Boston's InnerCity Weightlifting offers trust, hope and economic mobility
The changes happening at Jon Feinman’s gyms are more than just physical.
He runs InnerCity Weightlifting, a nonprofit that helps former gang members get their personal training certifications — and connects them with paying clients. “The power dynamics get flipped in the gym,” Feinman tells PEOPLE. “They’re the valued experts, and clients are paying to learn from them. In turn, our students are accessing networks and opportunities and feeling like they belong in places that traditionally shut them out.”
He describes a surprising benefit for the clients as well. “Our clients, who are mostly white and affluent, may have not known anyone who has gone to jail before,” he explains. “Their world views are changing because now they are forced to reconcile with the reality that this same person who might be a scary statistic in the news — this same person is actually Joe.”
The idea started in 2006 with a random soccer ball rolling his way in East Boston, Mass. The Americorps volunteer found himself playing random pickup games with a group of guys — a handful of whom were members of the notorious MS13 street gang. “Everyone told me not to go near them because they were too dangerous,” Feinman tells PEOPLE. “But I had the opportunity to get to know them as people.”
As his volunteer year came to a close, he found himself thinking more about the difficult circumstances faced by these young men.
“I saw the overwhelming amount of segregation, isolation and racism that they were up against,” says Feinman, 36. “People wrote them off as, ‘They don’t care, and therefore they are not going to change.’ What I saw wasn’t a lack of care — but a lack of hope.”
Feinman grew up about two hours west in the city of Amherst and had long wanted to work with disenfranchised populations. “They have to worry about rent, food and utilities,” he says. “They take to the streets to deal with the very real challenges they face today, because if they don’t, tomorrow doesn’t necessarily exist for them. And then they go to jail and come out more segregated, more isolated and everyone calls them bad decision makers. But it’s perpetuated by circumstances.”
The guys were never far from his mind, even after AmeriCorps ended and Feinman became a high-end personal trainer to earn a living. At the urging of one of his clients, he went to business school and developed the idea for the nonprofit InnerCity Weightlifting, which aims to reduce street violence by providing opportunities for community and career development.
“Initially I thought we were going to get people into the Olympics and get them college athletic scholarships — it was everything that a white guy from Amherst would think would work,” Feinman says jokingly. “And then you start doing the work and you have guys that have been shot and paralyzed, guys going in and out of jail, people unfortunately who get killed. The idea that weight training was going to help solve someone’s problems was ridiculous.”
But soon, he realized what was valuable. It was not the weight training itself, but checking in via text a few times a week, asking someone to meet at a specific time to lift weights, showing up when he said he would. In those early days, Feinman would pick guys up who couldn’t get to the gym safely. He would help guys get their driver’s licenses by giving them a ride to the DMV, whatever he could do to build trust, accountability, hope and community.
Feinman added the career component to InnerCity Weightlifting in 2011 by helping students obtain their personal training certifications, but other gyms wouldn’t hire them because they had spent time in jail. So in 2012 he decided to open his own space in Dorchester where InnerCity Weightlifting students could generate their own jobs, and eventually their own revenue by charging clients for training sessions.
Of course, there have been difficulties along the way. One of his first students, Elexson, was killed in 2012 at 19 years old by rivals of his former gang after celebrating five years out of the judicial system. “That was obviously heartbreaking,” Feinman says. “We are really careful to know who we are and who we are not, what we can do and what we can’t. Our promise is never to solve someone’s problems, which is condescending. Our promise is simply to be there by someone’s side so they don’t have to solve their problems alone.”
These days the organization continues to expand. In 2015 Feinman opened a second location in Kendall Square in Cambridge, which serves as the primary personal training gym. One of the trainers there — after spending a combined 10 years in and out of jail — makes $60,000, pays rent and just took his family to Disneyland. There are now 35 official trainers and more than 130 students in the program, and ICW also offers corporate fitness classes and outdoor boot camps.
And while financial empowerment was always a goal, Feinman is also proud of the unexpected developments. “We realized something else was happening before the economic mobility,” he says. “And that’s this bridging of social capital.”
Looking ahead, Feinman hopes to one day expand the successful model nationally. According to the ICW website, 81 percent of students avoided incarceration in 2018 and the average hourly wage for all trainers in the program is more than $19.
In the meantime, the founder remains down to earth. “Some of the best advice I got is that I have no clue what I am doing. I haven’t been shot, I haven’t spent time in jail. I’m a white guy from Amherst. The only thing I can do is listen.”