Sergeant Jacqueline Hoyte stares up at the sign for a while, then turns to Devonne Canady. “How did your gym get its name?” she asks. The two women are sitting outside on an old picnic table. Sergeant Hoyte is a New Haven police officer. Devonne Canady is owner of The Elephant In The Room Boxing Club.
“The Elephant in the Room is an issue or topic that everyone is aware of but no one really wants to discuss,” says Canady. “When I think of the elephant in the room, I think of all the issues in the community: alcoholism, drug abuse, teen pregnancy, homelessness – all these issues that we’re all aware exist, but that no one is really doing anything.”
Hoyte nods in agreement.
“We’re trying to do something about it but [are not getting] a whole lot from other people,” Canady continues. “That’s the Elephant in the Room.”
A chain fence surrounds the red and black gym, which sits between Orchard Street and Henry Street in New Haven. A mural of Maya Angelou covers one wall of Orchard Market across the street and proclaims: “When you know better, you do better.”
Hoyte and Canady’s conversation stems from a broader discussion between New Haven police and the community. Amid reports of police brutality in New Haven and beyond, the two women work together to create a safer neighborhood.
Both women grew up in the Dixwell neighborhood of New Haven and graduated from James Hillhouse High School, but they never met until Hoyte became district manager for the Dixwell Neighborhood in May.
“I called Officer Kelly to ask him Lieutenant Brown’s number and he said ‘You know he’s not over District Six no more,’” says Canady. “He was like ‘No, you have Sergeant Hoyte now.’ I was like ‘Okay give her my number.’”
“I have to say I was really happy when I found out you were a woman. I love that girl power,” Canady replies, pumping her fist.
Hoyte first joined the police force to help fight the violence in her neighborhood. She lived on Carmel Street, a short walk from the Elephant in the Room Boxing Club, when New Haven was going through a bad spate of drug violence and police brutality in the late 1990s.
“Officers would jump out of vans and just jump and beat people down right in front of me,” remembers Hoyte. “I was like ‘Oh my god. Why are they coming into my community like this and treating my people like this?’” She joined the police to “stop this nonsense.”
Canady nods – she also remembers what the city was like. “It’s important that we all take part in trying to fix the issue,” she says.
Canady is no stranger to the ring. Although she works full-time as a respiratory therapist, she first competed at the Golden Glove Championships, which she won. And she kept winning – she won the bronze at the 2002 amateur world championships in Turkey.
In 2008, she hoped to represent the United States at the Beijing Olympics — but women’s boxing was not yet an official event. So Canady returned home. She purchased a building that had been abandoned for thirty years and started her own boxing club in 2012.
“I’m like the one-woman band here,” says Canady. “I run the gym, I train, I work my fulltime job, I write the grants, I have a family, I put the shows on. This is my passion.”
“And to think we have her in New Haven,” Hoyte chimes in.
A few minutes later, a man walks by and yells from outside the fence, “I love a woman in a uniform!”
“Thank you sir!” Hoyte calls back. “How are you doing today?”
Canady scowls, but Hoyte seems pleased.
“Policing through partnerships” is the motto of the New Haven Police Department and defines Hoyte’s approach. If a teen has a run-in with the law, explains Canady, Hoyte can introduce the boxing club as a way to keep them off the streets.
“[Hoyte] can say, ‘I have something you can do, why don’t you come and see about this gym, you might like it,’” she says.
Down the street from Hillhouse High School, Elephant in the Room is open from four to eight p.m. each weekday evening. Students arrive right after school – the hours that “kids get in trouble” – when Canady and her trainers do their best to tire each student out. The goal, she says, is to exhaust them such that “they have nothing left but to go home, get something to eat, shower, and go to bed.”
“Go to bed,” Sergeant Hoyte repeats, and the two women look at each other.
“In my daily business, I encounter a lot of troubled teens,” says Sergeant Hoyte. She hopes to help deescalate tensions in the community and offer young people an alternative to the criminal justice system. She’s often running against the clock, as many kids enter the system very early on.
