LUTA's Fight For Change
In the Complexo del Maré favela in Rio de Janeiro, there is an empty space along a clothing line where a Luta Pela Paz boxer’s colors hung the night before. Luke Dowdney has seen dozens of similar thefts since creating T-shirts for the young boxers he trains at Luta Pela Paz (“Fight for Peace”), a club he began in 2000 for at-risk youth.
More than 80 percent of the favela’s youth get caught in some of the world’s most deadly gang life in their search for an identity. Dowdney sees his LUTA brand as a way to avoid that life.
“These shirts have become a passport for our fighters,” explains Dowdney. “When they are wearing LUTA colors, the LUTA logo, they can cross gang lines without fear. We give our fighters these shirts, and they become their colors, they form an identity. But more and more our fighters began to find their shirts were being stolen off the favela clothing lines.”
LUTA began as a small social program for the NGO Viva Rio in 2000 but is now expanding to partner with boxing gyms across the U.S. Dowdney is in the process of launching his organization’s performance wear line, which sends 50 percent of its profits back to Luta Pela Paz and its fighters.
Dowdney is a former amateur boxer with a master’s degree in anthropology from the University of Edinburgh. He began canvassing the streets of Rio de Janeiro’s favelas 20 years ago, at first to research his master’s dissertation which examined the role of youth in the armed violence that stabilized the area’s drug trade. But now he’s determined to offer these youth the possibility of a future free of deadly gang activity and, most importantly, a sense of self worth.
To reach them, Dowdney spoke the language he knew best — boxing. The Luta Pela Paz boxing program is equipped with educational and social programs, allowing Dowdney to communicate with kids who have dropped out of school, sold cocaine to support their families and watched their friends get gunned down.
In five short years, thousands of youths have made their way through the club’s programs. Some, like Roberto Custódio, have become world-renowned boxers fighting for Brazil, while millions of dollars have been raised to fund the construction of the Fight for Peace Sports and Education Centre, a 1,200 square meter facility equipped with a boxing gym and state-of-the-art classrooms.
But it’s in the ring where the real work is done.
“These kids do not have anything handed to them,” Dowdney explains. “Everything they have they worked for. And that’s what you learn when you box: If you don’t train hard, you don’t prepare yourself, you don’t work towards it … you don’t win.”
Junior middleweight fighter Frank Galarza, an East New York native who wore LUTA during his last fight, is the perfect example of this. Galarza, after losing both of his parents at a young age – his mother to a drug overdose, his father complications to a gunshot wound — turned his life around through boxing. At Brooklyn’s Starrett City Boxing Gym, which Fight for Peace has recently partnered with, Galarza is creating a massive domino effect among the area’s youth.
Starrett City is just one of four New York gyms Fight for Peace is partnering with. Dowdney says during the next three years they hope to team up with at least 120 more organizations as they transition into other countries.
“These gyms already have the education and social programs,” he says. “We’re just looking to give them the extra tools and support they need to reach more kids. And having that LUTA shirt may help.”
When it came to LUTA’s aesthetic, Dowdney flew in a designer from London to Rio de Janeiro who wandered the favela to understand the community’s daily struggles and vibrancy, in turn developing the brand’s logo and colorway: yellows, reds, greens.
“Our logo is written in a graffiti font that originated here in Brazil, scrawled across the favelas. It really is iconic, there is nothing else out there like it,” Dowdney says. “As for the color scheme, we didn’t want it to be screaming and shouting, like some other performance brands opt for. We wanted it to be classic, but still tell of our heritage, where these fighters are coming from.”
Photos provided by LUTA