Lifting Culture


JON FEINMAN
CEO – INNERCITY WEIGHTLIFTING

Reading Time: 6 minutes
I

grew up in an extremely comfortable bubble; it was all I knew. I come from a middle class home in Amherst, MA, where I never had to worry about my safety while playing soccer in the street with friends or wonder when my next meal would be. I worked hard enough on the field and in the classroom to receive a scholarship to Bryant University. I knew everyone wasn’t so fortunate.

When I started thinking about what I wanted to do for the rest of my life, I knew I wanted to stay involved in sports. I figured sports marketing would be an interesting career path, but jobs are in such high demand and don’t pay that well.

I decided to choose a different path and do a year in AmeriCorps. The program I worked in was called Athletes of America.

In training, we learned the kind of impact that we would have. We focused on running recess and after-school sports programs for kids. Lifting.

It turned out to be nothing like what I had imaged in training. I quickly realized three things:

  • First, I wasn’t going to change any lives in a year, at least not on a large scale. I wasn’t going to solve any of the incredibly complex problems going on in that short amount of time.
  • Second, I wanted to hit the ground running and work with young people who seemed the hardest to reach (I ended up building some relationships with guys in the gang MS13.)
  • Third, this experience was going to change my life. Not just my perception, but my career path as well.

While I didn’t know it at the time, those three realizations paved the blueprint for my future non-profit endeavor, InnerCity Weightlifting. 

During AmeriCorps, I started personal training to be able to afford rent and food. I remember viewing it as a way to make some side money. If there were no opportunities at the end of the year, maybe I could make a career out of it. I enjoyed studying fitness training and applying it to workouts with my clients. It’s one of those career fields that’s a science, but also an art. It allows you to be creative. Given that you’re on the ground doing the work, you get to refine all the research you’ve done through practice, and innovate at the same time. It’s something I quickly became passionate about.

I was fortunate to become a full-time trainer, with upwards of 14 clients a day. I did that for a couple of years, but at 25 I felt like I had hit a ceiling. As much as I loved training, it was uncomfortable for me to think, “This is it for the next 50 years until I retire.” Then a client said, “Hey, you’re a great trainer, but you really strike me as more of an entrepreneur.” I’d never thought about myself like that before.

The year following AmeriCorps, I started to realize that I could leverage my new passion for training with my curiosity for social change.

Talking with some of the guys I worked with, I realized something.  If we could get someone off the streets and into the gym, that would be a success. The idea of using weight training as a hook to engage young people excited me. Through fitness, we could help the people that most of society had written off as too difficult to work with or too difficult to reach.

Ultimately, I realized I had no clue how to run a business. With personal training, I only managed myself. I ended up applying to Babson for my MBA; I wanted to figure out how to launch a sustainable non-profit. I took out the maximum amount of student loans so I could pay for the cost of living and keep something in the bank for my future venture. I went from making six figures as a trainer to being in six figures of debt, and it was absolutely the best decision I have ever made (minus the one day a month when the money disappears from my bank account!)

There were a few things I took away from my year at AmeriCorps. I recognized the overwhelming amount of segregation, isolation, and racism our students have to face on a daily basis. I also witnessed the difference between apathy and hopelessness. People wrote our students off because they thought they didn’t care; when someone doesn’t care, there isn’t much you can do to helpso you write them off as a thug, a criminal. I have yet to meet anyone who wants to lose their life to a bullet or jail. And yet, our students are willing to lose their lives to be there for each other, to support each other, to care for each other. I didn’t see apathy, but a lack of hope for any alternative path that didn’t end in one of those two outcomes.

I think the most important outcome of my time at AmeriCorps was recognizing the system I was born into and the one our students are born into. Take me as an example. I was born into a family community in Amherst, MA, where everyone I know has a master’s degree and that’s the main focus of growing up: leveraging education to find a meaningful career, then start a family. Everyone calls me a good decision-maker when, in reality, I only had good options to choose from.

Then there are students who are born into families and communities that are segregated and isolated. They have to worry about rent, food, utilities…There’s no way that school can be their only focus when those are the day-to-day realities they are facing. They take to the streets to solve the challenges they face today, because if they don’t, tomorrow doesn’t necessarily exist. People call these students bad decision-makers when, in reality, they just don’t have good options to choose from.

I think what made recognizing that system so important was that it allowed me to have a greater reach, a greater impact. This realization allows us to start leveraging individual and local change to create societal and national impact. This is the direction we’re going with InnerCity Weightlifting, and why we’re working towards expanding to Philadelphia, Baltimore, Chicago, and continuing to scale in Boston with our second location. Our hypothesis is that if we can make it work in these major cities, we can create a national brand that allows people to change narratives, reframe issues, and connect.

We aim to open people up to the realities that exist, and reframe the issue to help people see the benefit of connecting with different kinds of people.

Overall, I think the willingness of people and society is there. What’s lacking is opportunity.

The model we’ve developed isn’t rocket science; it’s not even dependent on weight trainingthat’s just our medium to tie our four stages together: trust, hope, bridging social capital, and economic mobility. In fact, much of what we do has nothing to do with weight training. Through our gyms, we’re able to broaden the community and put alternative pathways on the table, creating hope for the future. Social capital is what starts to really cement those alternative paths and allow for different careers and avenues, just managing the different obstacles that any of us face.

Our goal is to leverage community, respect for one another, and society’s readiness for positive change. We are working to create opportunity that has not been available in the past.

While it is nearly impossible to ignore society’s stereotypes, I encourage you to think twice. Don’t view the current social climate as something that’s set in stone. Come to one of our InnerCity Weightlifting gyms and see for yourself. I guarantee it will open your eyes to new possibilities. It sure did for me. Lifting.Lifting.Lifting.Lifting.Lifting.Lifting.

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  • Jon received his undergraduate degree from Bryant University where he also played division one soccer and he received his MBA from Babson College. Jon Founded ICW in 2010, and in that short time he has had a feature video on ESPN, given a TEDx talk, and has been featured in the Wall Street Journal.

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