InnerCity Weightlifting: The Hidden Gym in Kendall Square

innercity weightliftingPhoto by Chrissy Bulakites.

There’s a new gym in Cambridge. It’s brightly lit and features brand new equipment, interior grassy turf, showers, a team of welcoming but challenging personal trainers and a resident pit bull named Blizzard who innocently darts between the weight cages. It might sound like a typical gym, save the dog, but there’s one thing about this place most people won’t know: its location.

InnerCity Weightlifting (ICW) is a nonprofit organization founded in 2010 with two secret locations, the newest of which is somewhere in Kendall Square. At ICW, the staff instructs and employs young people from some of the Boston area’s roughest neighborhoods to work as personal trainers. These young people are part of a group known as “high impact,” a term used to describe the population that is responsible for a disproportionate amount of violence in the city. Put quantitatively, “disproportionate” means 1 percent of young people are responsible for 70 percent of the violence in the Boston. The 1 percent are both victims and perpetrators of crime, some of them joining the system of violence when they are barely adolescent.

“No one wants to be dead or in jail,” says Jon Feinman, 32, who is the executive director and founder of ICW. Most of the students who enter the gym don’t know if they’ll be alive in six months. Instilling hope is ICW’s first measure of success with students. Only after you’ve accomplished that first step, Feinman says, can you focus on jobs, education and staying out of prison.

First and foremost, ICW offers a place for these young people to go and be safe. Over time, students can learn to work as personal trainers themselves, eventually becoming certified through the National Academy of Sports Medicine.

Certifying students as trainers “provides two things,” Feinman explains. “First, it creates economic mobility for our students, because they’re coming from family incomes of less than $10,000 a year … Second, and perhaps most important, is that it creates social inclusion.” Many of the students, he elaborates, grew up isolated within their violent neighborhoods and are unaware of more positive social and professional networks.

innercity weightlifting

Bringing the organization to a place like Kendall Square is particularly important for the social inclusion piece of the puzzle. “The gym and personal training puts our students in touch with people from Microsoft, people from Google, people from Biogen, people living in better socioeconomic demographics, which connects [students] to opportunities outside the gym,” Feinman says. These connections can lead to academic engagement and even to job shadowing positions and different career opportunities.

The clients of the student trainers—many of them from the corporate or startup world—are able to have an hour-long training session for $25. Clients bond with their trainers, who they likely wouldn’t have met outside of the gym.

When asked what was most surprising when starting ICW, Feinman explains the sharp contrast between how outsiders of the program spoke about ICW’s target student population and the reality that these young people inhabit. “People wrote them off, because they thought they didn’t care,” he says, “when in truth they care so much they’re willing to lose their life to a bullet or to jail to protect what little they do have.”

One story to come out of ICW is Eric Flores, 25, one of the program’s student trainers. When you meet Flores at ICW, he flashes the most infectious smile and fills the gym with his resounding laugh. In 2009, at the age of 19, Flores defended himself in federal court. He crafted his entire defense behind bars, without legal counsel. His family members had to pick up the forms he needed to fill out in order to represent himself at the courthouse and deliver them to him in prison.

Flores argued, under writ of habeas corpus, that the state was holding him unconstitutionally—he had been detained for 22 months without a bail hearing for possession with intent to distribute of 12 grams of marijuana. Flores, who is and was living in the country legally as a permanent resident, immigrated to Dorchester from Panama with his family when he was five years old. The Department of Immigration was attempting to deport him for the marijuana charge. Flores presented an argument that there was not only no proof of his intent to distribute, lessening his charge from a felony to a misdemeanor, but also that he had been denied his due process.

When I ask Flores how he pulled together his defense, he explains, rather simply, “I always got A’s and B’s in reading comprehension and math. That’s all you need in life.”

In fact, when Flores was in sixth grade he demonstrated college level reading skills, but without other examples of success he found more promise in the streets.

As an adult, Flores applied his intellect and drive to get himself out of prison. “While guys were playing dominoes, gambling, playing poker, I was in the law library learning the constitution and interpreting penalties,” Flores recalls.

He won his case, and on December 31, 2009, the state released him. In the years following, he worked construction, and eventually ended up at ICW in 2013 after feeling the construction company would never advance him (despite promising they would). Not wanting to be taken advantage of, but also trying to avoid immersing himself in the crime of his old neighborhood, he recalls, “I told Jizzy [Jon Feinman] I needed something positive in my life, positive structure.”

innercity weightlifting

When I train with Flores, the only obvious relics of his path to ICW I can see are a scar below his throat and a few memorial tattoos. One reads “Respect All, Fear None” across his chest. The eternal phrase, like the scar, found a place on his body after a knife fight he barely survived. It’s also a mantra he uses with his clients when they train, along with other truisms like “This is chess, not checkers,” reminding his clients of the importance of patience and thoughtful strategy—something he also instills in his children.

“I want to teach my kids how to fish,” Flores says. “I want to teach them the concept of being patient. Being patient, being still, being calm. Set the bait, and the fish will come. In life, if you get an education the money will come—same thing with fishing. Teach your kids to focus on education and not materialistic stuff.”