For the past 2 months I’ve had the pleasure of exercising with not one, not two, not even 3, but several personal trainers that come to me and on my schedule. Not only is this convenient, but it’s also inexpensive and for a good cause. Hard to believe but this is real life. It’s InnerCity Weightlifting, called ICW for short, and it’s the answer to the 2 most common New Year’s resolutions: get in shape and give back.
In 2009, Jon Feinman funneled his passion for weightlifting into InnerCity Weightlifting, a nonprofit promoting professional, personal and academic achievement among urban youth. The idea is to show at-risk kids they can be strong, smart and popular outside of gangs.
Jon and his almost identical-but-not-twin-brother Josh visit us at NERD twice a week with a team of ICW trainers. It’s fun, interactive and it got me interested in learning more about how this got started. I chatted with fellow Babson MBA Alum Jon about his road to ICW.
Q: Where did the idea for InnerCity Weightlifting come from?
Jon: In 2005 I spent a year with Americorps encouraging youth to participate in after school sports and other organized activities. I gravitated towards a group of young people in a gang. Getting to know them changed my perception of violent youth as I realized a few things. These kids had already been kicked out of other afterschool programs and/or weren’t interested in the choices available. Also, the bad decisions they made were based on the logic of the circumstances they faced.
There wasn’t a single kid that wanted to drop out of high school, go to jail, end up dead or loose a friend. I began thinking, if we could create an afterschool alternative they were interested in, they would take to it instead of the streets.
Q: Why weightlifting?
Jon: Our understanding and support from other studies shows that it’s the positive community and support that is so important to empowering young people to say no to violence/abuse. Weightlifting is a hook. It’s a common interest to build relationships and bring students into the positive community found inside ICW.
Weightlifting can also lead into a thriving career. We help our most committed students become certified personal trainers through the National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM).
Most importantly, the gym provides a place where people from all walks of life come together around a common interest—this is where the largest impact happens. Our students see that they can relate with anyone, gain valuable interpersonal skills, and gain hope for a future away from violence and out of poverty. Clients training with our students hear first-hand the struggles they’ve faced; jail time, violence, and death. They recognize our students for the good people they are, not the past decisions that others often use to stereotype and define them.
Q: What youth do you target?
Jon: In Boston, 1% of the city’s youth drive more than 70% of gun violence and 50% of homicides. Within that 1% there are approximately 300 young people who are the strongest influencers of their peers. These are our targets. We realize that progress takes time. We act as a catalyst for positive social change and stick with our students through good times and bad as they workout with us.
Q: What happens when they come to your gym?
Jon: They come and work out with us, it’s that simple. Some students come because a friend comes, others come because a social worker or lawyer referred them. Each student has different needs and various levels of risk. We developed a 3 stage program that helps everyone get on the right path.
Stage 1: Building a Relationship.
We need to earn their trust before we can help. We welcome them into the gym and make sure they know we enjoy their company and we want them here. We’re friendly but not aggressive because we want them to come back by choice. We reach out to them and observe their response rate. How often do they return our calls or texts, how often do they proactively reach out to us for help, and how engaged are they with the surrounding community when they’re at the gym? When we’re satisfied with this communication ratio, the student officially moves to stage 2, though this begins to happen simultaneously.
Stage 2: Building a Network.
As we get to know the students, we identify issues and refer them to organizations that help with emotional trauma, academic support and career planning. For those interested in becoming personal trainers, we introduce them to potential clients. For those interested in other careers, we reach out to our contacts and make connections in those fields when we can.
We introduced one of our students interested in culinary arts to one of our clients, the chef at Area 4. The client invited the student to shadow him and see what a career in the kitchen was like. It’s no surprise that the student had a great time. Now he has long term goals and is committed to a better future.
Stage 3: Path to Interdependence.
The students that reach this stage have shown commitment to a life free from violence. These students have a stable home, safe transportation and are distancing themselves from crime. In this stage our goals are to keep them in that positive mindset and motivated to take ownership over their own network they’ve developed in stage 2.
WOW. Thanks Jon! What an inspiring organization. I encourage all of you to visit their website, see more awesome pictures on Facebook, and talk to your employer about having ICW visit your office like they do with us. Which, by the way, you’re all invited to join us any Tuesday or Thursday at NERD. Email Kayt Racz at firstname.lastname@example.org if you’re interested and we’ll see you soon.
**Thank you Kayt Racz for helping with this interview and more importantly, being a dedicated ICW customer.