Jon Feinman has a simple but powerful idea: Give gangbangers hope.
For two years, that idea has had a permanent home in a 4,000-square-foot gym in Dorchester, where Feinman and a crew of coaches give Boston’s most troubled young men a place to escape from the streets and a chance to become personal fitness trainers.
How tough are these guys? They all have criminal records, and, as Feinman puts it, they are the ones on the streets of Boston who shoot or get shot at. But Feinman believes that through his InnerCity Weightlifting program, he can turn their lives around by putting them in a safe environment and exposing them to people who are not like them.
Come February or so, his theory will face the ultimate test when he opens a gym in Kendall Square, the playground of computer geniuses, scientists, venture capitalists, and entrepreneurs. It’s an expensive proposition for a nonprofit — a $1.5 million lease over five years, for which InnerCity Weightlifting is still fund-raising. But Feinman, InnerCity’s founder and executive director, feels certain this is exactly where his program needs to be if the goal is to get men on a path out of their dangerous world and into one with possibilities. “We felt it was a greater risk not to make this investment,” says 31-year-old Feinman, who himself worked as a personal trainer and earned an MBA from Babson College before launching InnerCity.
Will his plan work? Part of Feinman’s confidence comes from the fact that InnerCity has already been running a social experiment in Kendall Square. For two years, it has been sending personal trainers twice a week to Microsoft’s New England headquarters in Cambridge, where about 30 employees and their spouses have been clients. Every Tuesday and Thursday, InnerCity takes over a conference room — usually used for colloquiums and video broadcasts — and turns it into a workout space. Out come the mats, kettle bells, and stretchy bands. There is sweating and grunting as a coach and two student-trainers push nerds to the limit.
It’s a case of worlds colliding: InnerCity’s recruits come from households with incomes of less than $10,000 a year, whereas working in Cambridge they’ll be among those whose median family income is closer to $100,000 a year. The concept is so starkly simple you can’t help but wonder if it could succeed. Can we lift people up from the bottom by exposing them to the people at the top?
Something has to give here. Poverty and the lack of opportunity persist generation to generation, with 43 percent of Americans who were raised at the bottom of the income ladder remaining there as adults, according to research by Pew Charitable Trusts. The converse is true, too: Sixty-six percent of those born with a silver spoon in their mouth stayed near the top of the wealth charts.
From a practical standpoint, InnerCity’s foray into Cambridge makes sense. Kendall Square’s employees have the disposable income to afford fitness training, and for InnerCity’s trainees, Cambridge shows them a world they can be part of, where violence has no value.
Overall, InnerCity’s results look promising: a 78 percent reduction in violent crime among the 150 people (including two women) currently enrolled in the program. Nearly two dozen of them have become certified personal trainers, many earning an honest living for the first time. Feinman realizes most will not end up as professional trainers, but the skills, support system, and contacts they gain through the program will help them find jobs in other fields. InnerCity shows many of them that there’s an alternative to winding up in jail or killed on the street.
For Jarreau Pelote, the program has been life changing. After serving five years in a federal prison for firearms possession, Pelote enrolled in InnerCity’s program about 18 months ago and has been part of the crew going to Kendall Square.
“Before then, someone could have dropped me off in Kendall, I wouldn’t have known I was in Kendall,” says Pelote, 30, who lives about 5 miles away in Roxbury. He knew Kendall Square was in Cambridge and that it’s a center for business. He likes how it’s clean and quiet compared with his usual stamping ground. “It’s a fresh breath of air,” he says.
“I used to be able to smell prison,” he says. “You go to prison enough you can smell it coming. You can smell your future going down the drain.” Today he’s making a living, bringing home about $1,000 a month, which allows him to do things many take for granted: Pay the rent, put food on the table, buy clothes. And he sleeps better. “I do nothing illegal,” he says. “That’s a big step.”
Being around Microsoft has opened his eyes, and he finds himself “into the whole business thing.” He wants to be a personal trainer, and through InnerCity, he’s making connections. One of them is Greg Lewis, a 34-year-old Microsoft researcher who began working out with InnerCity in October. Each group session costs $30 per person; on a recent visit, coach Rome O’Brien and two student trainers, Pelote and Angel LaCourt, put Lewis and two other clients through their paces.
If not for InnerCity, Lewis would never find himself interacting with folks from the rough parts of Boston. Previously, his workouts were more focused on doing yoga or climbing at hipster gym Brooklyn Boulders in Somerville. “If anything,” Lewis observes, “the world is getting more isolated.”
Among the biggest barriers Feinman wants to break are the ones in our own heads.
“There’s a perception that they don’t care. It’s easy to write them off,” he says of those enrolled in his program. “Our students do really care. What they lack is hope. How do we create that hope?”
The answer could be as simple as one gym at a time.
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