Profile: Savoy Howe

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.

Photo provided by Savoy Howe, Photo Credit: Lisa MacIntosh

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:

8 thoughts on “Profile: Savoy Howe

  1. One of my favorite quotes is “do the next thing that needs doing.” Sounds as if Savoy really takes that to heart. Thanks for introducing me to her and her efforts.

  2. Another amazingly inspiring story. More power to Savoy and her endeavors. While many of us just keep thinking we want to do something and actually never land up doing any real thing, there’s people like Savoy who make things happen. Thank you for bringing her story to us.

    1. Really happy to share her story with everyone. What I love about inspiring people like her is that in small ways their stories often stick with us. We find ourselves in a situation, remember how we felt after hearing their story and say “Well, what would Savoy do?” for example. Then we just go and get it done.

      I’m far from a psychologist but more and more I think that how we behave, what we try and succeed at – or for that matter the bad things we do – are dictated by stories we have internalized. Even in little ways. Those Amazing Race Australia people that I talked about in the previous entry just did small things. They were on a TV show for crying out loud, not motivational speakers. But seeing so many of them faced with a task they didn’t want to do but doing their best to get it done without whinging about it and even having fun with it was so damned inspiring. I literally thought of it many times, but definitely one night where it was already late and I had several things on my to-do list that I told myself I would do. I could’ve put it all off but then I just took a page out of their book. I dove in, made a good dinner, did some studying and exercise too. And it wasn’t that bad.

      So what happens if we change our stories? The stories about what we are capable of, the stories of what we expect of ourselves, our sons and spouses, or fellow citizens. I think the whole world could change.

      1. I think so. We limit ourselves and sometimes our whole behaviour seems to draw from some sort of cultural narrative of what we think happens.

        Right now we have tons of people who’ve decided that you get to a certain point and then you can’t social distance anymore or wear a mask. You just reach a point and won’t do it. There’s even a name here. “COVID-Fatigue”.

        We have stories in our cultures about how badly some men behave when women break up with them. You can tell the power of our stories by what happens. It’s all horrible but it is also different enough to see that there’s a sort of script we all think we need to follow.

        In the US I watched a new script be written. In the 80’s there was a workplace shooting at a post office – maybe even more than one. The phrase “Going postal” was coined to describe that. In the beginning people joked about it: The guy being bullied at work might just come in someday and do that. It rarely happened. But then it happened more and more. And now, in the US it’s a story some men tell themselves. “I can only take so much and then I get to a point where the thing people do is shoot lots of people.”

        The good thing is that though it’s hard, these narratives can be changed – and it starts with our becoming aware of them. To watch when we don’t even try because we know it won’t work. We can also change our negative stories. I used to have one that I picked up from my dad: When you’re angry, drive fast and recklessly and that’s what would happen. I’d argue with my parents, storm out of the house, get in my car and roar out the driveway like I was in a movie. I had that habit until probably my mid 20’s when I realized how horrible it was for those who had to deal with me, and how dangerous it was as well. And I found more healthy ways to deal with that.

        Wow – that’s almost an entry in and of itself, isn’t it?

  3. Haha…that’s indeed like an entry. Quite a sneak peek into cultures that I wasn’t aware of. There are so many such examples here as well. “Covid-fatigue” is quite a term, haven’t heard that here so far but then the behavior is just the same. People do wear masks but it most cases it hangs at their chin, and most people don’t seem to care anymore. Other things like causing inconvenience to others just because something suits us is far too common in India and am sure you might have noticed it too. And, the personal example you gave is so much relatable. Like, I used to think I need to raise my voice and speak in an angry tone to get things done in certain public places. Or, there are times when people like plumbers or electricians that come home for fix things don’t do their job properly and I feel like I am being cheated and I just get outright rude with them. The latter happens even now. The only difference is that I am mindful now and try to correct myself at the moment, not always with success though.

    1. For me the trick has been to try to cultivate awareness and curiousity about myself. Watch my behaviour and ask myself why it’s happening. With practice I hope to learn to get even better at taking that few seconds to see what’s happening and short-circuit the bad behaviours before they happen.

      My internal narrative is that this sort of change is possible and so I’m sure it is.

      1. That’s a good suggestions. I do have internal narratives but on other things, for e.g. when the actions of others make me unhappy, I remind myself that I have no control on what they do or say. I only have control my own actions and I better make them good.

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