Dear Free Minds Friends,
We are so thrilled that spring has finally reached Washington DC! Last time we updated you, our winter book order was just going out, and our incarcerated Free Minds members were beginning to read The Wealth Cure: Putting Money in Its Place by Hill Harper as part of our Books Across the Miles (BAM!) reading initiative. In the past months we’ve gotten some great feedback from our members about the book, which re-conceptualizes wealth to include the value of building strong relationships. Here’s what some of our members had to say about the book:
"The Wealth Cure is definitely a '5' hands down. I really enjoyed it, maybe because those types of conversations and books grab my attention.” —Devonte
“I read The Wealth Cure, and I was amazed, really. That’s the first book of his that I had ever read, and now I want to read his whole collection! One day while I was on lockdown I got completely lost in my book. I started reading around 5:30 or 6:00 PM and next time I checked my watch it was past 11! I read something in that Hill Harper book that blew my mind. He said that doing the things that bring you the most joy in life will ultimately lead you to your purpose in life. The way Hill Harper flowed smoothly through that book with the strength that comes along with honesty and vulnerability...I was in awe. That’s something I aspire to—I want my book to be like that. I want my life to be like that.”—Jonas
In Free Minds we have long held to the belief that anyone can learn to love reading; all it takes is the right book. For this reason in addition to our BAM! selections, we also send our members additional books we think they would enjoy based on their individual personalities and interests. We send fiction, mysteries, biographies, drawing books, graphic novels, GED and vocational training books—you name it. We understand that books can serve a functional purpose as well. For many of our incarcerated members, the books we send are the only opportunity they have to acquire practical information about job skills. And as one Free Minds member explains, books have the power to transform lives and allow people to see the world in a whole new light:
"My perspective on life has risen to heights through the books that Free Minds has exposed me to. They bring books that I never before would have thought came close to reality or at least my reality. But reading books and mind-provoking literature has opened my mind to view the world through a different lens."—Robert
Another exciting project we’ve been working on lately is revamping our monthly newsletter to federal prison, The Connect. We’ve been working tirelessly to solicit feedback on the newsletter so we can include information that our members find engaging, relevant, and educational. The extra effort seems to be working because we’ve gotten increasing requests from cellmates of Free Minds members asking if they can subscribe to the newsletter as well! We’ve changed the format to include a regular writing advice column, a regular international page and news updates column, and a monthly article about our current BAM! book. Every issue also has a theme that members can respond to by contributing their own original thoughts, poems, and art. Our most recent theme was “Trust.”
As youth in the adult system, many of our members spend tremendous amounts of time in lockdown for their own protection. In solitary confinement, our members spend 23 hours a day alone in their cells and 1 hour outside of their cells. The books, newsletters, and writing feedback we send help them process through their isolation and keep their minds active and their spirits up:
“I survived 90 days on lockdown all by myself in my cell. Reading books made me get through it. Before Free Minds came I didn’t read at all. It was nothing I wanted to do at all. When I was reading I could picture all the things they were talking about like it was a movie. It let me know what things are going on around the world. Books showed me that life doesn’t revolve around my neighborhood. They made my reading level go up too!”—Malik
“I never thought I would love Harry Potter. I wasn’t into dragons and wizards and all that stuff. But when I was on lockdown, I just wanted to read so badly. If it hadn’t been for those Harry Potter books, I would never have gotten through solitary confinement.”—Andre
Books provide a vital lifeline between our members and the outside community, and we couldn’t make that connection without all your support. Thank you so much for believing in the power of literature to create change!
Happy New Year! We are looking forward to continuing our mission of educating and inspiring incarcerated youth in 2013, and we couldn’t do it without your support!
As many of you know, our members begin their involvement with Free Minds through our weekly Book Club sessions at the DC jail, where teenage inmates learn to appreciate literature and to use writing as a means to express their own stories. But the Free Minds journey does not end there! When they turn 18, our members are often sent off to federal prisons across the country to serve the remainder of their sentences. Far from their homes and families, members can feel isolated and alone in their struggles. Free Minds helps ease the distance and foster a true sense of community by sticking with our members every step of the way—we send books, a monthly newsletter, birthday cards, poetry feedback, and more.
Through our “virtual” book club program, Books Across the Miles (BAM!), incarcerated members get the opportunity to continue their emotional and intellectual growth. This winter, members read The Autobiography of Malcolm X as Told to Alex Haley. Free Minds member Trevon wrote to share the impact the book had on him:
“Thank you x 3 for the amazing books you all sent. ‘The Autobiography of Malcolm X’ just might be my all-time favorite book now. His overall struggle through life at a time when things were much worse than now should be proof to any young or old black male and female that all things are possible if you put your mind to it, despite your economic background or mistakes made in your life...”
