Free Minds Book Club and Writing Workshop

Free Minds uses books and creative writing to empower incarcerated teenaged boys in Washington, DC to transform their lives. By mentoring and connecting them to supportive services throughout their incarceration into reentry, Free Minds inspires these youths to see their potential and achieve new educational and career goals.
Jan 15, 2015

"I wish these books could all be longer"

Author Shaka Senghor visited the DC Jail
Author Shaka Senghor visited the DC Jail

Dear Free Minds Friend,

Although the days have been short, we’ve been busy and our members have been reading up a storm! Since our last report, we have mailed approximately 300 books to the incarcerated readers of Free Minds “Books Across the Miles” virtual book club! Our members are incarcerated in different federal facilities across the United States, but they are united by the written word.

“I know I’m a good writer, so that’s what I’m going to focus on for now.”

Our previous “Books Across the Miles” (BAM) title was the riveting memoir Writing My Wrongs by Shaka Senghor, who also visited the teenage Book Club members at the DC Jail to discuss his memoir.

One reader, Everett, wrote this in a letter from federal prison when he heard that Senghor would be visiting the DC Jail:

“That’s great! I wish I was there to meet him. He sounds like a really experienced guy and I’m loving his book so far. Be sure to tell him hello and welcome him to the Free Minds family.”

Everett is not alone! So far, all the responses to Writing My Wrongs have been overwhelmingly positive. The memoir is an account of the choices and circumstances that led a young Mr. Senghor to a jail cell, and the journey of transformation that he went on while spending over four years in solitary confinement.

“I could really relate to what Shaka was saying when he said that we wear masks. He said we are hurting on the inside and it’s true. On the inside I’m a little boy that’s crying. But you won’t see that on the outside. I’m acting like I don’t care. But I’m crying because I’m in pain and I want attention.” – Melvin

“When Shaka said that you have to gain mastery over your thinking? Man, that really sunk in. I know I need that. I react off of my emotions too much. I’m going to work on mastering my thinking!” – Demetri

“I liked what he said about finding out what you’re good at and then focusing on that as your way out. I don’t know what that is for me yet, but I’m working on it. I know I’m a good writer, so that’s what I’m going to focus on for now.” – JoeNathan

“I admired what he did. He’s a cool dude. I mean he did 19 years behind bars and he never gave up. Most of all, he never gave up on himself. That right there is a lesson and an example. He did exactly what he said he was going to do. I want to go to college and I will do everything I can to get there.” – Christopher

“I wanted this book to be 1,000 pages long!”

In December, we sent out the anthology Prison Noir, edited by Joyce Carol Oates, which collects short stories written by authors who are or have been incarcerated. Like with Shaka Senghor’s Writing My Wrongs, our Book Club members are excited to read books from incarcerated voices.

Free Minds member Marquis read the book immediately, and told us about his favorite stories in the anthology: “I felt the story “Shuffle” because I’ve seen first hand how jail can mentally mess you up. I understood “Tune-Up” because when you do things in here that you love, while you’re doing them, you feel like you’re not locked up. Then “Immigrant Song” really hit home. Coming to the jail for the first time is something mind-blowing, especially if you can’t understand the language. Then on top of that a lot of us are ignorant about the law.”

Free Minds members have been broadening their minds with other literature as well. Demetrich, one of the teenagers at the DC Jail, has been raving about the novel Something Like Normal by Trish Doller. Doller’s novel tells the story of a young soldier returning from Afghanistan and healing from trauma.

“I wish these books could all be longer,” Demetrich said. “I wanted this book to be 1,000 pages long! It was just so good I didn’t want it to end. When I started reading it, I knew I was going to be up all night and I was. I started to panic in the morning when I realized this book is about to end!”

“This month’s newsletter made me remember I still have friends.”

An essential part of our Books Across the Miles virtual book club is our bimonthly newsletter, the Free Minds Connect, which we mail out to all of our members incarcerated in prisons and jails across the country.

One young man, Delonte, is in a facility that does not allow him to receive books, but he eagerly reads every issue of the Connect, where he finds his fellow Free Minds members as well as staff and volunteers discussing books, writing, education, politics, and many other topics.

“I wish I could get books here but I can’t. I would have loved to read Writing My Wrongs. I have been struggling on how to do that and now that it’s a New Year I am just trying to put the pain of 2014 behind me…I don’t even know where to start but this month’s newsletter made me remember I still have friends and Will’s poem about his child was great. It made me remember my son and just missing him so much. So I just wanted to say thank you for everything and I do appreciate everything you have done for me.” — Delonte

Marquis also expressed his appreciation for the latest issue of the Connect (titled “Hope”): “I was really stressing and then I got the Connect about Hope. Everything in the Connect I needed to hear. It actually boosted my morale. I appreciated other people showing their struggles and hopes because it helped put my own situation in perspective.”

