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.
Jun 9, 2014

Community Champions: Creating a Lasting Difference

FM members with Flikshop founder Marcus Bullock
FM members with Flikshop founder Marcus Bullock

Dear Free Minds Friends & Supporters,

We hope you are all doing well! It was a wonderful spring for Free Minds—many of our members returned home from federal prison, and we were thrilled to reunite with them on the outside! Thanks to your support, our reentry members are succeeding against the odds and reaching new milestones in their professional and educational goals. We couldn’t do it without you!

In May, Free Minds was honored by the Washington Mystics WNBA women’s basketball team with a Community Champion Award! The award recognizes DC residents who are making a lasting difference in their home community. Check out some of the ways Free Minds members have been creating change lately:

The Skills that Matter

Here at Free Minds, we see firsthand just how powerful books and writing can be in the life of a young inmate. A good book can be a gateway to a whole different way of thinking; a first poem can be the beginning of a lifetime of creative self-expression. However, we also know that for many of our members, training and instruction in tangible job skills can make all the difference in their reentry process.

Recently, the reentry members in our program had the opportunity to participate in two unique workshops: a public speaking session with Bradford Koles Jr. of The Advisory Board Company, and a life-coaching session with Nadjejda Chapoteau of Light of Haiti, LLC.  Mr. Koles and Ms. Chapoteau both talked with our members about the importance of sharing your story and keeping a positive attitude. Free Minds Member Alisha told us how the public speaking training helped her be more effective in her community outreach:

“He told us, ‘‘remember that no matter how many times you tell a story, there’s someone in the audience who is hearing it for the first time.’ When he said that, I realized that public speaking is so important. It helps us to make a personal connection to the community we are trying to reach. It allows outsiders a glimpse into who we are and gives us a chance to make our community aware of the issues that we fight so hard to change.” –Alisha

Learning from Role Models

Last month, Free Minds reentry members took a fieldtrip to the headquarters of Flikshop, a mobile app that allows users to send postcards to incarcerated loved ones directly from their phones. Flikshop was founded by Marcus Bullock, who spent 8 years in prison for a crime he committed at the age of 15. Marcus gave our members a tour of his office and told them how he turned his past experiences into a positive, constructive, and successful business.

"Marcus inspired me. I just can't believe he served 8 years and was just like us and now he has his own company! That just amazes me. He's proof that no matter what background you come from you can make it. He told us about working backwards to make our goals. [That strategy] worked for me already in my goal of being a personal trainer, and I’m going to use it when I start my property manager classes soon.” –Anthony

The Power of Personal Stories

Our youth violence prevention program, “On the Same Page,” continues to strengthen bonds between Free Minds members and the larger DC community. This spring, we expanded our programs to include college students on alternative spring break trips, international fellows, and many more. Through “On the Same Page” programs, our members have the rare opportunity to connect with people from very different walks of life using poetry. This exchange brings the whole community closer and inspires others to make tangible changes in their own lives to stop the cycle of violence. Here is some of the feedback our Poet Ambassadors received in their outreach sessions this spring:  

“Hearing personal stories is really powerful. It's one thing to read that ex-offenders are denied access to public housing. It's another to have someone look you in the eye and say ‘I can't go home.’”

“My baby sister is getting involved with a boy who is into drugs and hasn't had a strong foundation growing up. I've never met him, but I've been inspired to reach out to him any way I can the next time I'm home.”

Thanks to supporters like you, the formerly incarcerated youth in our program have the skills and resources they need to create meaningful change in their own lives and others. We cannot thank you enough!

Until Next Time,

Sarah Mintz
Incarcerated Youth Programs Manager

Maurice and Gary have jobs at a dog care center!
Maurice and Gary have jobs at a dog care center!
Poet Ambassador Anthony reads a poem at an event
Poet Ambassador Anthony reads a poem at an event
Charlie engages a college spring break group
Charlie engages a college spring break group
Nadjedja Chapoteau
Nadjedja Chapoteau's life-coaching session
Alisha & Maurice after an On the Same Page session
Alisha & Maurice after an On the Same Page session

Links:

Apr 18, 2014

"I bundle up these emotions and put them on paper"

Alisha accepts the Best Poem Award from BleakHouse
Alisha accepts the Best Poem Award from BleakHouse

Happy spring from Free Minds! The cherry blossoms are in full bloom here in DC, and with the warming weather we are reminded of one of our favorite Free Minds themes—renewal. Free Minds is all about transformation and the possibilities of change, and we are happy to share our recent achievements with you all.