Our next BAM! pick is The Wealth Cure: Putting Money in Its Place by New York Times bestselling author Hill Harper. The book challenges readers to reconsider how we define wealth in our lives and to place more value on relationships.
Many BAM! participants have been so inspired by the books they read that they have begun writing their own! Our monthly Write Night, where community members gather to provide feedback on poetry by incarcerated members, continues to thrive. This past fall we had record-high Write Night attendance, with over 40 people showing up at events. We also continue to publish member poetry on our Writing Blog. We print and mail all comments to the poets in federal prison. Your feedback lets our writers know they their voices are being heard and that their stories matter.
Free Minds member Decario recently described the powerful experience of receiving mail in prison:
“Wow, I’m honestly just overwhelmed and afraid that my words aren’t going to do my feelings justice. Y’all were there when nobody else was. You kept writing to me when literally everyone else had forgotten me. I mean everyone! Just hearing your name called by the CO [Corrections Officer] during mail call when nobody else had bothered. You feel so alone in that situation, and then to hear your name called by that CO? Well, that’s an awesome feeling! You feel alive again. It means so much.”
Another member, Curtis, wrote to us about the comments he received on his writing:
“I want to thank you for sending me the feedback on my poetry. It caught me at the right time. It turned my whole day around. About those responses to my writing, it touched me that people felt the way they did about something I wrote.”
Meanwhile, the Book Club was visited by two accomplished authors this fall. Walter Dean Myers, author of young adult bestsellers such as Fallen Angels and Monster, demonstrated to Book Club members at the DC Jail that writing and creativity can be a gateway to success. We were also visited by Erin Gruwell, the teacher who inspired the movie Freedom Writers. Gruwell shared her inspirational story with the Book Club and challenged our members to think critically about their choices and values. She later expressed to us why she believes reaching out to incarcerated youth is so important:
“As an English teacher, I believe in allowing everyone the opportunity to share their story and possibly rewrite their own ending. So I think Free Minds is just that opportunity for young people who may have made some bad decisions. They’re not bad people. And we want to honor their story, we want to celebrate their voices, and watch them as they rewrite their ending.”
Books Across the Miles provides our incarcerated members with an invaluable connection to the community. Thank you for believing in the power of words, and for helping our members as they write new chapters in their lives!
P.S. To stay current with Free Minds Book Club & Writing Workshop, don’t forget to like us on facebook!
Happy Fall! In the months since our last update, we’ve had a lot going on here at Free Minds. As you know, our work begins with the Book Club at the DC Jail, but it does not end there. In our weekly Book Club sessions, teenage inmates learn to read and appreciate literature—and to write some of their own! These sessions are the foundation of the broader Free Minds community, and it is crucial that our young members retain that sense of community after they turn 18 and are transferred to adult jails or prisons. That’s where Books Across the Miles—and all of you!—comes in.
In August, Free Minds members read Game Over: The Rise and Transformation of a Harlem Hustler by Azie Faison, a true story chronicling Faison’s incredible story of change and escape from a life of violence. We’re excited to announce that our next Books Across the Miles selection will be The Autobiography of Malcolm X As Told To Alex Haley; this title was selected by a Free Minds member himself!
The impact of the Book Club can be summed up in a recent letter from Hernan, a young man who immigrated to the US as a child: “I didn’t want to remember my past because it made me feel bad, but now as the years go by I have begun to understand the world by reading. By reading you can find experiences that compare to things you have been through and find similarities… Little by little, your mind begins to change. Now I look, listen, and read. There is a lot to learn, and with the book club I’ve learned to value life.”
Book Club members have also taken up journal writing and spoken word poetry! Though we can’t share it all with you, you can read some of their poetry on our writing blog. These young writers love to hear from you, so please leave a comment (or three)!
In the meantime, our monthly Volunteer Write Night events are still going strong, with new faces showing up every time! At Write Night, volunteers from all over the DC community read poems by the incarcerated poets of Free Minds, and they decorate the poems with their own thoughts, feelings, or even artwork. We mail the responses back to the poets, many of whom look forward to reading their Write Night comments every month. One volunteer, Wenna, said this:
“I have been attending Write Night for almost a year and I love it! I heard about it on Facebook and after the first one I was hooked. There is a really positive atmosphere and it is so exciting to be part of a diverse group of volunteers who are all joined by one common aim. I love the variety of themes that the Free Minds Members tackle and the broad range of styles from street to religious. The opportunity to communicate with and learn from someone you have never met is rare and has really broadened my perspective on the world. The experience also gave me the confidence to start writing myself thanks to the encouragement of the Members who attend Write Night. I really value Free Minds Write Night as it is such a great opportunity for learning, reflection, and self-improvement, and I always recommend it to my friends. I would be lost without it. Thank you Free Minds!”
