Dear Free Minds Friends and Supporters,
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,
Sarah MintzIncarcerated Youth Programs Manager
Dear Free Minds Friends,
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
Summer may be winding down, but our Free Minds programming for previously incarcerated youth has more momentum than ever. Since we last updated you, many of our members have gone on to start new jobs or enroll in college classes for the fall. And they couldn’t have done it without your support! Know that every time you donate, you are bringing a young person in our program a second chance to succeed. Here’s a taste of what we’ve been up to recently:
Taking a moment out of our busy lives for reflection and growth
In July, we had a Free Minds first: an overnight retreat for Free Minds reentry members. The two-day retreat at Sandy Spring Friends School near Greenbelt, Maryland was an amazing opportunity for our Free Minds members to get out of the hustle and bustle of the city to take a moment to reflect on Free Minds programming and how we can better serve our mission. Free Minds members and staff participated in team building exercise, public speaking trainings, and of course, writing workshops. Together, we brainstormed ways to expand and improve our “On the Same Page” violence prevention programs in DC schools so that we can continue to work toward making our community safer and stronger. In a writing workshop at the retreat, Free Minds member Alisha wrote these powerful words about her journey from incarceration to her future goals:
“If you wanna know where I’m going
Just kiss the palms of my hand
Because I’m evolving outta darkness
And grabbing on to life”
Free Minds member Gary also wrote a poem summarizing what the entire retreat experience meant to him:
“I come from a society of its own
But where I’m going is a different spiritual zone
Where I can sit and write at Sandy Spring Lake
And not have to worry who is creeping behind the gate”
Honoring Martin Luther King Jr.’s memory by following in his footsteps
This August, the Washington DC community commemorated the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s historic March on Washington and “I Have a Dream” speech with a series of community events culminating with a reenactment of the march itself. Several Free Minds member took to the streets to get the word out about the effects of youth incarceration. With banners and signs proclaiming slogans such as “Educate, Don’t Incarcerate” and “Spend Less on Prisons, and More on Schools,” Free Minds members shared their vision of hope and change with everyone they could reach at the National Mall. It was an exciting and inspirational day for all involved. Free Minds member Alisha brought her 8-year-old daughter to the march; she said, “This is the best way to celebrate Martin Luther King EVER!”
Our On the Same Page program: finding common ground in every group
Though school was out of session, we continued to bring our On the Same Page violence prevention program to DC youth and community groups this summer. Here at Free Minds, we know that the challenges our members face in prison and then later when they reintegrate into the community affects not only their immediate circles, but the strength of the entire community. That’s why we’ve made a special effort to reach out to a diverse range of groups, from a chapter of Daughters of the American Revolution to incoming college freshmen at Georgetown University.
Recently, we had a particularly moving On the Same Page session with a group of middle school students from Chesapeake, VA. There, we met a young girl who bravely admitted to the whole group a secret she had never shared before: that her father was incarcerated. She cried after the program but was comforted by Free Minds Poet Ambassador LaTrae, who shared how he too had grown up with an incarcerated parent. The girl was so moved by the experience that she began to write her own poetry to process her emotions about her father. “Thank you so much for this opportunity,” she told us in an email, “It’s really important to me to show others to really be respectful to their family ‘cause you don’t know what to expect in the future. I just really thank you and all the others for making Free Minds possible. I also sent a letter to my dad about Free Minds and writing poems about his feelings.” Her story reminds us of the power of poetry to foster understanding and bridge the differences that divide us.
Everyday moments like this remind us why we do “On the Same Page” in the first place, and reaffirms for us what we have long held to be true—that reading and writing has the power to change lives. Thank you for sharing our belief in this power and for all of your generosity and support. Together, we are making a difference!
We hope you are doing well! Free Minds is doing better than ever; we are happy to see our movement expand and to watch our reentry members as they reach new milestones in their job searches, education goals, and personal and professional relationships. Know that every little bit of support we receive brings our members the resources they need to succeed against the odds. We cannot thank you enough!
Here are just a few of the projects we’ve been working on this spring:
Free Minds Members Give Back to Youth
As our On the Same Page violence prevention programs continue to grow, we are reaching out to more DC youth than ever before. In a Free Minds first, this spring we expanded our programming to middle school classrooms, bringing messages of hope, change, writing, and education to the next generation at a critical point in their lives. Working as “Poet Ambassadors,” our Free Minds members are returning to some of the same middle schools they themselves attended when they first started getting into trouble. After an On the Same Page event, Stephanie Harris, a middle school teacher in one of the most crime-stricken areas of the city, told us:
“Many of my students come from and deal with some of the most unimaginable situations. I try, but often fail to help them to understand them, or overcome them. When the Free Minds Members came today, the emotion in my students was undeniable. I wish Free Minds had offices in the basements of every single school where kids could go, right before they take that plunge off the edge, to have someone who’s been there to pull them right back.”
Another exciting initiative we’re working on is our new writing program at New Beginnings, DC’s Juvenile Detention Facility. In April, Free Minds took over facilitation of the detention center’s Beat Within writing workshop. At weekly Beat Within sessions, senior Free Minds members help lead the program by sharing their own stories of incarceration and the role that books and writing have played in their choice of a positive future. One senior member, Gary, began going to New Beginnings (then called Oak Hill) when he was 13 years old. At 16, he was charged as an adult. After seven years in adult prison, including two years in complete solitary confinement, Gary returned home this past January. Now 22, Gary says teaching at New Beginnings is one of the best things he does:
“Going there makes me feel like I have value. Prison almost broke me, but reading and writing kept me alive. Now I know why: It’s to help young kids at New Beginnings.”
