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.
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:

Jan 16, 2014

Something like Superheroes

Hill Harper after visiting the DC Jail Book Club
Hill Harper after visiting the DC Jail Book Club

Dear Free Minds Friends,

Happy New Year from Free Minds! We have big plans for 2014, and can’t wait to continue our life-changing work of bringing books and writing to DC’s incarcerated youth. Our latest Books Across the Miles! (BAM!) “virtual book club” selection was The Pact by Sampson Davis, George Davis, and Rameck Hunt with Lisa Frazier Page. The book tells the true story of three young men who grew up in the streets of Newark and made a promise to each other that they would beat the odds and all become doctors. The book was a big hit with our book club members in federal prison! Here’s what some of them had to say:  

“I like how they had each other’s backs. Wish I had some homies like that to go through life with.” –Robert

“The book was good! They all went through the same thing so they knew how to overcome obstacles. It made me want to go to college even more when I get home.” –Luis

In addition to the success of our BAM! reading initiative, we’ve been very busy introducing new and exciting programs to keep Free Minds members engaged and on a positive path toward change. Here are some of the highlights:

Famous Author and Actor Visits Jail

This past November, Free Minds Book Club welcomed a very special guest to our regular book club session at the juvenile block of the DC Jail: Hill Harper. Most well-known for his film career and role in the CBS crime drama CSI: NY, Harper is also the author of many successful books, including a Free Minds Books Across the Miles! Favorite, The Wealth Cure: Putting Money in Its Place. Harper’s most recent book, Letters to an Incarcerated Brother: Encouragement, Hope, and Healing for Inmates and Their Loved Ones, offers words of advice and support to inmates and their families. During his visit to the jail, Harper shared his own life stories and encouraged the young poets in the Book Club to become architects of their own lives, rather than allowing their lives to simply happen to them. Throughout the whole session, Harper stressed the importance of reading and education. He said:

"Do you know why I'm successful?  I'm successful because I got my education.  That is the number one reason."  

17-year-old Muquan was particularly impacted by the book Letters to an Incarcerated Brother and the visit from Hill Harper. He told us:

“That book tells it like it is. It’s a lot of good advice in there to help me better myself and my life. And now that I met [Harper], I know he’s for real.”

A Small Note with a Huge Impact

When Free Minds members turn 18, they are often shipped to federal prisons across the country. Far from their families and home community, many of our members express feeling deep loneliness and isolation. Here at Free Minds, we know first-hand the impact that regular and reliable contact can have on incarcerated youth and their chances of future success. That’s why we are teaming up with Flikshop, an innovative mobile app that allows individuals to send postcards to incarcerated loved ones directly from their phones. Flikshop founder Marcus Bullock is a Free Minds member who spent several years of his youth behind bars; while incarcerated, he and his co-defendants promised each other they would each be successful in their chosen field. So far they have all kept their promise! Through our Flikshop partnership, Free Minds will be able to send all of our incarcerated members high-quality postcards every other month in addition to our regular communication. As Marcus Bullock explains:

“We at Flikshop have fully committed ourselves to bridging the communication gap between inmates and the communities they left behind when they were incarcerated. If we can help support them when they are inside, it makes it that much easier for organizations like Free Minds Book Club to foster support for inmates when they reenter the community.”

Free Minds member Joe, who is currently incarcerated in North Carolina, wrote to us recently to share how Free Minds support has helped him through his incarceration period:

 “During the time I been in you guys was always there for me. I always receive books, letters, and birthday cards. You guys are awesome—something like superheroes, always there to save the day when I’m down.”

Windows from Prison

This fall, Free Minds members had the unique opportunity to participate in a collaborative community art project organized by local artist Mark Strandquist. The project invited prisoners from DC to answer a simple question: If you had a window in your cell, what place from your past would you want it to look out to? The written responses to this question were then handed over to local photography students, who took pictures of the requested locations and sent them back to the inmates. Both the photographs and the writings will be used in a public art exhibit that will give the general public a “window” into the hopes, desires, struggles, and histories of inmates. Here is an excerpt from Free Minds member Gary’s essay:

“6702 Hamilton Street…This place reminds me of my early childhood. My father would take me to football practice. Whenever I wasn’t at football practice, my friends and I would play football in the street, or tag. If I could see anything out my window, I would choose this. It reminds me about the days I would have to come home from school and do my homework before coming outside, before I grew up and started getting into trouble. I remember those days like it was yesterday.”

As Free Minds member Juan puts it:

“I believe that we all learn a lot from each other and Free Minds has helped us find and explore hidden talents that we never knew we had. You all helped us develop a voice and also helped us be heard. And I applaud and appreciate Free Minds for that.”
 

From all of us at Free Minds, thank you for helping us give incarcerated youth a voice. 

