Dear Free Minds Friends,
I’d like to share with you a message from a young man in our program:
“I’ve been in the same predicament as so many troubled youth. It’s important for me to give back and mentor them, because it’s what I needed when I was their age. I’ve seen the weight that the label of ‘felon’ gives a person. I remember how Free Minds stuck with me throughout my bid. I remember how it felt when you were expecting mail from your family, or your man, or your girlfriend and you didn’t get anything. But then they called your name at mail call and it was a letter from Free Minds. That shows you have somebody that cares about you. They helped me so much. Now that I’m home, I’m here for Free Minds. I ain’t going nowhere! Helping others? For me, it’s a necessity!”
That’s Robert, a young man who joined Free Minds Book Club & Writing Workshop when he was 16 years old and incarcerated as an adult. Robert came home earlier this year at the age of 24, and in just a few weeks he got a job with the DC Department of General Services on a maintenance crew. He also began doing community outreach with Free Minds as a Poet Ambassador—if you’ve attended any of our Write Night events recently, you might have heard him share his poetry!
Robert is not the only one of our Reentry Support members to achieve success in the last few months—far from it!
Free Minds Members Finding Success
Since our last report, four recently released members have graduated from our Job Readiness Apprenticeship program: congratulations to Steven, Zach, Calvin, and Phil! During the apprenticeship, they provided program support in the Free Minds office, while practicing crucial job skills such as computer literacy, communication, and teamwork. They also learned how to write a resume, and how to succeed in a job interview!
At the end of the Apprenticeship, Phil began working full-time at a local restaurant. Andre, another Reentry Support member who came home in the fall, got a job at a supermarket. Aaron went back to school and is working towards his high school diploma. Finally, long-time Free Minds member Will launched his own cleaning business, achieving his goal of being his own boss!
This fall, our Reentry Support members had the opportunity to work with employees of the Advisory Board Company on skills such as public speaking, communication, and problem solving in the workplace. Free Minds members and Advisory Board Company staff acted out various scenarios and different methods of conflict management. It was an eye-opening day for everyone!
Poets With A Purpose
Free Minds “Poet Ambassadors” have also been sharing the voices of incarcerated youth and spreading the word about how books and writing can change lives. In October, five Poet Ambassadors traveled to Scranton University in Pennsylvania, taking On the Same Page on the road for the first time! They shared their poetry and life experiences with Scranton University students, who had this to say about the event:
“This really opened my eyes to the issues these young men face. Thank you.”
“Very inspiring! The speakers are very brave and it is so amazing that they are where they are!”
“Being a big writer, it’s awesome to see how writing helps incarcerated youth. Writing is such a freeing experience and you really emphasized that.”
Free Minds Reentry Support members have also brought their message to DC City Council: this fall, seven Poet Ambassadors testified at a City Council hearing on a bill to keep juveniles out of the adult criminal justice system, the Youth Offender Accountability and Rehabilitation Act (YOARA). Although the bill did not ultimately get a vote in this legislative session, the Free Minds members made their voices heard and helped mobilize community support for this legislation.
Meanwhile, in addition to our On the Same Page events with local student and community groups, our Poet Ambassadors conduct weekly writing workshops with incarcerated youth at New Beginnings Youth Development Center, and biweekly workshops with students at a DC middle school.
Poet Ambassador Anthony shared with us why he enjoys going to the school:
“I like going there because when I share my story with the middle school kids it helps them open up about what’s going on in their lives and it also helps me process what I was going through when I was their age so I can understand my life better. Low income and fixed income children have dreams as the kids share with us every Friday. Our goal as poets with a purpose, Free Minds Poet Ambassadors, is to help them with their dreams.”
Thank you for helping Free Minds members achieve their dreams this holiday season.