Community Outreach Programs Gain Momentum
Here at Free Minds, we believe educating community members about the root causes of youth incarceration is crucial to creating a safer, healthier community for everyone. We’ve been reaching out to diverse groups in order to raise awareness, engage in an honest conversation about juvenile justice, and share the voices of our incarcerated members through their inspiring poetry. And of course, community speaking engagements are an amazing opportunity for our Free Minds members to practice their public speaking skills and build connections through their original writing.
On April 2, we hosted a poetry reading and community dialogue with our partners at the PEN/Faulkner foundation. As one audience member wrote in an evaluation:
“Free Minds members have such an amazing story and their motivation is incredible. Your session was so powerful, and I would encourage you to have more sessions as such. I’m so thankful I came to this. I learned so much.”
Voices of the Future: Free Minds is Published in a Book!
Several of the young men in our program were recently published in the anthology Voices of the Future, edited by author and former NBA athlete Etan Thomas. A longtime friend and supporter of the Book Club, Thomas joined us at a May 13 event to celebrate the book’s publication. Free Minds poets who are home from prison stood up in front of a sold-out crowd to read poems and signed autographs for excited audience members. This publication allows the incarcerated poets of Free Minds to be heard by readers across the world, and we are so excited and honored to participate in this project.
None of these amazing ventures would have been possible without the dedicated support of people like you. Every time you contribute, you are giving the formerly incarcerated youth we serve a real second chance and opportunity to succeed. You, too, are being a voice of the future. THANK YOU from all of us for believing in the power of books and writing to transform lives!
Dear Free Minds Friends,
Spring is just around the corner, and we can’t wait for what the season has in store for us! Thanks to your generous support, our Free Minds reentry members reached some incredible milestones this past winter. They developed office and interview skills in our apprenticeship program, gained confidence and public speaking experience at events in schools and the community, and discovered the possibilities of higher education by touring a college campus! Check out some of the highlights below:
Spoken Word with High School Poets
Last month, Free Minds members had the unique opportunity to meet with the slam poetry team at Wilson High School. These amazing teen poets performed for our members and gave practical tips about how to deliver your poem to an audience with confidence and feeling. In exchange, the team learned from our Free Minds poets about how writing encouraged and inspired them while they were incarcerated. One Wilson High School student said of the experience:
“The program has inspired my own writing future and goals because it encourages me to try my best and not slip up and fall into the bad crowd. It also makes me want to help others.”
Another student added:
“[Free Minds members] really made a major turnaround...I’m proud of these young men.”
Our members Terrelle and Delonte were so inspired that they have begun to attend poetry slams and open mic nights around DC! And as an organization Free Minds is starting to expand into more genres of written and verbal communication. We just hosted a concert in partnership with Carpe Diem Community Choir in which our members had the opportunity to show off their musical, hip-hop, and spoken word talents. We are thrilled to be able to expose our members to different forms of creative expression.
This February, we welcomed two new apprentices to our week-long job readiness program—Delonte and Mark. They spent the week updating their resumes, learning about office etiquette, doing mock-interviews, practicing breathing techniques during a stress management session, and creating “vision boards” mapping their hopes and goals for the future. In addition to preparing for their job search, Delonte and Mark also provided program support for our book club at the DC Jail; they gave poetry feedback on our Writing Blog, wrote articles for our newsletter to federal prison, and created writing prompts for the teenagers currently incarcerated at the juvenile block of the DC Jail. The opportunity to give back to the same program that they benefited from as teens empowers our apprentices to continue to impact their community in positive ways.
The apprenticeship culminated with a graduation ceremony honoring the achievements of six Free Minds members who have successfully completed the apprenticeship program. Unlikely Brothers co-author Michael Mattocks spoke about his own inspiring journey from living in homeless shelters and dealing drugs as a teenager to his current life as a dedicated husband and father who works two jobs to support his family. He told the apprenticeship graduates:
“I'm proud of all of you because I see myself in you, and want you to know that you should never give up. I plan to visit Free Minds a lot more often now because I see the love that they’re giving out.”
Free Minds apprenticeship graduate Kwame spoke about how cathartic it was for him to find a positive and safe space to process through challenging situations in his life:
“I have a hard time trusting people and I've never met anyone my age who has accepted me as I am. I want to thank everyone at Free Minds for listening to me and being there for me through everything I’m going through. I never had that before.”
YSC—Helping the Next Generation of Youth
Our “On the Same Page” violence prevention initiative continues to make a difference in the lives of DC youth. This January we had the opportunity to speak with a unit at DC’s Youth Services Center (YSC), a juvenile detention center. Our Free Minds poets had a candid and poignant conversation with one of the YSC units about the path the youth were heading down. Reentry member Trae described how his experience with Free Minds book club at the DC jail gave him the push he needed to change his former habits:
“[At the jail] I started writing every night, reading books. My addiction was the streets…but if you change where you are and who you’re with, you change yourself. If the streets are your addiction, you gotta find yourself something else to do.”
One of the juveniles at YSC responded to a Free Minds poem dedicated to a member’s younger brother by relaying his own family experience:
“My father and my brother were both in federal prison. But I’m trying to stop that cycle. I’m trying to do something different. I’m trying to prove that running the streets don’t run in our family.”
He pointed to our literary journal and said: “This book is changing my life.”
Reading and writing truly do have the power to transform lives. Thanks to you, our members are turning their lives around and working together to build a stronger, safer community. We couldn’t do it without your support!
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