Why UliftU?

UliftU, is a 501c3 and the nonprofit arm of Subversus Fitness, where our mission is to empower formerly homeless and incarcerated individuals by giving them the tools to work in the fitness industry. More broadly, our goal is to then place our members in partnerships in North Philadelphia to run fitness programs for those wouldn’t otherwise have access to such opportunities. 

For over 10 years, I’ve been involved in nonprofit work, specifically, sport as a tool for social change.  Starting here in Philly then, DC, then Colorado – working for different organizations, all seeking to solve an issue of empowerment, strength and agency through the use of movement and sport. It’s something that I believe in with every ounce of myself. When we move and more importantly move together – we reconnect to our common humanity, something that once awakened, is incredibly transformative.

In 2014, I stepped away from nonprofit after seven years, because I felt I didn’t have the answer that I wanted. I had been working at nonprofit in Boulder, Colorado and moonlighting a job skills program at a shelter in Denver, but no combination of things added up. I knew that sport worked. However, it wasn’t enough. Something was missing. At this same time, I had been getting more involved with the community of CrossFit and what it could offer. That’s when a light went off in my head when I heard a phrase that reminded me of something very elemental, “Our needs differ by degree, not by kind”.

On scratch pads, and google docs – I started sketching an idea. Here was CrossFit, a tool that was simple, effective and inherently scalable to any individual. Could we use that experience as a job training tool to create a job and a life skill, but then also empower that new coach to use those skills in parts of cities where access to fitness and healthy lifestyles is largely absent? Could we create jobs that in turn reduced health care costs? I started calling old co-workers and friends (Thank you; Tim Mann, Robert Egger, Isabell McDevitt, Shane Niemeyer and many more..) and organizations (Inner City Weightlifting, DC Central Kitchen). I also knew then that Philly was the where, even if the what didn’t yet fully manifest itself. I just knew the answer would be found in jobs and health. A friend, (Cathryn) told me to email Erin Davidson, because she owned a CrossFit gym in Philly and might be into this (Coach Tim also has been involved since the inception) - the rest as they say is history.

We all have an inherent desire to contribute. It’s hardwired and how we feel valued. We didn’t hunt and gather because we wanted to take photos on instagram, we did it to sustain our communities - we need to do it. Here’s why that can be hard when it comes to having a job for those who want one.

  • Roughly 70 million American adults have a criminal record, give or take, that is about 30% of the population. This can include those who were arrested on a felony charge, but not convicted. Regardless, a fact that in a competitive job market will push an applicant down the line or disqualify them entirely – especially when it comes to jobs offering a livable wage.
  • In Philadelphia, close to 12,000 individuals accessed emergency shelter last year – meaning a duration of homelessness. Are these the same populations? No, not everyone who is in a shelter has a record and not everyone with a record is in a shelter. However, being in shelter means not being able to support yourself. Not having a job, makes it very hard to get a job, because employers question why nobody else has hired you. It’s a downward spiral.
  • If you get onto the subway and head 15 minutes north up Broad Street from our gym, the life expectancy drops by over 20 years and the concentration of those living below the poverty line rises to over 45%. Getting a job is pretty hard if your health is failing or if the average age of retirement in America is close to when you're expected to be dead.
  • Outside of the core of Philadelphia, incidence of preventable disease; Type 2 diabetes, heart-disease and obesity also are massive contributors to lower life expectancy and ultimately increases in health care costs for everyone, regardless of your zip code. Think of the last time you woke up sick and didn't want to go to work. That's every morning for thousands in Philadelphia.

If you got home and found your house was on fire, you would call the 911. Then, a firetruck would arrive and they would extinguish the threat to life. The professionals come and use their skill to end the thing that otherwise might kill you.

We are 100% not giving all neighborhoods in our city that same opportunity. If you look at these maps, you’ll see the concentrations of poverty and decreased life expectancy. That means, there is an expectation of a threat to life that is endemic to certain areas of the city. Yet, our response has been to say “we’re sorry that your house is on fire, please try harder”. These maps are a slow burning fire that is a terrible combination of deadly, and worse, expected and tolerated outcomes.

UliftU is how we're trying and build a better opportunity and future for those who have a background of homelessness or incarceration, as well as change health and wellness for portions of our city that need help. Our nine-month, job training program provides a stipend to individuals who have been referred to us to learn the skill of being a coach to work in the fitness industry. An industry that is growing rapidly and also is unique in it’s upward mobility, especially if someone has a record.  You will succeed or fail as a coach by how committed you are to your craft, your clients and your ethics and standard. Our placement goals are to increase the number of classes we can operate in North Philadelphia and provide wages to new coaches coaching those classes as well as decrease life threats to those attending.

Since March, UliftU members have been coaching classes, three mornings a week at an outpatient drug treatment center a block from the intersection of Broad and Lehigh. We have plans to add a second location at a High School, Dobbins Tech, at 22nd and Lehigh by the end of the year. We have also failed often and gone back to refine our approach. The first time we sent members to take the CrossFit Level 1, none passed. The second time, one passed. That may seem small, but consider that 10 months prior to that exam none of those individuals had even heard of CrossFit. This is how we create a change. Relentless incrementalism.

No aspect or benefit of UliftU is given, you have to attend classroom sessions on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons - led by Coach Tim, you have to take CrossFit classes, you have to do your homework. If those don’t happen, members don’t receive a stipend. If members do, they have the opportunity to learn a trade in building and fixing fellow humans. Something desperately needed. 

What haunts me, is that this program is not capable of fixing these issues alone. Our hope for this program is that it can serve as a model elsewhere and with enough small actions are taken, by enough people – that’s how these problems can truly be solved. How we seek to make our city whole. Subversus and UliftU share the same core ideology of not accepting the status quo, but rather creating the result that we want, using the tools we have. At the gym, you'll find UliftU members working the front desk, shadowing and coaching classes and sweating right along side you - because that's a stronger humanity, community and our why.

Wylie Belasik