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Five Years On: A Conversation with InnerCity Weightlifting’s Jon Feinman and SVP Partner Bill Eaton

Posted by boston

Earlier this month, we caught up with SVP Partner and InnerCity Weightlifting board member Bill Eaton and InnerCity Weightlifting’s Executive Director and Founder Jon Feinman (SVP Grantee in 2012-2015). It’s been five years since InnerCity Weightlifting started their three-year engagement with SVP, and the organization has come a long way. Read on to learn more about Bill’s involvement with both SVP and ICW, and to hear from Jon about ICW’s amazing growth and plans for expansion.

A brief overview of InnerCity Weightlifting (ICW)

Less than 1% of young people drive 50% of the gun violence in Boston. According to the Public Health Commission, that’s only about 450 young people in Boston, and similar stats hold true for many major cities across the country. The problem of street violence can seem overwhelming, but it’s possible to have an incredible impact by reaching just a few hundred young people. Founded by Jon Feinman in 2010, ICW is a Boston-based nonprofit organization dedicated to working with young people who are at the highest risk for violence by getting them off the streets and into the gym. Through their client-based personal training model, ICW creates economic mobility for their students and aims to foster a genuine form of inclusion that disrupts the systemic segregation and isolation that initially leads young people to the streets.

Bill, you’ve been with SVP since the beginning. How did you first get involved, and why do you stay connected?

Bill: I met Meryl Bralower (co-founder of SVP Boston) back in the early 2000s. Meryl was working to bring an SVP chapter to Boston and invited me to join – I was the first of the second wave of Partners to sign up. I thought SVP had a great concept, in terms of both finding young, exciting organizations to support, and their focus on committing not only Partners’ money, but their time, skills and knowledge to those organizations. That was very interesting to me. My wife, Laura, and I have been involved at various levels ever since. We like knowing that our dollars have an impact – the money we give to SVP is going to a group of small organizations that are doing great work and are in need of both financial and capacity-building help. SVP also gives us access to an incredibly interesting network of people that are similarly committed to giving back. Another aspect of SVP that I enjoy is the fact that I can still be connected to the organization even when I’m busy and don’t have the time to get deeply engaged.

How did you get involved with ICW? Were you familiar with the organization before their SVP engagement in 2012?

Bill: Partially. It was a combination of events, and the timing was right. I had some time open up in my schedule, allowing me to join SVP’s Investment Committee in 2012. Around the same time, a friend of mine invited me to a breakfast featuring Jon and the ICW team. Their mission and approach immediately intrigued me. A couple weeks later, I started on the Investment Committee and ICW was one of the applicants in the mix. I learned more about the organization during the application process and then went on to become the Lead Partner for their three-year SVP engagement.

What, in particular, drew you to ICW?

Bill: Reggie’s (Talbert, ICW’s Dorchester Site Director) story blew me away right off the bat. Then I started meeting the young guys in ICW’s program and heard what it meant to them. I met Joe Sierra, who was newer to the program at that time. He really showed me firsthand the powerful impact of the program on his life. As soon as I went into the gym I was hooked. My involvement with ICW has an added side benefit – I’m in much better shape now than I used to be!

Jon, ICW has achieved incredible growth over the past few years – a lot has changed since the beginning of your SVP engagement in 2012. Where were you then, and where are you now?

Jon: When we first started the SVP process in 2012, we didn’t even have a space of our own. We were borrowing gym space around town for the first couple of years. Towards the end of 2012, we moved into our first dedicated gym space in Dorchester. Once we got our first personal training client, everything took off from there. We now have two dedicated facilities, and we’re looking to open up a third facility in Boston later this year. We’re also starting to explore the feasibility of expanding to Philadelphia.

ICW’s growth has also translated into positive outcomes for our students. When we opened up our second gym facility in Kendall Square in 2015, our students’ average monthly income jumped from $600 to $3,796. Most of our students have been shot, and nearly all have spent time in jail. Many come from families with annual incomes of less than $10,000. With their personal training income, our students can now afford rent; they can take vacations. Their entire outlook on life has changed – they can now plan for a future that wasn’t always guaranteed.

Jon, you mentioned plans to expand to Philadelphia. Why Philadelphia?

Jon: We have a codified model and we’re at a point of sustainability where we can consider geographic expansion. Opening in Philadelphia will help us expand our reach, and there’s clearly a need. As we start to grow our brand and message, we’re thinking about the bigger picture impact, not just in Philadelphia or in Boston, but about what happens when it all comes together and we’re able to start reaching cities that we don’t even have to be in. There’s a definite ripple effect to our personal training model – we end up reaching thousands of individuals instead of just a few hundred young people. We’re focused on building a brand that reaches more and more people and goes beyond the walls of our facilities.

As you both think about ICW’s three years with SVP, what do you consider the greatest success of the relationship?

Jon: Between 2012 and 2015, our model started to recognize the power of a network and support system. We evolved from a one-sided approach of trying to reduce recidivism and get our students jobs, to focusing on both our students and the clients that pay for our services and support our work. Our personal training services allow our clients to see our students as people. Through that one-on-one interaction, our students and clients can hear about and understand the challenges that each other faces. We’re able to tackle some really tough social issues through that simple human connection. To me, the biggest thing that SVP did for us was to help lay the groundwork for that support system, the network that helps our students, helps our organization, and helps me as a leader.

Bill: From an SVP standpoint, it was a very successful relationship. We found ways to engage a number of different SVP Partners at various points, and ICW clearly met and/or exceeded many of the growth metrics we laid out together, as evidenced by the move to two facilities and the significant increase in number of students and clients reached. Jon and his team are clearly onto something – their program has the ability to change the behavior patterns of a small group of people, which translates into potentially dramatic long-term social change.