Dear Free Minds Friends and Supporters,
We hope everyone had a lovely summer and that you are all ready for fall! At Free Minds, we’ve been very busy, and the past few months have flown by. As always, your support has helped us and our members achieve many of our goals, but this summer, especially, you’ve helped us make lasting connections with people all over the country! Here’s what we’ve been up to lately:
Creating Life-Changing Opportunities
In August, Free Minds Executive Director Tara Libert, Free Minds member Wilbert, and Free Minds friend Liz Ryan traveled to Los Angeles to attend the Homeboys National Network Conference, organized by Homeboys Industries. Homeboys Industries, based in California, provides employment, job training, and other free services and programs to formerly-gang-involved people, giving them opportunities to make important lifestyle changes and avoid violence.
At the conference, Tara, Wilbert, and Liz learned more about Homeboys Industries’ comprehensive therapeutic approach to violence prevention and creating lasting community change. They also met with Homeboys Industries founder Father Greg Boyle, whose motto is “nothing stops a bullet like a job.” Additionally, while at the conference, our Free Minds delegates met with other organizations who share our mission, such as the Anti-Recidivism Coalition. We’re excited to incorporate what they learned into our own programs in DC!
As an added bonus, this was Wilbert's first opportunity not only to fly in an airplane, but also to see the ocean and to see his horizons broadened (literally!). We can't wait to see where this journey takes him next.
Bringing Awareness to College Classrooms
In our last update, we talked about our youth violence prevention program, On the Same Page, and its exciting expansion to include college students. This summer, we continued this trend, reaching classrooms at Georgetown and Howard Universities. Students had this to say about the experience:
“Thank you so much. I know this is supposed to be our day of service, but I feel like you all have done a great service to me. Thank you.” - A Howard University student who participated in On the Same Page as part of the annual Day of Service
"Meeting the Free Minds Poet Ambassadors was the highlight of my freshman orientation. Hearing their stories made me even more committed and excited to pursue my passion for social justice." - A Georgetown University student
Free Minds friend Frank, a returning citizen, was honored to participate in On the Same Page as a Poet Ambassador:
"Sharing my life story with the Howard students was life-changing for me. It was amazing having people who really listened. It made me realize that this is what I want to do. I want to keep talking to people and telling them about the prison system and what we can do to keep people from entering that system."
Learning doesn’t stop at the primary or secondary levels, so our violence prevention program shouldn’t either. We hope to reach even more college campuses in the near future, and we are eager to see where our growth leads us next!
Going Above and Beyond
This summer, we conducted in-house apprenticeships with two younger members, Steven and Diquan. Steven and Diquan just came home from the DC Jail, and at only 17 years old, they are our youngest members to complete the apprenticeship program! As apprentices, they learned valuable job readiness skills, provided program support for other Free Minds members who are still incarcerated, and created action plans to help them achieve their educational and career goals.
Meanwhile, our other Reentry Support members have continued on their paths to success, with successful job placements in construction, commercial driving, and food services. Poet Ambassador Charlie signed on as a co-facilitator for our weekly writing workshops at the New Beginnings Youth Development Center (DC's juvenile detention facility), meeting with the teenagers every week to share his story and talk about how books and writing helped him change his life. Finally, Wilbert began working in a food truck in preparation for his plan to launch his own food truck, where he hopes to employ Free Minds members in the future. We are so proud of our Reentry Support members and their incredible accomplishments. We hope you will join us in congratulating them all!
We know that our success and the changes we and our members continue to make in our communities would not be possible without your unfailing support. Thank you again for helping us achieve our goals!
Dear Free Minds Friends & Supporters,
We hope you are all doing well! It was a wonderful spring for Free Minds—many of our members returned home from federal prison, and we were thrilled to reunite with them on the outside! Thanks to your support, our reentry members are succeeding against the odds and reaching new milestones in their professional and educational goals. We couldn’t do it without you!
