Creating Social Value Blog / Social Innovation

Notes from the Case Files: InnerCity Weightlifting

By Jesseca P. Timmons, a case writer in Entrepreneurial Studies and Social Entrepreneurship for the Lewis Institute at Babson College.

This past July, Associate Professor Mary Gale and I made another visit to InnerCity Weightlifting. Founder Jon Feinman had strongly suggested we talk to some of the students themselves, along with his staff and board members. The interview that followed was an example of a conversation that, while unforgettable, did not end up in the teaching case–unlike a news story, the case is not focused on the program or the personal stories of the students, but on the founder and his decisions as a social entrepreneur.

Mary and I were introduced to three students: Marcus, Trey and Joe. Each of them had  at one time been identified by Boston law enforcement as one of the young men considered “most likely to be killed or kill someone” in the city. To our surprise, Marcus–who looked more like a barista than an ex-con–had been released from state prison just two weeks previously. Since getting out, he had already started his own nonprofit corporation, and, having heard about ICW from friends in prison, had sought Jon out as a mentor.

Marcus spoke first, and described the experience of growing up in the one of the three most violent sections of Boston:

“I’ll put it to you like this: whenever you turn on the TV and watch CNN, you see how they are shooting AK-47s in Africa, and how it is in Iraq, and how it is in Afghanistan–we live that type of life every single day.”

Trey agreed:

“It’s a lot like a prison, the way that we live. There are a lot of things you are cut off from, there are a lot of things that are cut short, everything is limited–your prospects for a better future are almost close to none. As far as your immediate reality–the situations that you are faced with are extremely intense, they are extremely severe; they are really life and death. A lot of us walking around–we have bullet wounds, we have stab wounds, years in prison–it’s like going to war.”

Joe, who had just been featured in the ESPN piece, summarized how all three men felt about becoming involved in ICW:

“I have hope now. Back then, I didn’t really have hope. I was like, I know I am going to end up dead; I know I am going to end up doing life in prison. It’s either dead man walking, or walking man dead. But everyone here–it’s like family. It’s easier for me to turn people down now…if people say let’s go do something, now I am not afraid to say, I am not doing it! Because I am doing this, I have my life–and I am not going to jeopardize this.”

Without a doubt, these interviews were the most compelling of all the interviews we did for ICW–now we had to figure out how to get their voices into the case. For an introduction to the full case, download the InnerCity Weightlifting Case Synopsis.