The only people who say boxing is violent have never done it,” says Luke Dowdney. The former amateur boxer from England knows this from practice and scholarship. While at the University of Edinburgh, he became a British Universities Light-Middleweight boxing champion and wrote a dissertation on the violence-ridden lives of Brazilian street children. In 2000, he moved to Rio de Janeiro and founded Fight for Peace/Luta pela Paz, a nonprofit for young people ages 7 to 25 living amid crime, drug dealing, and organized armed violence.

“Violence comes in many forms,” says Dowdney. “Poverty is a form of violence. Police intimidation and social inequality are forms of violence. Violence is really locking someone into a position and making him suffer.” Dowdney sees boxing as a means to create a dialogue with young people who don’t find what they need in traditional youth programs. “It’s a way in, a metaphor. It’s a means to say: ‘If you work hard, you can win.’”

Fight for Peace’s methodology is based on “Five Pillars:” boxing and martial arts training and competition; personal development and education; youth support services (mentoring and casework); job training and work access; and youth leadership. This approach, which has been endorsed by the United Nations Development Programme, the Brazilian Ministry of Health, and the University of São Paulo, has found many followers—among youth workers, coaches, psychologists, and especially young people. “If it weren’t for Fight for Peace, I would be dead,” says one program graduate.

As Fight for Peace enters its second decade, Dowdney is focused on scaling up the nonprofit. It has constructed academies in Rio and London and trained 100 youth organizations in eight countries, including the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ghana, Kenya, Uganda, Costa Rica, and the United States. In 2012, Dowdney launched an athletic apparel company called Luta (“Fight”), the proceeds from which will help the nonprofit expand sustainably.

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