In May, Free Minds was honored by the Washington Mystics WNBA women’s basketball team with a Community Champion Award! The award recognizes DC residents who are making a lasting difference in their home community. Check out some of the ways Free Minds members have been creating change lately:
The Skills that Matter
Here at Free Minds, we see firsthand just how powerful books and writing can be in the life of a young inmate. A good book can be a gateway to a whole different way of thinking; a first poem can be the beginning of a lifetime of creative self-expression. However, we also know that for many of our members, training and instruction in tangible job skills can make all the difference in their reentry process.
Recently, the reentry members in our program had the opportunity to participate in two unique workshops: a public speaking session with Bradford Koles Jr. of The Advisory Board Company, and a life-coaching session with Nadjejda Chapoteau of Light of Haiti, LLC. Mr. Koles and Ms. Chapoteau both talked with our members about the importance of sharing your story and keeping a positive attitude. Free Minds Member Alisha told us how the public speaking training helped her be more effective in her community outreach:
“He told us, ‘‘remember that no matter how many times you tell a story, there’s someone in the audience who is hearing it for the first time.’ When he said that, I realized that public speaking is so important. It helps us to make a personal connection to the community we are trying to reach. It allows outsiders a glimpse into who we are and gives us a chance to make our community aware of the issues that we fight so hard to change.” –Alisha
Learning from Role Models
Last month, Free Minds reentry members took a fieldtrip to the headquarters of Flikshop, a mobile app that allows users to send postcards to incarcerated loved ones directly from their phones. Flikshop was founded by Marcus Bullock, who spent 8 years in prison for a crime he committed at the age of 15. Marcus gave our members a tour of his office and told them how he turned his past experiences into a positive, constructive, and successful business.
"Marcus inspired me. I just can't believe he served 8 years and was just like us and now he has his own company! That just amazes me. He's proof that no matter what background you come from you can make it. He told us about working backwards to make our goals. [That strategy] worked for me already in my goal of being a personal trainer, and I’m going to use it when I start my property manager classes soon.” –Anthony
The Power of Personal Stories
Our youth violence prevention program, “On the Same Page,” continues to strengthen bonds between Free Minds members and the larger DC community. This spring, we expanded our programs to include college students on alternative spring break trips, international fellows, and many more. Through “On the Same Page” programs, our members have the rare opportunity to connect with people from very different walks of life using poetry. This exchange brings the whole community closer and inspires others to make tangible changes in their own lives to stop the cycle of violence. Here is some of the feedback our Poet Ambassadors received in their outreach sessions this spring:
“Hearing personal stories is really powerful. It's one thing to read that ex-offenders are denied access to public housing. It's another to have someone look you in the eye and say ‘I can't go home.’”
“My baby sister is getting involved with a boy who is into drugs and hasn't had a strong foundation growing up. I've never met him, but I've been inspired to reach out to him any way I can the next time I'm home.”
Thanks to supporters like you, the formerly incarcerated youth in our program have the skills and resources they need to create meaningful change in their own lives and others. We cannot thank you enough!