Our members show us every day how books and writing can bring hope and inspiration, no matter how difficult the circumstances. Thank you for helping us in our mission to empower incarcerated youth through literature and creative expression!

Book Club members read Writing My Wrongs
Book Club members read Writing My Wrongs
Next Book Club selection: Prison Noir
Next Book Club selection: Prison Noir
The front page of the Free Minds Connect
The front page of the Free Minds Connect
Books Across the Miles in the Connect
Books Across the Miles in the Connect

Links:

Dec 15, 2014

"Helping others? For me, it's a necessity!"

Robert loves speaking at outreach events!
Robert loves speaking at outreach events!

Dear Free Minds Friends,

I’d like to share with you a message from a young man in our program:

“I’ve been in the same predicament as so many troubled youth.  It’s important for me to give back and mentor them, because it’s what I needed when I was their age.  I’ve seen the weight that the label of ‘felon’ gives a person.  I remember how Free Minds stuck with me throughout my bid.  I remember how it felt when you were expecting mail from your family, or your man, or your girlfriend and you didn’t get anything.  But then they called your name at mail call and it was a letter from Free Minds.  That shows you have somebody that cares about you.  They helped me so much.  Now that I’m home, I’m here for Free Minds.  I ain’t going nowhere!  Helping others?  For me, it’s a necessity!”

That’s Robert, a young man who joined Free Minds Book Club & Writing Workshop when he was 16 years old and incarcerated as an adult. Robert came home earlier this year at the age of 24, and in just a few weeks he got a job with the DC Department of General Services on a maintenance crew. He also began doing community outreach with Free Minds as a Poet Ambassador—if you’ve attended any of our Write Night events recently, you might have heard him share his poetry!

Robert is not the only one of our Reentry Support members to achieve success in the last few months—far from it!

 

Free Minds Members Finding Success

Since our last report, four recently released members have graduated from our Job Readiness Apprenticeship program: congratulations to Steven, Zach, Calvin, and Phil! During the apprenticeship, they provided program support in the Free Minds office, while practicing crucial job skills such as computer literacy, communication, and teamwork. They also learned how to write a resume, and how to succeed in a job interview!

At the end of the Apprenticeship, Phil began working full-time at a local restaurant. Andre, another Reentry Support member who came home in the fall, got a job at a supermarket. Aaron went back to school and is working towards his high school diploma. Finally, long-time Free Minds member Will launched his own cleaning business, achieving his goal of being his own boss!

This fall, our Reentry Support members had the opportunity to work with employees of the Advisory Board Company on skills such as public speaking, communication, and problem solving in the workplace. Free Minds members and Advisory Board Company staff acted out various scenarios and different methods of conflict management. It was an eye-opening day for everyone!

 

Poets With A Purpose

Free Minds “Poet Ambassadors” have also been sharing the voices of incarcerated youth and spreading the word about how books and writing can change lives. In October, five Poet Ambassadors traveled to Scranton University in Pennsylvania, taking On the Same Page on the road for the first time! They shared their poetry and life experiences with Scranton University students, who had this to say about the event:

“This really opened my eyes to the issues these young men face. Thank you.”

“Very inspiring! The speakers are very brave and it is so amazing that they are where they are!”

“Being a big writer, it’s awesome to see how writing helps incarcerated youth. Writing is such a freeing experience and you really emphasized that.”

Free Minds Reentry Support members have also brought their message to DC City Council: this fall, seven Poet Ambassadors testified at a City Council hearing on a bill to keep juveniles out of the adult criminal justice system, the Youth Offender Accountability and Rehabilitation Act (YOARA). Although the bill did not ultimately get a vote in this legislative session, the Free Minds members made their voices heard and helped mobilize community support for this legislation.

Meanwhile, in addition to our On the Same Page events with local student and community groups, our Poet Ambassadors conduct weekly writing workshops with incarcerated youth at New Beginnings Youth Development Center, and biweekly workshops with students at a DC middle school.

Poet Ambassador Anthony shared with us why he enjoys going to the school:

“I like going there because when I share my story with the middle school kids it helps them open up about what’s going on in their lives and it also helps me process what I was going through when I was their age so I can understand my life better. Low income and fixed income children have dreams as the kids share with us every Friday. Our goal as poets with a purpose, Free Minds Poet Ambassadors, is to help them with their dreams.”