Until next time,

Sarah Mintz
Program Coordinator

FM Member Gary
FM Member Gary's "Windows from Prison" Photograph
Our most recent BAM! Book, The Pact
Our most recent BAM! Book, The Pact
Write Night volunteers commenting on member poems
Write Night volunteers commenting on member poems
FM Member Muquan
FM Member Muquan's "Windows from Prison" Photo
Our first Flikshop postcard to Free Minds members!
Our first Flikshop postcard to Free Minds members!

Links:

Dec 6, 2013

Teaching Each Other to Heal

All smiles after an event at a local high school
All smiles after an event at a local high school

Dear Free Minds Friends,

It’s been an exciting few months for Free Minds and the formerly incarcerated youth in our program. Thanks to supporters like you, we are working hard to expand our outreach programs in the community and equip our members with the practical work skills and strong support system that will help them succeed in their reentry process. Here are some of the projects we’ve been working on lately:

Raising Awareness for Youth Justice

In October, Free Minds hosted a panel with students at American University in honor of Youth Justice Awareness Month. Free Minds Poet Ambassadors Maurice, Alisha, Latrae, Deante, and Michael all shared their honest and insightful thoughts on the root causes of youth incarceration and ways that college students can make a difference in changing society's view of incarcerated youth. At one point in the panel, Free Minds member Latrae spoke about how losing his father to street violence put him on a negative path at the age of 12. Latrae said it wasn't until he began writing and changing his mindset that he could stop being angry at his father for dying and instead reflect on the factors that caused his father's death. It was at that moment that Latrae decided to push back against the violence that took away his father rather than contributing to it. As Free Minds member Alisha explains, the experience of sharing can be cathartic for Poet Ambassadors and audience members alike:

"In all my 23 years, I have never experienced so much excitement and positive energy. Moments like these—the moments of reflection, connection, understanding, and acceptance—are what make our outreach events so successful. Our goal as Poet Ambassadors is not only to make people aware of what's going on inside the judicial system, but also to brainstorm ideas on how we can make a difference in our communities and teach each other how to heal. I believe the panel was life changing for both the AU students and Free Minds members. As returning citizens there are so many challenges we face. But sharing our stories is the most fulfilling part of being home, because we know we really can make a change."

Free Minds is dedicated to increasing youth justice awareness through speaking engagements and “On the Same Page” events such as the panel at AU. Here’s what Poet Ambassador Charlie had to say about a recent “On the Same Page” event with 9th graders at Ballou High School:

"It was a really good feeling being able to share my story. Speaking is hard for me in front of groups but I do it because it's the right thing to do. We need to tell these kids they have to have goals other than the streets. I told them school was really hard for me. I could barely read and write so I ended up in the streets. Then in jail I met Free Minds, and now I can read well and I write poems. I’m going to work in construction and be alive so I'm around for my children."

We are also beginning to make our stories heard in more public forums: this fall, several of our members testified before a DC City Council hearing on recent suicides at the DC Jail. Our members bravely shared moments when they themselves were under mental distress, and how books and writing helped them see a way out of their depression.

From Apprenticeships to Fulltime Employment

This past November, two Free Minds members, Deante and Alisha, participated in the Free Minds apprenticeship—a 20 hour job-readiness program that teaches Free Minds members essential job and office skills while simultaneously giving them the opportunity to give back to the Free Minds community through outreach and program support. The unique structure of the program allows Free Minds members to come full circle and help the organization that once helped them. As Free Minds member Will, currently a manager at a sports store in DC, explains:

"Free Minds was right there for me when I came home, and that made all the difference. I worked my way up from being a sales associate and now I'm a manager. I often think that if I didn't get that help, then I might have gone right back and still be locked up instead of on the track I am now. I like being able to talk to the Free Minds guys coming home now and giving them motivation. " 

Looking to the future: A Memoir Workshop for Free Minds Members

Finding a creative outlet for self-expression is at the core of the Free Minds mission. From their very first book club session at the DC Jail, Free Minds members find a safe space to exercise their voice and vision through poetry and the written word. By the time they return home to the community, many of our members have already transformed into seasoned and enthusiastic writers. In order to sustain this passion for writing, Free Minds is starting a new memoir writing initiative for our reentry members. We will be bringing in a trained professional to help these formerly incarcerated youth articulate their stories so that they can more effectively share their powerful experiences with others.

All this and more would not be possible without your continuous support for our programs. On behalf of everyone at Free Minds, thank you for believing in the power of writing and change.

Sincerely,

Sarah Mintz
Free Minds Program Coordinator

Alisha meets Secretary of Education Arne Duncan!
Alisha meets Secretary of Education Arne Duncan!
Will (R) gives fellow member Deante job advice
Will (R) gives fellow member Deante job advice
Aquil reads a poem from our literary journal
Aquil reads a poem from our literary journal
FM member Latrae looking great at his new job
FM member Latrae looking great at his new job
Performing a group poem at Marymount University
Performing a group poem at Marymount University

Links:

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