I was really excited that my friend Savoy Howe was able to meet for an interview. I’ve heard her tell stories of her life over coffee and on the stage and know she has some great ones. After our latest Zoom call, I had so many new ones and had to figure out just which ones to share.
Everyone I know who knows Savoy knows that she started Toronto’s first women’s boxing gym, the Toronto Newsgirls Boxing Club. But It’s not just a story of women wanting to learn and practice boxing. It’s a story of community building. For a long time Savoy and her students did workouts in the park and shared space in men’s boxing gyms. But then things reached a turning point. They could no longer share the gym they were in. It was time to give up or make a huge leap. The gym’s community sat together and dreamed. Anything they wanted they wrote down: Space, equipment, a ring, showers, an office, and even a disco ball. That Saturday, Savoy found the perfect space in an industrial building with loads of space, exactly as they imagined. “I’ll take it.” she told the realtor, writing out a cheque for $6,000. When she got home, she thought “What have I just done? I only have $200 in my bank account.”
She called everyone she knew, telling them her plans for a community space and boxing gym. By Monday there was enough money in the account. The gym opened. Next came a food bank. Then, after hearing someone needed a computer for school, the community donated enough laptops that there could be a “computer bank”. Soon, several donated bikes were locked up behind the gym. Those in need could just take one home.
One bitterly cold December I began to see videos from Savoy and a friend appearing almost nightly in my Facebook feed. They dressed as cartoonish “Stereotypically Canadian” men in flannel and hats, got into character and went out into the cold handing out socks, sandwiches, gift cards for coffee and snacks and other essentials to people sleeping on the street. Friends and followers sent cash and other necessities for the two of them to give while others were inspired to go out themselves and help in whatever way they could.
And then there was the time when she got a call from a woman in trouble.
“I need to get out of here. My husband is beating me up and I can’t stay here anymore.”
“What is the best-case scenario for you?” Savoy asked.
“Someone just comes here and moves me out.”
“OK,” Savoy asked, “When does he leave for work?”
Right after hanging up the phone, she sent an email to fifteen boxers from her gym asking, “Who can be at this address at 9:00 AM?”
After a few messages it was sorted. Her husband left for work and a truck pulled up at her house. Other women arrived by car and bus. That night the woman was in a safe place and her husband sat alone in the living room of a half-empty house.
I love these images. In each of them are people who need help. A community space, food, a bike, warm clothes, an escape. To me each of them looks overwhelming. How do you start a gym with $200? How do you help so many homeless people or a woman trapped in an abusive relationship? But in each one, Savoy looks at the situation, finds out what’s needed and works with her community to make it happen without a moment’s doubt.
I dream of helping others and inspiring others to work with me to create change but I don’t know where to start or how to conquer my own doubt, so I ask her how she’s able to get such big things done and be so sure of herself along the way.
She tells me a story. Savoy is excellent at roller blading, learning by commuting to school, zooming down Yonge Street at high speed, timing the lights perfectly commute. Knowing this, a friend of hers introduced her to Rick, a fundraiser for the Toronto People with AIDS Foundation.
When they met, he said, “We’re going to skate around central Ontario and go into schools and talk to students about HIV/AIDS. You should come with us.”
Savoy thought that sounded crazy. She asked Rick how long he’d been skating and he said, “Well, I’ve never skated before.” He went on to tell her that Rollerblade was going to sponsor the project.
It sounded too good to be true but the next week they went to the Rollerblade office and left with brand new skates and safety gear. They were one step closer, but Savoy was still skeptical. “At least I’ve got new equipment,” she thought, “but this isn’t going to happen.”
Rick was undaunted. Soon Bell Canada had sponsored them with mobile phone service and Rick started dreaming of getting a van and free hotel stays. Enough was certain that Savoy thought it was time to see if the guys would be able to skate long distance. They left for Hamilton – almost 80 kilometres away. When they left, only Savoy knew how to skate. Rick kept stopping to smoke and Daniel, was so unsure on his feet that he skated in little steps like a penguin. But they persisted and made it to Hamilton.
Even after that success Savoy wanted to say “Don’t do any more work. All these things are great, but we can’t do it.”
But before she could say anything Rick said: “We need a Winnebago.”
A few days later she saw Rick again. “We’ve got the Winnebago!” He had put an ad in the paper and someone offered theirs to use for free. And there it was outside the Toronto People with AIDS Foundation office with a big sign on the back. One of the speakers, an HIV+ man who was going to be on the trip offered to drive. Another woman signed on to ride a motorcycle in front of them, keeping the skaters safe between the Winnebago and a motorcycle.
Then one hotel signed on, and another.
Off they went. In the end they skated from Toronto to Sudbury, North Bay to Ottawa to Kingston and back to Toronto staying in hotels and campgrounds along they way. Every day they would stop at schools to speak. In the end, someone who had no skating experience, no equipment, and no support turned an idea into reality, skating for 21 days and over 1,600 kilometres.
What I love about this story is the assumption that whatever she is working on is happening. She will skate 1,600 kilometres to help provide education about HIV/AIDS, women will have a boxing gym, a woman in trouble will get to safety, people on the streets will be cared for. The result is 100% commitment on her part.
This doesn’t mean she never questions herself. She told me how every time she would fight, just before the first round she would stand in the ring thinking “Oh my God, what am I doing?” and go in and get it done – not doubting herself so much as thinking “Wow, I guess I’m really doing this – it’s going to be tough!”
This same attitude of “This is going to happen” is what has helped her first to build a community and then to get things done with them. When Savoy sends a message saying “Hey! We’re going to make sure a bunch of families have a holiday dinner. Together we can make a difference.” We believe her because together with her we have done it before. After successfully learning to believe she can succeed at huge things, she’s convinced all of us around her that we can too.
I finish the interview over two and a half hours later, amazed and inspired. I’ve met lots of people who have done amazing things, but Savoy is unique in that she makes those who meet her understand that they can do amazing things too.
To see more about Toronto Newsgirls and the impact they have you can watch below:
And to see more about the Shape Your Life program for Women & Trans victims of violence that Savoy ran you can watch here: