From an urban gym comes a novel idea about how to empower struggling youth. David Takeuchi investigates why it is working.
At Inner City Weightlifting (ICW), a nonprofit organization in Boston’s underserved neighborhood of Dorchester, it’s critical to “measure success differently,” explains its founder, Jon Feinman. This is because, for many of the men who come to work out and train at ICW, success is defined simply as living to see another day.
ICW’s mission is to use fitness training as a tool to reduce violence, while also promoting professional, personal, and academic achievement among urban youth. Many of its students are former gang members and have served time in prison. Most lack the kinds of positive support networks that those from different backgrounds might take for granted.
‘I fell through the cracks’
For Mackenzie “Big G” Guillaume, who has been working out at ICW since 2010 following a two-and-a-half-year stint locked up for illegal possession of a firearm, this was absolutely the case. His father left his family when he was only nine years old, and his mom struggled to take care of him and his four sisters on her own. He took to the streets between Mattapan and Dorchester to try to make it as best he could.
“Being the youngest, you could say that I fell through the cracks,” he says. “I had to jump in the water on my own and try to figure out whether I was going to sink or swim.”
Now 26, Guillaume is most definitely swimming, thanks largely to ICW. He works out there, mentors younger youth with stories similar to his own, and has attended entrepreneurship workshops set up by ICW with Reebok’s branding team and a licensing company within the music industry. He’s also a paid personal trainer, and offers his services as part of ICW’s innovative Olympic weightlifting training program designed to give its students a chance at socio-economic mobility.
ICW’s training program pairs its students with clients from very different backgrounds—Guillaume’s first client was a banker and former rugby player—to encourage new opportunities for what Feinman calls “social inclusion.”
“Our students face a subtle form of segregation and isolation that’s based in the fact that they have no network to access opportunities,” he says. “Our hope is that, on the most basic level, the clients we train will be more likely to cross the street to say hello to our students, instead of seeking to walk quickly by in order to avoid them. We seek to build a more equal playing field, not just in terms of socio-economic backgrounds, but in terms of access to the same kinds of opportunities that other men the same age have because of who they know.”
Feinman believes that, while “money is certainly a factor,” socio-economic background doesn’t trump access to networks. He also believes that while solving the problem of youth violence in America is an incredibly complex endeavor, the solution begins with a simple step—learning to better understand each other.
To date, Feinman’s belief is based more in anecdotal evidence than it is in hard research. ICW has struggled with how to “measure success differently” in a world where merely coming to the gym to work out on a given day can be a significant victory. Perfect attendance doesn’t exactly sell donors and partners and policymakers on why they should get involved but how do you quantify success?
Defining success scientifically
To answer this question, Feinman has turned to David Takeuchi, BC Social Work’s associate dean for research.
In a recent meeting on BC’s Chestnut Hill campus, Feinman asked Takeuchi if he would be willing to conduct a study to define more exactly the unique cycle taking place at ICW, whereby vulnerable youth emerge with new power as trainers to higher income clients and, ultimately, find themselves with access to social networks they could never have foreseen accessing in the past. “It’s been difficult to get people to understand where our success is coming from,” says Feinman. “Our hope is that a research collaboration with BC could help us to more clearly define this success.”
Takeuchi and his team are currently in the planning stages of an ethnographic, observational, and interview-based project to address how changing perceptions, on opposite ends of the socio-economic continuum, can have a major impact on improving opportunities for the young people who frequent ICW. Takeuchi’s model proposes that the cognitive elements of mindset, perseverance, and sense of control are directly shaped by social networks and processes, and it seeks to measure the impact that expanding these networks can have on ICW’s students.
Takeuchi also hopes to gain insight into what happens when there is a change in dynamics, and black, impoverished youth become the teachers of their mostly white middle- and upper-class clients. This upside-down world provides the setting for his primary research question, namely: What social processes maintain, exacerbate, or reduce the effects of inequality for poor ICW students in their interactions with relatively wealthy clients and program staff?
“Ex gang members have extremely high rates of recidivism, and are more likely than not to end up back in jail,” says Takeuchi. “But ICW offers these young men a possibility for how things can be reversed. There’s no doubt that ICW instills hope in its students; we aim to find out if hopes also alter expectations that lead to meaningful change, and then define, scientifically, the processes that are most effective in improving the trajectories of at-risk youth.”
This, in a nutshell, is how Takeuchi defines his brand of social work–melding science with the real life experiences of people in different communities to produce better outcomes. Takeuchi is hopeful that, in addition to helping Feinman and his team better measure success, this project can more broadly expand the conversation vis-à-vis the intersection of race, place, and poverty on the whole. An important component of his proposed project with ICW is to build an environment where policymakers, staff, researchers, and students come together to provide insights on Takeuchi’s initial research, and suggest ways that these findings can inform policy and practice throughout Boston and beyond.
Expanding new perspectives
This makes perfect sense to Feinman, who is hoping to expand ICW’s influence, first to several locations across Boston in pockets between areas of wealth and areas of violence, and then, to similar locations across the United States.
“We hope to create inclusive networks in areas where people are living within blocks of each other, but who may not ever have reason to interact,” he says. “Most fundamentally, we want to change the way people think about each other. We believe this can go a long way in helping to improve the outlooks for at-risk youth in America.”
For Guillaume, the kind of new perspectives Feinman talks about are now deeply entrenched in his mindset. He remembers the first time Feinman approached him, while he was playing basketball with a group of friends on a public court in Dorchester. “We thought he was crazy,” he says. “Like, who is this Caucasian guy coming up to us? It freaked us out. We weren’t used to having a positive image of white men coming into our neighborhood.”
But Feinman gave him his hard, bold sell about why ICW was an opportunity worth looking into, and five years after that first meeting on the basketball court, Guillaume has goals that extend well beyond living to see tomorrow. He’s planning to go back to college this coming semester and aiming to be financially stable by the time he hits 30.
“When I started this program, I was skeptical, I didn’t really get how weightlifting could make much of a difference in my life on the streets,” Guillaume says. “But there’s no doubt, ICW has opened me up and made me a better person.”
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