We also recently hosted three professional basketball players at the Book Club: Etan Thomas, Laron Profit, and Travis Garrison. They joined us to discuss Thomas’s newest book, Fatherhood, which we read in the Book Club earlier in the summer. They discussed struggles with their own fathers, and how to be good fathers to their own children. The session was moving for all involved; thank you Etan, Laron, and Travis!
“A lot of people don’t know how to get over not having a father. We never talk about it. But a lot of people I know have been through it. I know what it’s like, but there’s always a way to break through that wall.” - Laron Profit
“It’s a great thing that Free Minds is doing because Free Minds gives these kids hope, gives them a chance to express themselves and to learn from their mistakes.” – Travis Garrison
“Writing is just to be able to get your emotions and your frustrations out. Reading opens up your whole world to everything. I’ll be a supporter of Free Minds forever.” – Etan Thomas
Thanks to your support, Books Across the Miles (BAM!), our ‘virtual book club,’ is about to turn one and is still going strong! Free Minds Book Club & Writing Workshop begins in a small room on the juvenile block of the DC Jail, where 16- and 17-year-old boys meet every Thursday to discuss the books they’re reading and to work on their own writing. Recent book club books include Game Over, 16 on the Block, and Fatherhood. But when they turn 18, they’re transferred to the adult jail or to federal prisons. Since DC does not have its own prison, these young men are often sent across the country to institutions where they are far from their families and friends. At this critical juncture, reading and writing prove to be an invaluable connection to the community. Through Books Across the Miles, each member receives the same book, along with discussion questions, writing prompts, and responses in our newsletter, the Free Minds Connect. This allows us to continue nurturing a love of reading and a sense of togetherness even when we are physically separated.
In our last report, we told you about our BAM! selection Rich Dad Poor Dad. After the success of Rich Dad Poor Dad, we read Enrique’s Journey by Sonia Navarro. Enrique’s Journey is the true story of a young boy who makes the treacherous journey from his home in Honduras to the United States. Abandoned by his father, he lived with his mother and his younger sister until she too left him and his sister – she traveled to the U.S. to make a living for her family. After years of heartbreak and separation, 16-year-old Enrique set out to find her.
We chose this book for Books Across the Miles because it tells the harrowing tale of a journey which many of our Free Minds members have made. By reading Enrique’s Journey, we hoped to spark a greater understanding and appreciation for other backgrounds and perspectives, and a greater sense of community. Judging by the responses we’ve received so far, it has been an overwhelming success!
One member, Hernan, wrote in a letter from federal prison, “I lived a story just like Enrique’s Journey when I came to the United States.” He went on to tell of hours spent hiding in a cramped train compartment, and the treacherous dealings with coyotes and traffickers. At one point, he said, the Mexican coyotes took them out of the train where they had been hiding. “They took all of our money and they all had AK-47s.” They raped a young girl in front of her mother and the rest of the travelers. “I was 8 years old,” he wrote, “and I remember how I trembled in fear.”
Yester wrote to us with a similar story, of how he too traveled to the United States to rejoin his mother, and how he walked for days through the Sonora desert without a guide.
“Like Enrique, I am also from Honduras, from a city called Siguatepeque, two hours from Tegucigalpa. When I was 5 years old, my father abandoned my mom, my sister, and I. The money ran out and we were in need, so my mom decided to go the US. It was a very sad life and I really wanted to be with my mom.” When he was 14, he left Honduras to rejoin his mother in the United States. In his own words, “At one point, we all had to get on the luggage compartment of the bus, more than 20 people, for over an hour, while we were at a checkpoint. I felt like I was dying from the heat and the poor ventilation, I couldn’t breathe very well and was in great agony…We got to the Sonora desert, which was the place where we had to walk for two days and two nights, but most of the time we walked at night, along with a Mexican guide, whose job was to cross people over from the Mexican side to the US side. The next day we lost him because he used all the money that the coyote had given him to buy a drug named chrystal and he walked too fast until we lost him. So two days turned into four agonizing hot days where we had to sleep during the day and walk at night. I was traumatized, I couldn’t sleep, I felt scorpions and snakes walking on me, it was a desperate situation. We ran out of water twice; the first time, we found a water tank, like for a farm, where there were dead birds and filth, but we needed water, so we drank it.”
But Enrique’s Journey isn’t only for people who have lived through those situations. Demetrius, an African American Free Minds member who has lived in Washington, D.C. his entire life, aptly proved the power of literature to connect people of different backgrounds, when he wrote this for our newsletter: “I could relate a lot to that book. I mean I didn’t have to jump no trains and stuff but when I was young I was also separated from my mother.” Thanks to Books Across the Miles, Demetrius, Yester, and Hernan were able to relate to another’s story, express that through our newsletter, and feel a common bond.
