Creating Social Value Blog / Social Innovation

Notes from the Case Files: A View from the Streets

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

Every teaching case is based on interviews with an entrepreneur at a critical point in the growth of his or her venture. Most cases also include interviews with team members or advisors—but InnerCity Weightlifting marked the first time I interviewed a member of law enforcement.  My final interview for InnerCity Weightlifting (ICW) was with Lt. Gary French, a 30-year veteran of the Boston Police Force who specializes in gang relations, and a longtime supporter of ICW.

Inside the sunny, spacious ICW weight room, meeting laughing, smiling  young guys who looked like typical college students, it was difficult for me to imagine their life on the streets. Talking with Lt. French opened my eyes to the reality of the student’s situation, and drove home the desperate need these young men have for ICW. Lt. French explained:

InnerCity is unique–there is no other organization like this. The Boston gang landscape is very tough, but there is just a small percentage of all the kids driving all the violence. Probably less than 1% of Boston youth are gang involved, and there are maybe only 15-20-30 hardcore shooters–some end up shooting others in self-defense…The kids Jon has at the gym—most programs would not even think of working with these kids…they won’t touch these guys because they are all dangerous—they are all shooters—they’ve all been in jail.

ICW founder Jon Feinman had described to us the difficulty of tracking and quantifying progress for young guys with virtually no structure, limits or routine in their lives. Lt. French agreed:

Success for Jon is difficult to measure. We are looking at, in 5-10 years—can a kid get a job? Three years is a short window for a kid to overcome the street life. ….Jon is reaching kids that no one else can reach. Probably the biggest indicator of success is the recidivism rate–if Jon can get them out of the legal system for the first time in their lives, that is a success.

Lt. French acknowledged that Jon had some critics—among the media, the political establishment, and law enforcement—who had already written off the young men Jon was trying to work with. In the end, we used the following quote from Lt. French:

Jon is dealing with clientele that are extremely volatile–they are the worst of worst in the City of Boston. There are rules in the gym, but when they leave the gym–it is kill or be killed.  If you can give a kid 6 hours off the streets, away from the street culture–that is making a difference in a kid’s life. If Jon can get kids out of that culture for the day–learning skills and discipline, talking things over, training–that is a day a kid is not on the streets, getting shot.

Lt. French’s perspective gave me a much deeper appreciation for the challenges facing ICW, and were a powerful reminder to  seek out and include diverse voices in every case.