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!
Sarah MintzIncarcerated Youth Programs Manager
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.
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 MintzProgram Coordinator
We love fall for so many reasons, but chief among them is that it is a season for reflection, and for gratitude. We are so thankful for all that we have accomplished this year, and we are looking forward to continuing our programs this autumn. With your help, we are reaching more young inmates to show them that change really is possible. Here are some things we’ve been up to recently:
Books Across the Miles
Our Books Across the Miles! (BAM!) initiative continues to inspire our Book Club members to stay engaged and in touch even as they are transferred to federal prisons across the country. Through the program, we choose a common book for all of our members to read, regardless of their facility location. Our members then share their thoughts, comments, and questions in our monthly newsletter, The Connect. Thus, our members are truly able to “connect” with one another and with a larger community of learners and writers.
This month, in a Free Minds first, one of our members stepped up to the plate to pick our next BAM! reading selection. His choice, Keep Going: The Art of Perseverance by Joseph M. Marshall III, follows a young Lakota man’s path to growth and peace after his father passes away. The young man’s grandfather sits with him under their family cottonwood tree and shares his wisdom on life and the pain and pleasure that comes along with it.
An avid reader, Marquee not only chose the book, but he also wrote an article in our newsletter explaining to his fellow Free Minds members what the book meant to him personally:
“My reason is simple. I’ve soaked up a lot of inspiration from it that I wanted to share with you all, my Free Minds brothers. The book’s message as I see it is this: We need to stop pitying ourselves and crying about things that are out of our hands. This book has given me a better understanding of patience.” –Marquee
Behind Bars But College-Bound
We recently received a heartfelt letter from a Free Minds member Donald, who asked us to help him fulfill his dream of attaining a college degree. Through correspondence programs such as Ohio University’s College for the Incarcerated, prisoners have the opportunity to pursue higher education from behind bars. The bad news is that these programs all cost money, making them inaccessible to the majority of our members, who come from some of the poorest neighborhoods in DC. However, that wasn’t a deterrent for Donald. As he wrote:
"I know how popular and LOVED Free Minds are, and I was hoping, praying, pretty much begging, that you could refer or recommend some people, groups organizations, anyone for me so I could write and try to get some help. I know it's kind of farfetched. Even the college said it would be difficult. However, I'm willing to give it all I got. I gotta try. I have to!”
We are awed and humbled by Donald’s dedication to continue learning and growing, and so we have begun plans to create a college scholarship fund for Free Minds members committed to taking their education to the next level.
A Community of Support
A unique aspect of the Free Minds program is our focus on mentorship and support. We know more than anyone that education and change are only possible with a supportive community who believes in your potential and ability. This emphasis on community allows our members to learn not only from us and themselves but from one another:
“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. I also want to thank you all for typing my poems and sending them back with response from people. It really helped to boost my confidence and encourage me to write more.” –Juan
And as another Free Minds member puts it:
“Free Minds is a miracle. The whole structure allows us to look through other people’s lives, and see the difference between ours and theirs, and we come to find out things isn’t that bad as we thought they was considering the things others around us have endured.” –Shawn
Support extends well beyond the Free Minds members and staff. We are so thankful for all that we have accomplished this year, and we couldn’t have done it without your generosity. One of our Free Minds members wrote to us recently to express just how much that support has meant to him over the years. Incarcerated as a juvenile for an adult crime in 2006, Phil came to the book club with a lot of anger and pain, but changed dramatically as he began to express himself through writing.
“I’ve been thinkin’ a lot lately and really just lookin’ back at myself. And I’ve really grown up and matured. At first a person couldn’t pay me to sit back and write a poem or express myself to others. Being exposed to that hidden talent I have has made me who I am today. It’s also helped me with my people skills and my vocabulary. Free Minds has been there from the beginning to the end through rain, sleet, hail, and snow. Y’all have been there through the toughest times out of my life and I just want to thank y’all for all you have done for me.” –Phil
As we move further into the autumn season, we are working harder than ever to connect more young men like Juan, Shawn, and Phil with their inner potential and talent. Thanks to individual donors like you, together we are building a stronger and safer community.