Until Next Time,
Sarah MintzIncarcerated Youth Programs Manager
It has been a cold and snow-filled winter here in Washington, DC, but we have been so busy that we’ve hardly had time to notice! The previously incarcerated youth in our reentry program continue to impress us with their resolve to achieve their career and educational goals, despite all obstacles. Thanks to your generous support, we are able to help these motivated youth turn their goals into a tangible reality. As we move into spring, we invite you to share in some of our latest successes:
Apprenticeship Graduation: “Turn your skills into something positive”
On February 24, Free Minds celebrated six Free Minds reentry members for their successful completion of the Free Minds apprenticeship. The weeklong apprenticeship program teaches previously incarcerated youth office and job readiness skill while simultaneously giving them the opportunity to give back to the Free Minds community through violence prevention outreach. Here’s what Free Minds member Alisha had to say about her apprenticeship experience:
“The apprenticeship was a great learning experience for me, because I learned how to act on the job: how to dress professionally, be on time for work, and how to improve my computer skills.” –Alisha
At the graduation celebration, we were joined by several guest speakers, including Woodrow Sheffield, co-director of Success Through Redirection, Education, Empowerment and Training (S.T.R.E.E.T.) and Marcus Bullock, founder and executive director of Flikshop, a mobile app that improves communication between inmates and their loved ones. Both Mr. Sheffield and Mr. Bullock are returning citizens who have built successful careers for themselves while simultaneously mentoring other young men on the path to change their lives. Mr. Bullock, who spent 8 years in prison for a crime committed at the age of 15, shared these words of advice with our apprenticeship graduates:
“One thing I like to talk about with guys coming home from prison is opportunities. Free Minds is an incredible resource. A lot of times we don’t see the opportunities coming across our lives because we’re not paying attention. But you have to pay attention, because it’s the small opportunities that snowball. They grow bigger and bigger. You have to believe in yourself enough to take your skills and turn them into something positive. Just a few weeks ago, I celebrated my 10 year anniversary of coming home from prison. Even after everything I’ve accomplished since, I consider this milestone one of my biggest successes.” –Marcus Bullock
New Beginnings: “I know what they’re going through and I want to be there for them”
As our “On the Same Page” school violence prevention program continues to grow, our Free Minds Poet Ambassadors (reentry members who participate in community outreach) gain invaluable public speaking and communication skills with each event they attend. To bring their outreach skills to the next level and help our Poet Ambassadors more effectively communicate their stories, we invited Chelsea Kirk, an English teacher at New Beginnings Juvenile Detention Center, to provide a classroom management training. Ms. Kirk stressed the importance of making personal connections, setting clear expectations for the group, and engaging youth with relevant topics. During On the Same Page sessions, Free Minds members incorporate not only their own poems and stories, but also the stories of their fellow members who are still incarcerated. Here is an excerpt of a letter that incarcerated Free Minds member Yester wrote to DC students:
“You can make the decision to say NO to violence. I know that at school it’s not easy to behave well all the time; sometimes it is very hard to avoid a discussion, a fight, and other things, not only in school but also outside of school, in your house, in your neighborhood, or your streets. But let me tell you something: you don’t need to be violent to be brave. You don’t have to be violent to be popular. What you don’t want others to do to you, don’t do to anyone else, or what you would like others to give you, give that to others.” –Yester
Along with leading outreach programs at local middle and high schools, our Free Minds “Poet Ambassadors” also go out to New Beginnings to co-facilitate creative writing workshops with incarcerated juveniles at the facility. Free Minds member Delonte teaches there almost every week despite working early morning hours at his job at the DC Department of Transportation. He told us:
“I love going to New Beginnings. It always makes me feel good to give the young men there some positive advice and some other options they can do when they get home. I share with them how poetry allows me express my emotions in a positive way and helps people understand where I’m coming from. When you are around me, I show a lack of emotions, but when I write I can express myself on the table. I found that when I started opening my mind to creative ideas in my poetry, then I could start thinking creatively about things I want to do in my life. Like now I want to go to college and take counseling classes so I can help more young men. I know the struggle. I know what they’re going through and I want to be there for them.” –Delonte
Free Minds Members Achieve New Educational and Career Milestones
We are proud to announce that this semester, Free Minds member and lead outreach facilitator Alisha began taking classes at Montgomery Community College. It was her first time in a formal classroom setting in 8 years! Alisha is pursuing an associate’s degree in general studies and sociology. Many other reentry members found successful employment this winter as well: Gary works in a dog daycare center, Maurice is an administrative assistant at a mental health facility, and Delonte found employment with DC Department of Transportation. Additionally, Free Minds member Terrell received his Commercial Driver’s License and is now working as a cross-country truck driver. He told us:
"I was born and raised in DC. I've never traveled anywhere, but I want to experience other cities and cultures. When I was locked up, I wanted to read books that were in other locations in order to expand my mind. I used to read books about places like Chicago or New York, but now I'm going to see them for myself." –Terrell
Thanks to your help, Free Minds members like Terrell receive the support they need to build new futures for themselves. We cannot thank you enough!