BAM! Books Continue to Inspire

Our Books Across the Miles! (BAM!) initiative continues to inspire Free Minds youth incarcerated in federal prisons across the country. Though they are far from their families and communities, the BAM! program provides a means for Free Minds members to connect through a common book. Our last BAM! selection, The Pactby Sampson Davis, George Davis, and Rameck Hunt, tells the true story of three young men from the streets of Newark who became successful doctors. One Free Minds member, Alvin, wrote us a long letter about what the book meant to him. He told us:

“I have many words to describe [The Pact], but the main two words are ‘Challenging’ and ‘Motivating.’ Truly what these three guys went through and overcame to be successful was totally mind-blowing. Throughout all their success, they never forgot where they came from. This book showed me that you don’t have to let your childhood struggles determine your future. Instead, you can use it as a stepping stone and beat the odds against you.” –Alvin

Our upcoming BAM! title is Bronxwood by Coe Booth. The novel tells the story of Tyrell, a young man trying to navigate difficult choices with a father just out of jail and brother in foster care.

Incarcerated Youth Honored for Their Poetry

This spring, Free Minds members were honored with two different awards for their poetry. Four Free Minds members were published in Tacenda Literary Magazine, a publication dedicated to sharing stories about incarceration. Free Minds member Alisha won a “best poem” award for her poem “Colors.” In the annual Scholastic Art & Writing Awards, 17-year-old Muquan received a “Gold Key” designation for his poem about a friend who was killed by gun violence. The Gold Key is the highest award you can receive in DC before moving on to the national level of the competition. Muquan, who is currently incarcerated, wrote a letter to be read at the awards ceremony on his behalf. He said:

“You don’t know how excited I was to learn that I won this award. I just can’t describe the feelings in words! This poem is very important to me, due to the fact that it’s about one of my best friends. I lost my friend back in 2010. It’s a shame when we lose people we love the most to violence and petty crime. That’s why I love writing. It helps me to express all of the anger, the hate, the joy, and the pain. And when I bundle all these emotions up and put them on paper, the outcome is all beautiful.” –Muquan

Write Night Expands to Satellite Locations

We are excited to announce that our Write Night program is expanding to new venues! Write Night, our popular volunteer event that brings the community together to respond to poetry written by incarcerated youth, has outgrown our monthly meeting space. We are thrilled to be partnering with community groups such as Seekers Church and companies such as The Advisory Board to bring the voice of Free Minds poets to wider audiences.

As we continue to expand and improve our programs, we want to extend a special thank you to all of you who have contributed to our success. Thanks to your support, more incarcerated youth are sharing their stories and writing new chapters in their lives.

Muquan
Muquan's "Gold Key" certificate from Scholastic
Community members respond to poems at Write Night
Community members respond to poems at Write Night
Our next BAM! selection, Broxwood by Coe Booth
Our next BAM! selection, Broxwood by Coe Booth
A page from our newsletter to prison, The Connect
A page from our newsletter to prison, The Connect
Write Night poems with feedback from supporters
Write Night poems with feedback from supporters

Links:

Mar 7, 2014

"You Don't Need to Be Violent to Be Brave"

Delonte on the job with the Dep. of Transportation
Delonte on the job with the Dep. of Transportation

Dear Free Minds Friends and Supporters,

It has been a cold and snow-filled winter here in Washington, DC, but we have been so busy that we’ve hardly had time to notice! The previously incarcerated youth in our reentry program continue to impress us with their resolve to achieve their career and educational goals, despite all obstacles. Thanks to your generous support, we are able to help these motivated youth turn their goals into a tangible reality. As we move into spring, we invite you to share in some of our latest successes:

Apprenticeship Graduation: “Turn your skills into something positive”

On February 24, Free Minds celebrated six Free Minds reentry members for their successful completion of the Free Minds apprenticeship. The weeklong apprenticeship program teaches previously incarcerated youth office and job readiness skill while simultaneously giving them the opportunity to give back to the Free Minds community through violence prevention outreach. Here’s what Free Minds member Alisha had to say about her apprenticeship experience:

“The apprenticeship was a great learning experience for me, because I learned how to act on the job: how to dress professionally, be on time for work, and how to improve my computer skills.” –Alisha

