Dear Free Minds Friends,
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.
Until next time,
Sarah MintzCommunity Outreach Coordinator
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
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