We have just sent out our newsletter, the Free Minds Connect, and are currently preparing for the next book order. Thanks to your continued support, over 125 young men will receive the book Game Over: The Rise and Transformation of a Harlem Hustler by Azie Faison. We are all very excited about this new book, which chronicles one man’s motivations and methods for seeking positive change in his life.
In the meantime, the young men in our book club continue to read and write poetry; you can read some of their poems on the Free Minds Writing Blog. Take a look, find a poem you like, and write a comment for the poet! The writers love hearing feedback from the community. It builds their self-esteem and shows them that their voices are being heard. Every week, we print out and mail the comments to the incarcerated poets. Though it takes only a minute to write a comment, it means so much to the poets when they hear from you.
As always, we are deeply grateful for your generosity and your belief in the power of reading and writing. As we say to our members, keep your mind free!
Dear Friends of Free Minds,
Thanks to your support, “Books Across the Miles,” or “BAM!” continues to be a big hit! Our “virtual” book club allows us to share books with 125 of our Free Minds members in Continuing Support, young men from DC now incarcerated in federal prisons all over the country. Because they are far from home, their loved ones are rarely able to visit them and the long-distance book club is one of their only opportunities to really connect to each other and to the outside world. Through “Books Across the Miles,” these young men can read the books together—even though they’re far apart—and participate in discussions through our newsletter Free Minds Connect. The newsletter, along with BAM! helps them feel connected and shows them that the outside community has not forgotten about them, a crucial element in promoting positive transformation.
In our last report, we told you about reading “Ruined,” by Lynn Nottage. After that, we read “The Conversation” by Hill Harper, a powerful book about relationships between men and women. It got an appreciative response from BAM! participants, including one who wrote from Federal Prison in California to say:“I’m reading The Conversation, and it’s just perfect for me!”
One of the goals of Free Minds Book Club & Writing Workshop is for members to be deeply involved with all levels of the organization, and so we are proud that the next selection was chosen a Free Minds member himself. Michael, now home in the community, explains his process:
"There was a time when I was on the other side of the fence receiving books. The BAM! book that first caught my attention was named "Ruined." It was my first time reading a play so it was very interesting. Reading it took me back to that place where you feel like you’re going on an adventure . That's what made me fall in love with reading in the first place because I was physically incarcerated, but my mind was free as an eagle soaring above. It inspired me so much I wrote a poem called “Ruined,” so I truly understand the power books have. That leads me to now being on the outside getting the opportunity to choose the latest BAM! book which is "Rich Dad Poor Dad." I chose that book because money is something that plays a huge factor in most of our lives. I read that book while I was incarcerated and it totally gave ma new way of dealing with the "Almighty Dollar." I now know the difference between my needs and wants, which most of the time plays a big role in how we value and spend money. I figure why not pass some valuable information to all the Free Minds Members? If a book can give me a better understanding of something I need to maintain and manage, why not send: Books Across Miles?"
Micheal's choice of valuable information was confirmed by enthusiastic feedback from participants still incarcerated, including one member who wrote, "I love that book. All I want to read about is how to make money and make money work for you. It’s very informative. It gives wisdom and that’s all I want to do is learn so I can get my brain fat. I need answers. I must be successful, it’s a fire burning in me."
After the success of “Rich Dad Poor Dad,” we are now getting ready to send out our next BAM! title: “Enrique’s Journey” by Sonia Nazario. “Enrique’s Journey” is the true story of a 16-year-old Honduran boy whose mother left him and his little sister for the United States when they were small children. Her husband had left her, and she felt the United States was her only chance of being able to earn enough money to give her children the life she wanted them to have. Unfortunately, what she thought would only take a few years stretched into many more. Enrique finally sets out on a dangerous journey to the United States to find his mother. We chose this book because some Free Minds members have actually made this journey and have unbelievable tales to tell. By reading “Enrique’s Journey,” we will be able to better understand and appreciate what some people—including some of our friends—have risked to come to this country. One of the most important things is community—and by taking this journey together we know we can strengthen our own community at Free Minds!
We also continue to publish our members’ writing to our writing blog. Check it out, find a poem you like, and write some feedback! The new poets love hearing from you. It builds their self confidence and lets them know that their voices are being heard. We print out and mail the comments and feedback from the blog to the poets in federal prisons. You’ve heard from them, now let them hear from you!
Thanks again for your belief in the power of reading and writing! We are so grateful for your support.
P.S. To stay current with the work of Free Minds Book Club & Writing Workshop, don't forget to like us on facebook!
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