Happy New Year to all of our incredible supporters! Thank you for being part of the Free Minds family. Thanks to your generosity, since our last report, we’ve been able to provide the life-changing tools of books, writing, and community support to 360 youths and adults incarcerated in federal prisons across the United States.
Since our last report, we welcomed 39 new members to our “Books Across the Miles” long-distance book club. In three months, we sent 500 brand-new books to members incarcerated in 68 prisons in 30 states. Our Free Minds office mailbox is perpetually stuffed with letters from our members with their thoughts on literature, the Free Minds newsletter, poetry, and more. The letters demonstrate openness and trust, an important ingredient in our members’ long term success, and almost all request specific books and express their deep gratitude for the books that we’re able to send thanks to your generosity.
Free Minds members read and discussed the nonfiction book Hidden Figuresby Margot Lee Shetterly, about the African American women who played a crucial role in the American space program at a time when Virginia was still segregated. Here’s what our readers had to say about the book:
“I cannot believe that when I was growing up in school they never talked about any of the stuff that’s going on in the book, not the NASA program or the women involved. I think the women involved should have plaques at NASA with their names on them for all the sacrifices they went through...One lesson I think it teaches in the memory of the women is if you put your mind to it you can achieve all your goals in life and don’t take no for an answer and don’t stop till you get what you want. Thank you again for the books.” - EH
“It was an amazing and eye-opening book. It’s so sad to now know that these remarkably gifted black women were at the forefront of the American space race, but were pushed to the back and are just now receiving the recognition they so truly deserve. I guess better late than never, right! I often wonder when the evil stain of racial discrimination will ever be removed from this great experiment which we call American democracy. We still have such a long way to go. But if we continue to open our hearts, minds, and mouths we will eventually bridge the divide that will lead us to racial unity.” – QS
“The women who became “girl computers” were held to higher standards ... I feel the pressure of being held to a higher standard each day because I am convicted of a crime and it just feels like people are looking for that one mistake to justify further incarceration. But I reject failure and defeat by following the rules and not giving in to iniquity and temptation.” - DJ
Free Minds members voted for I Am Malala, the memoir by Nobel Peace Prize-winner Malala Yousafzai, as the next book club selection for 2018.
In the latest issue of our newsletter, the Free Minds Connect, our members, staff, and volunteers shared their thoughts—and poetry—on the theme “entrepreneurial spirit,” and how we can all apply the principles and strategies for entrepreneurial success to our daily lives. Read what they had to say about making positive life investments, recovering from setbacks, and becoming the CEO of your own life.
As always, thank you for making our work possible. We look forward to new heights and new horizons in 2018.
Thanks to your generosity, together we are helping young men home from prison transform their lives. Free Minds has been very busy these last few months, celebrating Youth Justice Awareness Month, organizing job readiness workshops, and cheering on our members as they continue to inspire us!
Youth Justice Awareness Month (#YJAM)
We honored our Free Minds Reentry Book Club members with a special #YJAM ceremony at our October Write Night. We wanted to celebrate our members’ persistence in the face of the many challenges of reentry. We honored 17 Free Minds members for participating in our Reentry Book Club and Job Readiness Apprenticeship. FM member Louis won the “Perfect Attendance” award, and Lorenzo won the “Perseverance” award! We are so grateful for all of our FM members and their dedication to change; thank you to our supporters for believing in the power of second chances.
To help our members adjust to reentry, Free Minds hosts workshops on job readiness and other important life skills, with formerly incarcerated facilitators who serve as mentors and credible messengers to our members coming home from jail or prison. Since our last report, Free Minds members have learned about fatherhood, co-parenting, job interviews, budgeting and financial literacy, conflict mediation, health and wellness, and more. Free Minds members also went on a field trip to the National Museum of Natural History to expand their horizons and learn more about the world around us. One of our Apprenticeship Trainers, Marcus Bullock, was recently selected as part of John Legend’s inaugural “Unlocked Futures” cohort, a 16-month accelerator for social entrepreneurs impacted by the criminal justice system. Free Minds member Will Avila (Founder/CEO of Clean Decisions) is also part of the Unlocked Futures cohort. Marcus, Will, and other formerly incarcerated business owners are inspirations to all of us and important role models for our members.
Free Minds Members Tell Their Life Stories
DC nonprofit Theatre Lab recently selected Free Minds to be part of their Life Stories Program! This organization helps young people tell their stories through film or theatre as a way to control their narrative and increase their awareness of their creative potential. Our Reentry Book Club members are working with Theatre Lab trainers and professional actors to learn how to tell their stories through theater. We cannot wait to see what they create!
Free Minds Members in the Community
Free Minds members have been actively participating in local politics. Several FM members testified at the DC Council Education committee hearing on education for students during and after incarceration. Free Minds member James spoke at press conference about proposed legislation to curb school suspension. James shared his experiences with being school suspension and the school-to-prison pipeline. We are so proud of our members’ commitment to making a difference!