Thank you for helping Free Minds members achieve their dreams this holiday season.

Free Minds members with Advisory Board Company
Free Minds members with Advisory Board Company
Role playing with Advisory Board staff
Role playing with Advisory Board staff
Calvin and Phil at the Advisory Board Company
Calvin and Phil at the Advisory Board Company
Free Minds Outreach Team at Scranton University
Free Minds Outreach Team at Scranton University
Poet Ambassadors outside Scranton University
Poet Ambassadors outside Scranton University

Links:

Oct 21, 2014

Cultivating Ourselves Through Reading

Write Night volunteers making a difference!
Write Night volunteers making a difference!

Dear Free Minds Friends,

For many people, fall means Back to School, but here at Free Minds, school is always in session!  The Free Minds family (both staff and Book Club members) is constantly learning and growing, and we cannot thank you enough for helping us fund our Book Club for incarcerated youth.

 

“It Feels So Good to Have Something to Read”

This summer, our members in federal prison read Hill Harper’s Letters to an Incarcerated Brother, and next on the list is Writing My Wrongs by Shaka Senghor, a memoir about a formerly incarcerated citizen’s journey to success and happiness.  But in the meantime, they are seeking inspiration and knowledge from all sorts of literature:

“I read a lot of books that have knowledge I can use for the future, like Nonviolent Communication by Rosenberg, Ph.D or Success Through a Positive Mental Attitude by Napoleon Hill.  They’re great.” – Brandon

“Thank you for the books you sent me.  They kind of came right on time.  I’ve read 16 on the Block [by Babygirl Daniels] and that book really kind of put you right smack dead in the struggle, and it’s real.  Because it’s a lot of people that grow up without their peoples and they are forced to become a grownup before their time because they have nobody but themselves or a sister or brother, so it’s mostly them fending for them self.” – Stephon

“I got the two books, thank you so much, they were a great read, and I really thank you for the poem book [Songs for the Open Road].  I love poems and this book helped me out in a lot of ways.  For the Walter Dean Myers book It Ain’t All for Nothing, it has been so many times that I have felt that way and been through some of those things he went through in the book…So again, thank you all.  You guys do not know how much this means to me.  It feels so good to have something to read.” – DeAngelo

“When I was studying for my GED exam, I did use text books to help.  I would bring them back to the unit and study with a friend for at least one hour a day.  Of course there was days when I wouldn’t be in the right state of mind for studying but I’d still pull it off to the best of my ability, and I guess I can say it paid off.” – Aaron.  Congratulations Aaron on your GED!

“I feel like I’ve been able to cultivate myself mainly through reading, and interacting and building with different people.  Writing has definitely played a big role though because it allows me to creatively express all that I am learning.” – Jonas

 

“When I Read Over My Poems It’s Like I See Who I Really Am”

Meanwhile here in D.C., our volunteer base has continued to grow.  In addition to monthly Write Nights at George Washington University, we also have bimonthly Write Nights in Takoma Park (check our website for more information).  It is truly amazing to see how the community has rallied to support these young poets.  As our members are incarcerated in federal facilities in over 20 states, many of them are separated from their friends and family, and rely on the mail to feel connected to the outside world.  Write Night comments show these young writers that they are not alone, and that they do have a voice.

“Thanks for the missive and all of the compliments pertinent to the expression of my spirit via the poem I created.  I try to render enlightenment and genuine sentiment in my work and I’m glad both endeavors were accomplished, seemingly impactfully, in that particular work.” – DeAndre

“I like the poetry blog and Write Night where everyone comments on poems.  That’s very inspiring and I look forward to sending more in the future.” – Immanuel

“Truthfully, my writing is all I have besides my family.  When I read over my poems it’s like I see who I really am and it helps me accept that person the poems talk about.” – Antwon

If you are interested in reading poetry by Free Minds members, head on over to our poetry blog, and remember that all comments will be printed and mailed to the poets, who love hearing from you!

On behalf of everyone here at Free Minds, thank you for your support and your belief in second chances.  As we say to our members, keep your mind free!

Our next read for "Books Across the Miles"
Our next read for "Books Across the Miles"
Author Hill Harper visited Book Club at DC Jail
Author Hill Harper visited Book Club at DC Jail
Author George Pelecanos visiting the Book Club
Author George Pelecanos visiting the Book Club
Leon, home after 8 years, with his favorite book
Leon, home after 8 years, with his favorite book
LJ and Pedro with Ms. Keela in the office
LJ and Pedro with Ms. Keela in the office

Links:

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