(Featured Photograph by John Huet)
Alexandra “Ali” Fuller is the CEO and founder of Level Ground (LG), an organization that cultivates resilience and grit in urban youth through the practice of Mixed Martial Arts (MMA). By teaching these values both on and off the mat, LG inspires youths to pursue their ambitions in martial arts training and through the Student Trainer Certification and College Access programs offered at the facility.
Level Ground has evolved drastically in the three years since they launched the company. “We started off just doing mixed martial arts with three students in urban Boston. [We] wanted to see what it would look like to bring the sports of Brazilian jujitsu and muay Thai boxing into the urban area,” says Ali. Ali and her lead instructor were practitioners themselves and recognized that at an average cost of $150/month, MMA gym memberships were largely inaccessible to lower income families.
Since Ali is a youth worker by trade and has been involved in various non-profits, she took a particular interest in using the sport as a positive development model for the urban youth. Ali explained that the young people who come to train at LG are incredibly great people, but some have been given a different internal narrative about themselves and their abilities. This negative narrative is often dictated to them by their environment, their neighborhoods, their schools, their peers and unfortunately sometimes their families. Ali says that as a result, “the net effect is that many of the youth do not believe in themselves, and it causes them to not appreciate how much they have to offer the world.”
Ali’s inspiration and the LG company mission is to use the sport of MMA to unleash their students’ power, and to show their students how much they can do and how awesome they can be when they embrace their positive identity instead of a negative narrative. Ali summed it up with her favorite quote: “To love is to reveal another person’s beauty to themselves.”
As it turns out, MMA is the perfect sport to carry this message and accomplish this mission. It is a very rigorous sport, requiring physical discipline and focus, but at the same time it is a sport that causes a student to develop mental strength, humility, self-control and collaboration skills. In order to progress in the sport, the student is required to develop abilities that can also pay off in life outside the studio.
In the last three years, those initial students went in number from three to five, and then five became ten, growing until their membership proved that it was time to start building LG on another level. At that point, Ali began developing the LG model of engaging youth through training in MMA, and she was able to use that platform as an entry point to help direct the youth on college access success tracks and workforce development career paths. To date, all of the graduating seniors that have engaged with LG for at least 6 months have transitioned successfully either to college or meaningful employment, if not both.
As a positive outcome from their success, LG has outgrown their temporary space at the Egleston Square YMCA. In order to achieve their company goals for growth and continued positive impact they are opening a new training center this January 2017 in North Dorchester. The new 6700 sq. ft. space will function as both an athletic and academic training center, complete with an academic center with a computer lab, research library for the youth, and a personal training studio called the Beat 58 Training Studio. The new training center will allow LG to provide greater services to larger numbers of youth and will be open everyday, which was than was previously unavailable.
Last year, LG developed an in-house job development training program for their students interested in becoming fitness professionals, personal trainers, gym managers, and fitness instructors. In this program, also offered at the new facility, the students complete an intensive training and then get linked to a six-month internship at a Boston-based gym. The goal is that by six months at the latest, these interns will be able to transition into permanent employment at that particular gym.
The new facility will be hosting free and discounted learning services led by their students. They also will be working to expand the opportunities to engage the community in fitness through mixed marital arts. In order to make this amazing sport accessible to as many people who want to train as possible, they will offer mixed martial arts memberships at a sliding scale membership to all Boston residents starting at $30/month and increasing based on what people feel they can pay. What’s even better? Membership will always be free to children and teens.
Ali has been an Impact Hub Boston (IHB) member for about 2 years. “IHB has helped in a variety of ways, including allowing us to host events out of the space that were open to the community, the connections – probably a third of my network came from attending an IHB event or activity – and the open culture of allowing young people to come here for our programs. I really appreciate that IHB has embraced the students with open arms because it’s allowed the students to learn how to not just function and thrive within a professional environment but also to feel comfortable and confident, as though they belong here. Now they can see themselves being anything: a mixed martial artist, an electrician, or doing something like a startup in the financial district. The sky is the limit, and IHB really drove that home for them,” says Ali.
If you would like to get involved in helping the LG mission, here are a number of ways you can pitch in:
- Volunteer to be a tutor or a mentor to an LG student.
- Share your knowledge with our students by delivering a skills-based professional development workshop (ex: resume building).
- Come in to train! Starting in March LG will offer classes 3 times a week at $30 a month, and in May classes will be offered 5 days a week.
- Donate to our Indiegogo: Let’s build the first free, youth-managed MMA gym!
- Share our Indiegogo campaign on your social media. Even if you can’t donate, you can still make a big impact by spreading the word.