Executive Director & Founder, InnerCity Weightlifting
What is it that drives a kid from the predominately white, middle-class college town of Amherst, Massachusetts, to devote his life to the most at-risk youth in Boston's most violent neighborhoods?
Maybe it's stories like that of one young man we'll call "Ray," who got caught up in gang violence when he was only in the sixth grade. Ray was one of the first students to enroll in InnerCity Weightlifting, a Boston-based organization charged with, in the words of its mission statement, "empowering young people with the confidence to say no to violence and yes to opportunity." Within a week of enrolling, Ray was stabbed seven times. Yet, he kept coming back to practices. Although over the last several years he has faced a rocky road that included jail time and other assaults, today Ray is out of jail, off probation, and working toward his GED, dreaming of becoming a personal trainer.
Stories like Ray's are what motivated Jon Feinman to found InnerCity Weightlifting in January 2010, in the neighborhood of East Boston. Not surprisingly, given the nature of his organization, Jon's career was determined by athletics. Just 5'2" and 118 pounds in high school, "I was an undersized athlete my whole life," he shares.
It was while he was a teenager that Jon met the coach whose impact still reverberates today. Described by Jon as "also an undersized athlete," the coach, Nathaniel Ogedegbe, was a member of the Nigerian national team, who recruited Jon to help him coach at soccer camps. "He taught me lessons I still use today," Jon says. For example, there was a time when Nathaniel asked the campers who wanted to become a professional soccer player one day. "By far the worst player raised his hand. You could hear the other kids snickering," Jon recalls. "But the coach told him, 'If you put in the time and effort, you'll be a professional.'"
Nathaniel himself proved the truth of his own words when he began studying engineering—despite those who told him he couldn't be successful. "He went from being on the national soccer team for Nigeria to professional engineer, just because people said he couldn't do it," Jon says. "He had the last laugh."
Soccer Balls and Barbells: It's All About Helping Kids
Jon attended college on a soccer scholarship, and after graduation, he spent a year with AmeriCorps, a national service organization. He was assigned to East Boston and began his service working with elementary school children, organizing sports activities. Yet, he found himself relating more to the older youths—the ones who were being drawn into gang violence. "There were few organizations willing to work with these students," says Jon, "and even fewer they wanted to be part of."
The more Jon got to know these students, however, the more he understood that they were victims of their circumstances—and that it wasn't too late for them to realize their potential. "Everyone was writing them off instead of giving them a chance," he says. "Yes, they were making horrible decisions, but there was logic to it. They were making decisions based on the life they knew. What they really needed was to develop a logical alternative to the streets."
Not too far into the future, Jon would become someone to do just that. At the time, however, he was a young man just starting his career. Upon leaving AmeriCorps, he became a full-time personal trainer, earning "in the six figures," as he describes it. He never forgot the gang members he had met in East Boston, however, until he finally decided to push himself to earn an MBA and start an organization that could reach that population. That organization is InnerCity Weightlifting.
Helping to Lift the Weight of Dire Circumstances
In a nutshell, InnerCity Weightlifting works toward systemic change: creating a safer city by reducing violence and promoting achievement among, as Jon puts it, "a population recognized by police and the community as most likely to shoot or be shot." It's a highly targeted population of only about 300 youths, Jon estimates. Yet, Jon reveals that "demand outweighs resources," and the program currently has a waiting list.
According to Jon, research suggests that four factors have the greatest impact on recidivism: antisocial peers, an antisocial personality, an antisocial attitude, and antisocial behavior. InnerCity Weightlifting focuses on two of those factors—antisocial peers and antisocial attitudes. Ironically, according to Jon, "weightlifting is the least important of what we do." The organization also offers adult mentorship, academic support, and career opportunities with InnerCity Weightlifting and in personal training. Counseling services are also available through partner organizations.
First, though, they have to get the kids there. "We can't force change," Jon points out. "What we have to do is create an environment that empowers students to want to change." To do that, Jon and his staff of three full-time administrators, nine volunteer coaches, and twelve board members focus on making sure students are having fun and keep coming back. They also accentuate the positive and give the students what they often don't get elsewhere: support—and a visceral understanding that people care about what they make of themselves.
Community Support—and Resistance
InnerCity Weightlifting now operates in six locations in Boston, with one facility each in East Boston and Mattapan and two each in Dorchester and Roxbury. The surrounding community is integral to the organization's success. "InnerCity Weightlifting is a place where people can see that these students are not sociopathic people, but rather kids who've grown up facing devastating circumstances," says Jon. Qualifying students can shadow personal trainers at the facilities and even begin earning a living by providing training services to members of the local community while working toward certification in the field.
Still, not every community welcomes the organization. When InnerCity Weightlifting tried to open a facility in South Boston recently, the building was tagged with graffiti that contained what Jon calls "questionable symbols," and a local politician threatened publicly in a community meeting to "do everything possible to prevent us from opening," Jon reports. While Jon believes that these were isolated incidents and not representative of the community at large, he decided not to go forward with the move, for the safety of his students. "That's the downside of working with our population," he says. "A lot of people are hesitant to have us around. What some people don't understand is that, with the right opportunities and support, our students can be incredibly positive members of society."
That opinion is shared by Alan and Harriet Lewis, co-chairs of Grand Circle Foundation, who have supported InnerCity Weightlifting, not only with funding, but also with their involvement. "Alan and Harriet have been great," Jon raves. "We're very grateful for the funding, but they've gone even further than that. They've also assisted us with the development of the program, given us advice, and connected us with other organizations." Jon points out that this collaboration with other nonprofits allows all of them to leverage their resources to help create the systemic change he seeks.
To Jon, Foundation support means something to the students, too. "For a wealthy travel organization to fund us shows them that the community does support them, that people do care," he says.
Creating Change into the Future
Jon's vision for the future of his organization is to roll it out nationally, "once we get the model right in Boston," as he puts it. To judge the progress being made, he has set out criteria that measure whether students are spending less time on the street, whether they are making positive social choices, and whether InnerCity Weightlifting is succeeding in reducing youth violence in the city.
What means the most to him, however, is the relationships he has been able to forge with the students in his care. "They've changed me more than I've changed them," he says modestly. "I'm just a little white guy from Amherst, and they have let us into their lives."
Jon is proud that, when his students find themselves in difficult situations now, they often reach out to him with phone calls or text messages. "That's the most important thing to me," he says, "that if they have to make a difficult decision, they call us. After all, this program isn't about me. It's about everyone coming together."
Still, it's a force for positive change that never would have occurred if not for the kid from Amherst.
Featured in our March 2012 E-Newsletter. Read the full issue here.