Until next time,
It’s been an exciting few months for Free Minds and the formerly incarcerated youth in our program. Thanks to supporters like you, we are working hard to expand our outreach programs in the community and equip our members with the practical work skills and strong support system that will help them succeed in their reentry process. Here are some of the projects we’ve been working on lately:
Raising Awareness for Youth Justice
In October, Free Minds hosted a panel with students at American University in honor of Youth Justice Awareness Month. Free Minds Poet Ambassadors Maurice, Alisha, Latrae, Deante, and Michael all shared their honest and insightful thoughts on the root causes of youth incarceration and ways that college students can make a difference in changing society's view of incarcerated youth. At one point in the panel, Free Minds member Latrae spoke about how losing his father to street violence put him on a negative path at the age of 12. Latrae said it wasn't until he began writing and changing his mindset that he could stop being angry at his father for dying and instead reflect on the factors that caused his father's death. It was at that moment that Latrae decided to push back against the violence that took away his father rather than contributing to it. As Free Minds member Alisha explains, the experience of sharing can be cathartic for Poet Ambassadors and audience members alike:
"In all my 23 years, I have never experienced so much excitement and positive energy. Moments like these—the moments of reflection, connection, understanding, and acceptance—are what make our outreach events so successful. Our goal as Poet Ambassadors is not only to make people aware of what's going on inside the judicial system, but also to brainstorm ideas on how we can make a difference in our communities and teach each other how to heal. I believe the panel was life changing for both the AU students and Free Minds members. As returning citizens there are so many challenges we face. But sharing our stories is the most fulfilling part of being home, because we know we really can make a change."
Free Minds is dedicated to increasing youth justice awareness through speaking engagements and “On the Same Page” events such as the panel at AU. Here’s what Poet Ambassador Charlie had to say about a recent “On the Same Page” event with 9th graders at Ballou High School:
"It was a really good feeling being able to share my story. Speaking is hard for me in front of groups but I do it because it's the right thing to do. We need to tell these kids they have to have goals other than the streets. I told them school was really hard for me. I could barely read and write so I ended up in the streets. Then in jail I met Free Minds, and now I can read well and I write poems. I’m going to work in construction and be alive so I'm around for my children."
We are also beginning to make our stories heard in more public forums: this fall, several of our members testified before a DC City Council hearing on recent suicides at the DC Jail. Our members bravely shared moments when they themselves were under mental distress, and how books and writing helped them see a way out of their depression.
From Apprenticeships to Fulltime Employment
This past November, two Free Minds members, Deante and Alisha, participated in the Free Minds apprenticeship—a 20 hour job-readiness program that teaches Free Minds members essential job and office skills while simultaneously giving them the opportunity to give back to the Free Minds community through outreach and program support. The unique structure of the program allows Free Minds members to come full circle and help the organization that once helped them. As Free Minds member Will, currently a manager at a sports store in DC, explains:
"Free Minds was right there for me when I came home, and that made all the difference. I worked my way up from being a sales associate and now I'm a manager. I often think that if I didn't get that help, then I might have gone right back and still be locked up instead of on the track I am now. I like being able to talk to the Free Minds guys coming home now and giving them motivation. "
Looking to the future: A Memoir Workshop for Free Minds Members
Finding a creative outlet for self-expression is at the core of the Free Minds mission. From their very first book club session at the DC Jail, Free Minds members find a safe space to exercise their voice and vision through poetry and the written word. By the time they return home to the community, many of our members have already transformed into seasoned and enthusiastic writers. In order to sustain this passion for writing, Free Minds is starting a new memoir writing initiative for our reentry members. We will be bringing in a trained professional to help these formerly incarcerated youth articulate their stories so that they can more effectively share their powerful experiences with others.
All this and more would not be possible without your continuous support for our programs. On behalf of everyone at Free Minds, thank you for believing in the power of writing and change.
Sarah MintzFree Minds Program Coordinator
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