Creating community and value for people who society has otherwise denied the opportunity
Inner City Weightlifting (ICW) is an unusual reentry program which aims to change lives. Since its inception in 2010, it has helped 231 people who’ve returned to their communities from jail or prison turn their lifestyles around with fitness.
The US Department of Justice statistics bureau reported in 2018 that “an estimated 68% of released prisoners were arrested within three years of release.” In comparison, ICW reports on its site that only 11% of the program’s students returned to prison or jail in 2020 (i.e. 89% avoided recidivism).
With two locations—one in Dorchester (Boston), and another in Kendall Square (Cambridge)— ICW’s mission is “to amplify the voice and agency of people who have been most impacted by systemic racism and mass incarceration.” The program boasts a rigorous step-by-step regimen to help people get off the streets and become trainers who will engage in social change in their communities and make decent incomes. It also offers help, particularly to younger students, in the form of rides home and support for job interviews and family issues.
Ian Kilpatrick, the head of corporate partnerships for ICW, said, “Personal training is a hook to build a relationship, to get them plugged into a healthy lifestyle, and offer them a way to make money without any risk.” Kilpatrick also said part of the training is “a 10-chapter certification process where they are learning anatomy and movement and how to design programs. We pay the trainers when they test out of a chapter.”
Jonathan Feinman, founder and CEO of Inner City Weightlifting, said in an interview, “We reduce violence by getting our students off the streets and into the gym.” His students, many of whom have been shot and spent time in prison, are on “gang lists” held by the police, but “survivors of trauma, not gang members.” Feinman said that ICW upends this idea so that instead of seeing gang members, clients see a “group of individuals who have come together to create community and to value each other when society has otherwise denied them opportunity and in many ways sought to deny their humanity.”
While he was warned of violence and danger when he started this project, what he saw was “people who loved each other.” In the gym, he said, they are empowered “with confidence and the positive community they need to be able to say no to violence, and yes to opportunity.”
ICW is essentially “a job-force development program,” Feinman said. In a letter posted on the ICW website, he wrote, “We have trained over 1,700 personal training clients in the last four years. We have trainers making over $70K, and many more who have taken their first vacation ever. They’re paying rent, supporting their families, making it even one day longer out of jail.”
At the height of the pandemic, Lisa Schofield continued to meet four to five times a week online with her trainer, Etanis Cumba. In an interview, she said this is not only because she relishes the fact that her workouts keep the 58-year-old more fit than she was five years ago, but also because Inner City Weightlifting has brought “a lot more than conditioning into my life.”
“The spirit is different,” said Schofield, who first came to Kendall Square two years ago. “It is such a joy when you are there,” she added, pointing out how everyone is engaged in the gym as the trainers go back and forth between clients. “People bring their children; one has a service animal; many of us have gotten to know each other. It’s been amazing to watch Etanis grow with his son.”
Cumba said it’s still hard for him to believe that clients like Scofield see him as “motivational,” and “inspirational.” At 33, with 13 trainees and a good income, he no longer worries about the police or “hurting someone’s family because I’m selling drugs to someone’s mother or father.”
Cumba, who is Dominican, said he grew up in Mission Hill and “as a kid, experienced a lot of racism, and ended up being a fighter in school.” He was accused of a murder he did not commit, he said, and served 17 months in a Department of Youth Services (DYS) facility, having to go through a trial to be set free.
After prison, “I was still involved in the streets,” Cumba added. He had a child at the age of 21 and needed money to support him but said, “I was scared to stop selling drugs.” He joined the gym in 2018, and found that “the environment is about positive thinking and I knew I would have to change my life.”
Jermaine Taylor, another ICW employee, set out to change his life when he was introduced to the gym in 2012 . It was after a federal sentence and being the leader of the Lucerne gang in Boston. Taylor grew up surviving in foster homes and at one point was living with his friends in an old abandoned house.
“At 16 I was viewed as a threat,” Taylor told me. “Once you’re viewed as a threat, you move as a threat.”
Taylor got involved with violent crime, including shootings, and was shipped from prison to prison—from Massachusetts to Virginia. When he got out at 26, he got a call from Feinman, who “wanted him to stop by the gym.”
When he stepped into the Dorchester branch, Taylor said he saw “a bunch of kids who worshipped the ground I walked on. I had gang leader power and I wanted to flip it, to lead them in a positive way.”
Now Taylor works every day, is engaged to be married, and has two children. Even when he had a setback and served three more years at Concord Prison, he explained, “Jon [Feinman] sent me books and made me feel part of the community. I didn’t have to start at ‘reset’ or begin all over again. I had a job when I got out.”
At first, Taylor said that he became a trainer but wasn’t engaged in the work. In time, he became important to the ICW community and was offered a clerical job at the gym. Eventually, he became assistant general manager and his job now ranges from opening the gym and using all COVID procedures to clean it to overseeing the interns, shopping, and “creating a loving, warm environment to counter the dog-eat-dog mentality” that so many of the kids who find refuge at ICW face every day.
One such young person is 18-year-old Miguel Cerrano, who goes to the Dorchester gym where he is working towards being a trainer with 100 or so others. He said the gang he hails from, Geneva, introduced him to the gym after he spent four months in DYS. “I was walking down the street and there was a shooting on the street next to where I was,” Cerrano said. “I had a firearm. I got arrested.”
Now Cerrano lives with his aunt. Because of ICW, he said, “I’m not getting in trouble; I’m not focusing on who’s after me.”
“The gym is not like a regular job,” he added. “We can come here, chill. It’s like a family. And my friends are here with me.”
This article was produced by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. If you would like to see more reporting like this you can contribute at givetobinj.org.
Jean Trounstine is a writer, activist, and professor whose latest book is Boy With a Knife: A Story of Murder, Remorse, and a Prisoner’s Fight for Justice. She is on the steering committee of the Coalition for Effective Public Safety.