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.
Jul 21, 2014

Staying Positive Even in the Shade of Negativity

A Write Night participant comments on a poem
A Write Night participant comments on a poem

Dear Free Minds Supporters,

As students all around America delve into their summer reading books, here at Free Minds we are engaging in a different sort of summer reading program: our Books Across the Miles! (BAM!) virtual book club in federal prisons. For the incarcerated youth in our program, books mean so much more than an assignment for class; they are a way for them to engage in new ideas and perspectives, to escape the pressures of a prison environment, and to imagine new futures for themselves. In the spirit of summer and the transformative power of books, we are thrilled to share with you our recent accomplishments and updates.

Bronxwood inspires members to overcome obstacles

Our last BAM! selection, Bronxwood by Coe Booth, told the story of a young man named Tyrell coming to terms with a brother in foster care and a father coming home from jail. The book was a huge hit with our members, who identified with Tyrell’s struggle to stay on a positive path despite the challenges of his environment. Here’s what some of them had to say about the book:

“Coe Booth really depicted a realistic description of the plights the youth face growing up in the hood. Tyrell was the 1% who didn't succumb to the peer pressure and problems he faced on a constant basis. Bronxwood is definitely a story that can encourage a lot of young people to always stay positive even in the shade of negativity.” –KB

“What I love most about the book is that it shows how children who are neglected from their parents and raised in a hostile environment can still have the ambition to be something worthy out there in the world. You can still strive for a better life even though there is someone's weight piled on top of you, trying to hold you back.” –NH

Our next BAM! book will be Letters to an Incarcerated Brother by Hill Harper, CSI: NY actor and author of many successful books such as The Wealth Cure: Putting Money in its Place. Our member Wayne already started the book and had this to say about Free Minds Book Club:

“The book I am currently reading, Letters to an Incarcerated Brother, [I] can’t describe how inspiring it is. I want you to know you are changing people’s lives by just a simple inspirational book. I have grown a lot since the juvenile block and I have more knowledge on things all from studying and reading.”

Write Night outgrows its original location

Big changes are happening with Write Night, our popular program that brings people from all walks of life together to write feedback to our incarcerated poets! With an average of 50-60 attendees, the monthly volunteer event has outgrown our original office location. Thanks to a new partnership with students at a George Washington University sorority, Write Night will now be hosted in a bigger space on the GWU campus to accommodate our growing volunteer base. This new location coincides with the transition of our Write Night Coordinators, as we say goodbye to longtime volunteer Ellen and welcome in longtime Free Minds friend Seana as our new Write Night/Volunteer Coordinator.  

The feedback our poets receive from Write Night is a source of strength and support for our members, and a reminder that they are not alone. A few words of encouragement go a long way for our incarcerated poets. One member, Curtis, recently wrote to us about how receiving write night comments have inspired him to write his own book! He told us:

“I would like to write a poetry book, what do you think? I’m kind of shy but I felt good after the one I sent you.”

A New Poetry Journal in the Making

We are happy to share with you that Free Minds is working on a new literary journal! After the success of our first journal, They Call Me 299-359, it is time once again to start gathering the prolific writing of our young poets for a new journal that will explore the root causes of youth incarceration. The journal will be used in classrooms and community events across DC and beyond and will serve as a tangible connection between incarcerated youth and the larger community.

For Free Minds members, the positive effects of writing and seeing their work published are countless. Along with serving as a tool for self-expression and a connection to others, writing is a medium through which our members can take pride in their talents and turn toward a path of success. Our member Antwon recently wrote to us to explain how writing allowed him to break free of the negativity of his past and turn his experiences into something positive.  As he puts it:

“I never did too much of nothing good in my life but write.”

Know that every time you give to Free Minds, you are giving the gift of change and transformation to our members. We cannot thank you enough!

Sincerely,

Sarah Mintz
Incarcerated Youth Programs Manager

FM Members Charlie & Maurice at an outreach event
FM Members Charlie & Maurice at an outreach event
Member Anthony speaks at a congressional hearing
Member Anthony speaks at a congressional hearing
With Orange is the New Black author Piper Kerman
With Orange is the New Black author Piper Kerman
Our next BAM! selection by Hill Harper
Our next BAM! selection by Hill Harper
Maurice comments on a poem for Write Night
Maurice comments on a poem for Write Night

Links:

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:

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