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
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!
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