At a gym near Kendall Square, hip-hop music provides the soundtrack as a trainer leads a client through a series of exercises. It looks like a typical gym, and in many ways it is. There are mats, weights, kettlebells and an exercise bike.
But the trainers at InnerCity Weightlifting, or ICW, are not typical. Most have done significant time in jail, most have been shot, and some of them, like Dan Royal, who grew up in Dorchester, almost didn't make it.
"I first started getting arrested two weeks before my 12th birthday," says Royal, who explains that that first arrest was the result of a shooting he was involved in. "I got shot before that. A relative died right in front of my face. I've been shot eight times. I've been shot once in the middle of my head, between my eyes. I've had two brain surgeries."
Because of that, Royal, who is 36, suffers from seizures. He has been in and out of jail for close to half his life. But these days, things are looking more hopeful for him.
"This is the longest I've been out [of jail] right now — going on three years," Royal says.
Royal is not only out of jail, he's off probation too. He credits InnerCity Weightlifting, a nonprofit that connects former gang members with job training, willing clients and a chance at a new life.
Royal is now a personal trainer. The job gives him an income and something even more important: a network of support and friendship.
"Dan is someone who I consider a close friend — someone who's been through more than I'll ever have to go through,” says Jon Feinman, ICW's founder and CEO. "I was also told not to work with him. I was told [that] about a lot of our students."
He ignored the warnings that young men like Royal were too dangerous and beyond help.
After he got out of college, Feinman -- a self-described "gym rat, a white kid from politically correct Amherst" in western Massachusetts — joined AmeriCorps and worked with gang-involved young men in East Boston. That got him thinking about how to help them break free from the cycle of crime and incarceration -- and InnerCity Weightlifting was born. It trains ex-cons to be personal trainers, but also gives potential clients — basically white folks with money and opportunity — a chance to connect with people like Royal.
"This is not someone who should be written off," Feinman says. "In fact, he’s the exact opposite. We should care so deeply about this person, and how we as a society have created these segregated and isolated pockets in cities. And [ICW] forces people to do something about it."
'I Couldn't See The Road'
Those people include Jay Buchta, who works for Ernst & Young in Boston and who trains with Royal, whom he now considers a good friend.
"Jon Feinman talks a lot about helping the guys build social capital," says Buchta, who offers a concrete example of what that means: A few years ago, Royal had gotten into some trouble and was back in court. Buchta wanted to support him, so he reached out to a friend, a former prosecutor, and vouched for Royal. Then Buchta showed up in court to offer Royal some moral support, and ended up having a conversation with the prosecutor.
“It turned out that my friend and that prosecutor had been officemates, so all of a sudden the tension about Dan being ‘a random bad guy’ disappeared," Buchta says.
The case was resolved in Royal’s favor, and Buchta believes his involvement helped.
“Dan is off parole now, for the first time in his adult life,” says Buchta.
Royal now lives in the Blackstone Valley, where he says he appreciates “the fresh air and trees,” and where he can avoid contact with people from his old life in Dorchester. And he says his new friendships with clients like Buchta have given him new hope and a new way to look at life.
Royal says before he came to ICW, he felt alone in the world, and believed "that a lot of people didn't care, or [that there] wasn't anybody … to help.
“I couldn't see the road,” he adds. Now he has a network of support, people who can help him navigate the road ahead, “someone to wipe the window down for me, you know what I mean?"
'We're Not Going To Write Them Off'
On the flip side of these relationships are the clients — more than 500 of them — who have a chance to connect with folks from a very different world than their own.
I know something about this, because I work out at ICW with a trainer named Angel LaCourt, who grew up in Roxbury. His mother was a drug addict and his father was in prison when LaCourt started selling drugs at the age of 8.
"Everybody I knew — all my friends' mothers [were] on crack,” LaCourt says. “My friends' fathers were selling crack. They either got locked up, went to jail, or [ended up] mainly dead. That always stuck with me as a kid: I'll never be broke or want for [anything] as long as I can sell drugs. That way I can have nice things like everyone else."
In spite of those challenges, LaCourt became a high school football star, and Boston College offered him a full scholarship. But after he shot and wounded a man, he ended up in jail for two and a half years, and lost his chance to go to college.
“When I caught my charge, I lost all that,” LaCourt says.
After his release, LaCourt went back to selling drugs until he was arrested again, this time on a federal drug charge that landed him in federal prison. When he was released three and a half years later, college was no longer an option, and he felt trapped in a system that offered no way out.
“The day you get out of jail, you're coming home with nothing, and you have to start from scratch,” he says. “You can't get a job at some of these places that say they're hiring, [because] they see the criminal background. ... And the only thing you want to do is say, 'I'm going back to selling drugs.' And that gets people back into the same mindset: ‘I'm failing, I'm failing, I'm failing. When am I going to succeed?' "
Four and a half years ago, a friend brought LaCourt to InnerCity Weightlifting to workout, and he’s been there ever since.
ICW works with about 140 guys right now; 23 of them are certified to work as personal trainers like LaCourt, earning as much as $40,000 a year. When they arrive at ICW, recidivism rates are close to 90 percent. But for those who stay with the program, that figure drops to 8 percent.
Mickey Belaineh, a Harvard Law School grad who helps run ICW, says part of the philosophy is to never give up on anybody — even those who end up back in jail.
"We're not going to write them off. There's no three strike rule,” Belaineh says. "Instead, we go visit them in jail. We write them. We see what we can do to support their families. I get letters from guys in jail saying, ‘Thank you so much for taking time out of your day to write me. Even my friends and family — nobody comes to visit me. But you guys are always there.' "
'This Incredible Ripple Effect'
InnerCity Weightlifting has two studios — one in Dorchester and one in Kendall Square -- and has plans to expand to Philadelphia next year.
ICW represents a noble response to the crisis of violence afflicting many cities, but can a relatively small number of participants really make a difference? Feinman, the CEO, argues that it can, pointing out that in Boston "less than 1 percent of young people drive about 50 percent of the gun violence." Citing numbers from Boston police, Feinman says "about 450 people" are responsible for most of the violence.
“So, as overwhelming as this problem can seem, if you can reach just a few hundred people in each city, you can have this incredible ripple effect," he says.
"As overwhelming as [violence] can seem, if you can reach just a few hundred people in each city, you can have this incredible ripple effect."Jon Feinman, ICW CEO
The Rev. Jeffrey Brown, a longtime anti-violence advocate in Boston, agrees with Feinman, and applauds what ICW has accomplished.
When it comes to violence prevention, Brown says, “I’m one of those people who believes that we ought to let a thousand flowers bloom. InnerCity Weightlifting is an idea whose time has come.”
But Brown -- who heads RECAP (Rebuilding Every Community Around Peace), a national violence prevention organization -- cautions ICW not to expand too quickly. He says a program designed in Boston for Boston might not be as effective in other cities.
"Sometimes going into another city means that you have to understand the mores of that city in order to adapt your approach to what's happening there," Brown says.
ICW staff say they're going slow, and are focusing first on making the program work as well as it can in Boston.
But Angel LaCourt believes this approach would work in just about any city where there are drugs, gangs and too few post-incarceration programs like InnerCity Weightlifting, which he says changed his life.
“[ICW] helped me out a lot,” LaCourt says. “It makes me want to do better for myself, and for my kids. All people need is opportunity, and everyone’s willing to change with a little bit of hard work."
This segment aired on March 30, 2017.