InnerCity Weightlifting builds a lot more than muscle. “We have students who are taking vacations for the first time in their lives. They’re able to afford rent. They’re able to afford food. They’re able to look forward to tomorrow because they know it’s going to happen,” says executive director Jon Feinman, who launched the nonprofit in 2010 during his final semester of MBA studies at Babson, drawing on his own experience as a personal trainer and his time in AmeriCorps working with young men in the gang MS-13. Today, InnerCity Weightlifting targets young people at the greatest risk for street violence, training and employing them as personal trainers in its Kendall Square and Dorchester gyms. In the past two years, Feinman has seen the average monthly income for his top student trainers rise from $600 to $3,796. But the social capital students develop can be even more powerful than the paychecks.
“We actually just had one student, someone who’s had multiple gun charges, get placed in an internship with MIT in the civil engineering department,” Feinman says. “We have other students who are having dinner at the homes of our clients who are CEOs and partners at law firms and venture capital companies out in Lexington and Weston and Wellesley.” The impact on clients can be transformative too, and Feinman aims to reshape perceptions as much as physiques. “Our clients are overwhelmingly white and affluent and have never known anyone who’s gone to jail, never mind someone who’s been shot,” he explains. “I think what really makes our model work is that the same people who are supposed to be the most dangerous are some of the most caring people you’re ever going to meet.”
“Our students have absolutely been the biggest influence on who I am today and have really helped develop my views on the world—and how we have so much to benefit from connecting with each other rather than avoiding each other…. These are people I’ve been told to stay away from. When I first came to Boston, I was told, ‘Don’t cross Mass. Ave. on Tremont Street. Don’t go too far down West Newton Street.’ I was told to avoid these areas and fell into this system of segregation and isolation. And that wasn’t necessarily done with bad intentions. When these things are happening in certain communities, your instinct is to avoid—but that very avoidance creates the circumstances that ultimately lead to cutting the community off from resources, to lack of access to opportunity, to inequality, to the need for the street, which leads to more violence, more logical decisions to avoid a certain area. I certainly fell into that when I first moved to Boston. Now I live on the other side of Mass. Ave. There’s no one who can tell me to not go into a certain section or down a certain street. And the reason is I’ve met our students. I know who our students are as people, not just the stories in the news.”