Free Minds members have also shared their stories with publications such as the Marshall Project and the Washington Post. Finally, huge congratulations to Nick, who won the "Most Improved" Award from the Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency (DC’s probation agency)!
Thank you for everything you have done to support our members on the path to success. We can’t do it without you!
Thank you for supporting our book club and writing workshop for federally incarcerated youth, and our facilitation of a community of contemplative and expressive free minds. We are grateful for your help with which we were able to send 750 books to over 300 readers across the country. Your commitment to our project is a necessary stimulus for our transformative community and we are so grateful for your support! Here is an update of what we at Free Minds have been up to over the past few months.
Books Across the Miles (BAM)
Our “Prison Book Club” members of Free Minds, who are incarcerated in approximately 60 federal prisons in 29 states, just finished reading and discussing their most recent BAM book selection: The Cook Up by D. Watkins. In the Connect newsletter, FM members discussed such themes from the book as the death of loved ones and role-models, the plasticity of our life stories, and the obstacles in leaving the drug game. Here is what some members had to say in our book discussions:
“What people have to do to make sure that their story is not like everyone else’s is they must create their own story. They must use their time and ability to mold wisely and form the life that they envision for themselves. But, a lot of times this is where the problem lies: an astronomical number of people can’t envision, picture, or even dream of a life of their own.” - Free Minds member SC
Free Minds member RM wrote in one of his correspondence letters about the gift The Cook Up had given him. The book revealed to him aspects of his hometown, Baltimore, MD, that he had not been aware of, which helped him more thoughtfully connect, empathize, and converse with people around him.“ . . . [W]hile I may have lived in the same cities as my fellow friends here in prison I realize that I can learn a lot from them about their lives and ‘their’ city and in turn I can share with them my experiences in the same cities I claimed as my own. The Cook Up was a wake up for me to better understand Baltimore as a whole and the people that live in it. So thank you for the good read! I’ve now passed it on to some friends from SE Baltimore and they love it! The Cook Up has also sparked conversations about the pros and cons of gentrification in Baltimore and the effects on the Black communities there.” - Free Minds member RM
Prison Book Club members voted for our next nation-wide read to be Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly, about African-American women mathematicians who heavily contributed to the US space race as ‘human computers.’ As always, feel welcome to read along with us and follow our discussions in the Connect!
Connect: Nature and Labels
The latest issues of the Connect were themed ‘Nature’ and ‘Labels.’
The ‘Nature’ issue of the Connect epitomizes a topic we want Free Minds members to be free and able to have in their minds, when it’s excluded from their prisons. In this issue, we shared and discussed the vital and restorative beauty of nature with our book club members.
From MS we received this heartfelt response to our ‘Nature’ Connect:
"I would like to share the experience I had with nature the same day I received the newsletter. I was driven to the hospital in reference to my eyes. By divine decree, the doctor was examining another patient and we were compelled to wait outside. Gratefully, I sat at a table while anticipating my turn. My senses were so high to my surroundings. I felt attuned with the birds that were chirping, and the squirrels that were running, jumping and eating acorns. Though I was fettered hands and feet, my mind and spirit was free to immerse in the sound and the philosophical view of cosmology. Consequently, I brung this energy into the cell. The institution was on lockdown but my mind was free. As it will remain!"
In the ‘Labels’ issue of our Connect newsletter, FM Prison Book Club members examined questions of character, identity, agency, and formative experience through the lens of labels.
“I remembered when my grandparents told me how smart I was and how much they thanked me for being responsible and obedient. I valued those labels the most because there was meaning and love behind them words. When my grandparents died I lost focus of those labels. I let one label I didn’t like [‘sucker’] turn me into a menace to society. Moving forward, I am now proud to be recognized as a Free Minds Poet Ambassador, a responsible father, and a legitimately hard-working man.” - Free Minds Poet Ambassador Brandon
“Labels are not to be mistaken for principles, which should be paramount in all our lives. Principles are to be engraved in one’s heart as truths that cannot be changed or be circumvented. Sadly, people masquerade with labels on oneself . . . We all must embrace a lifelong pursuit of strengthening our minds or run the perilous risk of developing habits that are destructive to the human spirit and relationships.” - Free Minds member RS
We would like to end this update with a quote from Free Minds member JL, one of many FM members whom has been inspired to pay your kindnesses forward:
“. . . I learned (through fellow prisoners, family’s love, reading & writing, the few friends that have stayed in contact with me) that the best way to heal myself is to reach out and help others. I try my best to do this through introspection so I can understand and relate to others. Hope that makes sense.”
Thank you for helping to provide our Free Minds community with the requisite tools for growth and enrichment!