At the graduation celebration, we were joined by several guest speakers, including Woodrow Sheffield, co-director of Success Through Redirection, Education, Empowerment and Training (S.T.R.E.E.T.) and Marcus Bullock, founder and executive director of Flikshop, a mobile app that improves communication between inmates and their loved ones. Both Mr. Sheffield and Mr. Bullock are returning citizens who have built successful careers for themselves while simultaneously mentoring other young men on the path to change their lives. Mr. Bullock, who spent 8 years in prison for a crime committed at the age of 15, shared these words of advice with our apprenticeship graduates:

“One thing I like to talk about with guys coming home from prison is opportunities. Free Minds is an incredible resource. A lot of times we don’t see the opportunities coming across our lives because we’re not paying attention. But you have to pay attention, because it’s the small opportunities that snowball. They grow bigger and bigger. You have to believe in yourself enough to take your skills and turn them into something positive. Just a few weeks ago, I celebrated my 10 year anniversary of coming home from prison. Even after everything I’ve accomplished since, I consider this milestone one of my biggest successes.” –Marcus Bullock 

New Beginnings: “I know what they’re going through and I want to be there for them”

As our “On the Same Page” school violence prevention program continues to grow, our Free Minds Poet Ambassadors (reentry members who participate in community outreach) gain invaluable public speaking and communication skills with each event they attend. To bring their outreach skills to the next level and help our Poet Ambassadors more effectively communicate their stories, we invited Chelsea Kirk, an English teacher at New Beginnings Juvenile Detention Center, to provide a classroom management training. Ms. Kirk stressed the importance of making personal connections, setting clear expectations for the group, and engaging youth with relevant topics. During On the Same Page sessions, Free Minds members incorporate not only their own poems and stories, but also the stories of their fellow members who are still incarcerated. Here is an excerpt of a letter that incarcerated Free Minds member Yester wrote to DC students:

“You can make the decision to say NO to violence. I know that at school it’s not easy to behave well all the time; sometimes it is very hard to avoid a discussion, a fight, and other things, not only in school but also outside of school, in your house, in your neighborhood, or your streets. But let me tell you something: you don’t need to be violent to be brave. You don’t have to be violent to be popular. What you don’t want others to do to you, don’t do to anyone else, or what you would like others to give you, give that to others.” –Yester 

Along with leading outreach programs at local middle and high schools, our Free Minds “Poet Ambassadors” also go out to New Beginnings to co-facilitate creative writing workshops with incarcerated juveniles at the facility.  Free Minds member Delonte teaches there almost every week despite working early morning hours at his job at the DC Department of Transportation. He told us:

“I love going to New Beginnings. It always makes me feel good to give the young men there some positive advice and some other options they can do when they get home. I share with them how poetry allows me express my emotions in a positive way and helps people understand where I’m coming from. When you are around me, I show a lack of emotions, but when I write I can express myself on the table. I found that when I started opening my mind to creative ideas in my poetry, then I could start thinking creatively about things I want to do in my life. Like now I want to go to college and take counseling classes so I can help more young men. I know the struggle. I know what they’re going through and I want to be there for them.” –Delonte

Free Minds Members Achieve New Educational and Career Milestones

We are proud to announce that this semester, Free Minds member and lead outreach facilitator Alisha began taking classes at Montgomery Community College. It was her first time in a formal classroom setting in 8 years! Alisha is pursuing an associate’s degree in general studies and sociology. Many other reentry members found successful employment this winter as well: Gary works in a dog daycare center, Maurice is an administrative assistant at a mental health facility, and Delonte found employment with DC Department of Transportation. Additionally, Free Minds member Terrell received his Commercial Driver’s License and is now working as a cross-country truck driver. He told us:

"I was born and raised in DC. I've never traveled anywhere, but I want to experience other cities and cultures. When I was locked up, I wanted to read books that were in other locations in order to expand my mind. I used to read books about places like Chicago or New York, but now I'm going to see them for myself." –Terrell

Thanks to your help, Free Minds members like Terrell receive the support they need to build new futures for themselves. We cannot thank you enough!

Until next time,

Sarah Mintz
Incarcerated Youth Programs Manager

At an event with DC councilmember David Grosso
At an event with DC councilmember David Grosso
Member LaTrae leading an On the Same Page event
Member LaTrae leading an On the Same Page event
Member Alisha and Marcus Bullock at the graduation
Member Alisha and Marcus Bullock at the graduation
Terrell picks up a GPS for his new trucking job!
Terrell picks up a GPS for his new trucking job!
Chelsea Kirk leads a classroom management training
Chelsea Kirk leads a classroom management training

Links:

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