Until next time,
SarahFree Minds Program Coordinator
July is a month to celebrate freedom and independence. One of our favorite sayings here at Free Minds is: “Though you may be locked up, your mind can still be free!” Thanks to supporters like you, our incarcerated Book Club members have the tools and resources they need to express themselves through writing and expand their outlook through literature. And what a difference we are making together! With access to books, poetry feedback, and a caring community to keep in touch with them, our members find the support system they need to succeed against the odds and achieve new career and educational goals.
Our Books Across the Miles (BAM!) initiative continues to engage Free Minds members incarcerated in federal prisons across the country. Our summer BAM! selection was Detoured: My Journey From Darkness to Light by Jesse De La Cruz. Detoured tells the true story of how De La Cruz turned his life around from being a heroin addict and gang member who spent thirty years in the California prison system to earning a Master’s degree in social work and founding a transitional housing organization for returning citizens. Here’s what our members had to say about the book:
Detoured was incredible. De La Cruz is a real example of what we ex-convicts should strive for. He proved it’s possible to struggle with drug abuse and crime but eventually earn a master’s degree. Amazing. –Demetrius
I give Detoured 5 stars because I don’t think nobody in Free Minds messed up more times than Mr. De La Cruz, and for him to show his struggle and make something out of his life was very inspirational and motivating. If that book don’t encourage people to get their act right, well I don’t think nothing will. It shouldn’t have to take for us to constantly get locked-up to learn our lesson when we can learn from Mr. De La Cruz’s mistakes. He has some very good quotes in the book also, like when he said, “Your life ain’t your own. You see it’s everybody else’s life too. You may think you’re in the world all by yourself struggling and doing and making the best for yourself, but you’re not alone.” Love it. –Arthur
This summer we were also fortunate enough to have the opportunity to participate in the Live to Read program sponsored by the DC Council for the Humanities. The program invites people from all over DC to read and discuss the same book. This year, the chosen title was Bombingham by Anthony Grooms, a historical novel that takes place in 1963 amidst the height of the Civil Rights movement in Birmingham, Alabama. It is amazing to think that no matter how far our members are from home, they still have the opportunity to engage with the DC community. Having the entire community behind them lets Free Minds youth stay connected and know their voices are not forgotten! Our members tell us time and time again what a difference it makes having someone there in your corner rooting for your success:
I will always remember Free Minds Book Club & Workshop from when I was on the juvenile block at DC Jail. I share Free Minds books with others that never knew about Free Minds and I also talk with people about different activities the program shared together on the juvenile block. I love Free Minds Book Club...I want you to know I read a lot and I try my best to stay positive. And a lot has changed about me through this time. I'm about love and "love conquers all." –Tavon
I remember when I was in the book club. I used to look forward to you coming. I couldn’t wait to read my poems to y’all and get feedback. You guys really don’t know what a difference you make on our lives. You gave me a way to express my feelings; you gave me an outlet, someone to talk to without being judgmental. That was years ago yet here you are still to this day. I just wanted to say thanks for everything you’ve done and everything you will do in the future, whether it be for me or any other young man who’s looking for a way out. –Dmitri
Members like Tavon and Dmitri are so appreciative of the books they have received that they have started to “pay it forward” by sharing books with their cellmates and writing recommendations for the books that have inspired them the most to be featured in our monthly newsletter The Connect. In the spirit of giving, our next Connect theme is “Pay It Forward”; the issue will focus on ways in which incarcerated youth can build a better future for the next generation of DC youth.
Every time you donate, you are giving a young man in our program a second chance at life. We couldn’t do it without you! Thank you, from all of us at Free Minds, for believing in the power of books and writing.
Sarah MintzCommunity Outreach Coordinator
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