Weightlifting, Perception Shifting

innercity weightliftingPhoto by Chrissy Bulakites.

By the numbers alone, Innercity Weightlifting (ICW) has been doing pretty well since making its Kendall Square debut. Founder and CEO Jon Feinman anticipated there would be plenty of gains—both fitness and finance-wise—when he expanded to another location beyond the small, five-year-old flagship in Dorchester back in 2015, but the numbers are nonetheless striking.

“Our revenue has doubled in two years,” Feinman says proudly, “and our income has grown by over 1,000 percent.” ICW has grown on the programming side, too, and now offers corporate training packages, a summer outdoor workout series and other special events. The spacious Kendall Square facilities are full of energy, bright light and brand-new showers and equipment.

Shiny new features aside, ICW is a bit different from the boutique gyms that are popping up around town. For one, it’s a nonprofit; for another, it offers personal training sessions at the low, low price of $25. There’s also the fact that the location is kept a secret. But what’s really special is that the gym’s trainers are primarily young men from areas of the city most traumatized from violence.

The mission of ICW is nuanced. The staff talks about decreasing the recidivism rate in the city, but their goal, first and foremost, is to instill hope in young people born into neighborhoods with violence and poverty. ICW, Feinman says, helps trainers by giving them a form of secure employment. It also builds social networks and safety nets—two things many people don’t realize they have to lean on in ways others do not—and creates a perception shift. Over the last two years, many of the student trainers have built lasting relationships with clients in the Cambridge and Dorchester communities.

Consequently, ICW’s growth—while undoubtedly great on paper—has a pointed impact. More income for the trainers can translate to a very different lifestyle and outlook. “We have guys who can afford rent,” Feinman says. “We have guys who can go on a vacation now.”

Vacation, which may seem like a ritual to some families, is an integral step up for those who have persevered through poverty. For the first 20 years of their lives, many of the student trainers at ICW haven’t felt security or considered the future in a way that those who are able to take a trip or confidently pay rent have.

“If I had to worry about rent when I was younger instead of focusing on school, I would have made different decisions,” Feinman explains. Providing financial mobility and social connections, therefore, has a deeper impact than just purchasing power. It provides an emotional shift that influences what students are able to focus on and prioritize.

ICW’s success is unfolding in a time where race and immigration issues are weighing heavily on the public discourse and in many people’s minds. “While we saw the shock in our clients’ and staff’s faces [after the election], this is also what we’ve always known,” Feinman says. Most of ICW’s student trainers are Black and Latino. “Racism didn’t start with Donald Trump. The saddest part is that this is how it’s always been, but now it’s upfront and in our faces.”

“Police brutality didn’t begin in 2007 with the invention of the iPhone … There have been multiple times I’ve been pulled over while parked in a parking lot and the only people in the car ID’d are student trainers,” adds Feinman, who is white.

But the success of the Kendall Square gym—where the target clientele might make upwards of six figures—brings a source of hope while reaffirming a critical piece of the social networking mission of ICW. Feinman recounts multiple relationships between clients and student trainers who have become a part of each other’s lives outside of the gym. He thinks that if more people could connect across race and socioeconomic lines, that the systemic issues that perpetuate racism and inequality might start to melt away.

While it can feel daunting, thinking about ways to dismantle a system that encourages people to see each other in silos, Feinman is optimistic. He gets to see a microcosm of that change at ICW.

“Despite how society has labeled our students as ‘the problem,’ our clients get to see that these student trainers are not thugs or gang members or criminals, but heroes,” he says.

This story originally appeared in the September/October issue of Scout Cambridge, which is available for free at more than 200 locations throughout the city or by subscription.

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