Last Thursday I had the privilege of attending Fight for Children’s annual fundraiser Fight Night. This was year 26 for the event and it brought in a staggering $5 million. The money, which is already committed to supporting Fight for Children’s re-focused mission of strengthening early childhood education, only tells part of the story. Come with me inside the Washington Hilton Hotel and I will explain the rest through the words of others.
Upon my arrival I was extremely fortunate to be standing right next to Raul Fernandez, Fight for Children’s chairman. I inquired of Mr. Fernandez what was special about this evening. He answered as if he knew what I was going to ask. “With the tremendous assistance of Under Armour we are paying respect to Joseph E. Robert, Jr. who passed away at the end of 2011. This year we are bringing Fight Night to an upgraded exciting level. We are honoring Muhammad Ali, and for young people across the world there is no better role model than him. He is, in fact, no better role model for what as an organization we are trying to achieve.”
Soon it was time for the 2,000 men dressed in black tie and 280 hostesses wearing red and gold cocktail dresses to enter the ballroom. If you have never seen this space in person you are missing one of the great wonders of the world. With the boxing ring/stage planted right in the center, complete with an electronic scrolling ticker-tape billboard across the top of the square perimeter, and laser lights shooting across the ceiling carrying with them the sound of the band performing boisterous southern rock and roll songs, it as if your senses have gone into overload.
New for 2015 was the placement of tall words on the walls of the room that comprise Mr. Ali’s six core principles. These included “confidence, conviction, dedication, giving, respect, and spirituality. The values were also included in a well-produced video about the boxer. It was soon after arriving at this location that I saw Michela English, the Fight for Children president and CEO. I wanted to know from her what she was looking forward to about the evening. “Well, we are going to reach a fundraising level for the history of the event. We were trying to attract a younger audience to Fight Night and we have achieved that goal. With the contributions of everyone here we are really going to move the dial when it comes to early childhood education.”
Ms. English’s comments made me realize that I was witnessing nothing less than the transformation of Fight for Children. Fight Night appeared the same as the first time I had attended eight years ago. There were open bars wherever you looked. The steaks still overflowed the dinner plates. Once again entertainers, on this occasion Frank Sinatra, Jr. and The Orchestra, a band comprised of members of the former Electric Light Orchestra, brought bright energy to the guests. Yet, there were changes, perhaps subtle at first. The food was more plentiful, the performances were expanded, and there was not an empty seat in the house.
When Under Armour’s Kevin Plank addressed the crowd he could not conceal his excitement. “This is the largest Fight Night in its long tradition. It is a real tribute to Joe’s work. This is so cool, I have never seen anything like this. It is simply amazing.”
As Fight for Children retools its annual School Quality Awards luncheon, as it adds its Ahead of the Curve professional development conferences with the help of the DC Public Charter School Board, and as it seeks to redefine what preschool is really all about, it is as if the celebration was about two distinct tracks. We were there, of course, to celebrate the philanthropic legacy of Joe Robert, and too, we were witnessing a towering resurgence in the group he founded in 1990 to help kids living in poverty through strengthening their health and education. I came to understand that the principles of Mr. Muhammad Ali were actually the core tenets of our hosts.