Canady nodded this time. The two are keenly aware of the problems facing New Haven, especially its minority residents. Violence is high – residents reported almost 1,400 violent crimes last year. The teen pregnancy rate is more than twice the state average.
Sergeant Hoyte and Canady lament the lack of stable homes in their community. Although they grew up in this neighborhood, they agree the children here today face much larger challenges. Twenty percent of New Haven children live in poverty. A third live in single parent homes.
“How can they focus and get up and go to school and concentrate on their education when they don’t even have a stable home? When they don’t even have a bed to sleep in?,” asks Sergeant Hoyte. “They don’t even have meals to eat? They’re really being set up to fail.”
Hoyte hopes to bridge the gap that often divides the community from the police. “That’s what the police department is working very diligently on – gaining, and regaining, trust. The community’s trust,” says Hoyte.
“Trust,” repeats Canady. “Let’s be realistic about the issue with the community and police. A lot of things with police brutality.”
Canady wants to improve the relationship between the police and the community in New Haven, which struggles with strained relations and allegations of police brutality also common throughout the country. However, as Hoyte attests, the New Haven Police Department has set a positive example with its focus on community policing.
And New Haven has a long legacy of progressive community policing policies, revived under former police chief Dean Esserman, who emphasized community recruitment in police hiring. Hoyte believes the New Haven Police Department often takes the lead in learning and testing new policing techniques. In her view, New Haven has avoided many of the problems facing other cities.
“A lot of other cities and towns, they’re not even doing or close to doing what New Haven has done,” asserts Hoyte, “Our ex-police chief Dean Esserman reintroduced community policing to New Haven five years ago when he first came back, and we have forged so many good relationships under his command.”
“We have partnerships and collaborations, ” she adds. “That’s the best way. That’s the only way. And it’s working.”
A young girl emerges from the gym with her mother. Canady calls her over. “You did very well today. Very attentive. How old are you?” she asks.
“7, I’m turning 8 on the 30th,” the girl responds. Canady gets up to greet another customer, leaving the girl and her mother alone with Sergeant Hoyte.
“When bad things happen that’s how detectives get their information to solve their crimes that’s because people in the community,” says Hoyte. “People that’s in the community, they see, they know, but if they can trust you they’ll give that information. A lot of times, that’s how we solve our problems, our crimes, our murders or whatever. That’s crucial.”
Hoyte credits Esserman’s “park, walk, and talk” strategy with building trust in the community. “When you move into a community for the first time, how do you build relationships, how do you build trust?” asks Hoyte. “You introduce yourself.”
Hoyte thinks the city’s police officers can provide some of the stability that teens may lack at home. “[It’s] crucial to have the same officer on the beat,” she says.
“A lot of the officers do a lot of great things with the kids. They’ll buy them lunch and a lot of these kids, they won’t even get to eat,” explains Hoyte. “They do so much for the community. They’re not only policing, they’re also role models.”
Canady also sees her gym as a stable place for kids in the community. “One thing about the gym is almost like once I have them within my reach, they go away sometimes,” says Canady, “but they always come back.”
Canady says that many teens in the neighborhood are unbelievable athletes, but she worries about their academic ability. She asks students struggling at school to leave the gym until they can raise their grades.
“If your grades ain’t good, then I’ll see you later,” says Canady.
Elephant in the Room teaches classes at local schools like Hill Regional Career High School when they can spare the funding. Although the athletic and art departments are usually the first to experience cuts, Canady believes she can make a lasting impact on those that come to the gym.
Eventually, she wants the gym to expand to a larger space and play a major role in the community. She plans to teach self-defense classes for women, open a ten-bed youth homeless shelter, and start a store to sell boxing equipment. She also hopes to be replaced soon as Elephant in the Room’s most successful boxer.
“I know one day, one of those kids inside of these four walls is going to make it and you’re going to see a champion come out of here,” says Canady. “And you’re going to remember this conversation.”