Our summer of impactful programming is already in full swing thanks to your generous support! We have reached new heights in elevating both the voices and the life skills of our reentry members through mentoring, public speaking, and our weekly reentry book club sessions.
Poet Ambassadors Mentor Middle School Students
During the past school year, our Free Minds Poet Ambassadors—formerly incarcerated young adults—continued our strong partnership with DC Title I schools, by serving as "Poets with A Purpose" working to end youth violence through the tools of reading, writing and healing. We have a special relationship with the 8th grade boys at M.V. Leckie Education Campus, who were so inspired by our Book Club that they started their own: The Leckie Lion Hearts Book Club. Free Minds Poet Ambassadors served as positive role models, facilitating regular reading and writing workshops and inspiring them to create their own poetry book! James spoke at their 8th grade graduation, reminding the boys that they are now equipped with the powerful tools of reading and writing through difficult times. Following the ceremony, the students’ teacher, Mr. Donald Ross, distributed the newly printed poetry books From the Heart of a Lion: The Next Chapter, causing great excitement among the young poets as they saw their hard work in print.
Poet Ambassadors Creating Change
Free Minds was honored to be invited to present our unique program model at the annual Students for Prison Education and Reform (SPEAR) Conference at Princeton University. Poet Ambassadors James and Demetrius loved traveling and meeting so many passionate criminal justice reformers. Our session was packed with enthusiastic college students eager to make real change. It was inspiring to learn about and be part of the many local efforts united in a national movement.
The National Book Foundation’s third annual "Why Reading Matters" conference in Brooklyn, NY, was our next stop on our busy speaking schedule. Poet Ambassador Nick shared the long-lasting impact the Free Minds Book Club has had on his life and encouraged the conference attendees to use the tools of book club discussions to increase literacy and uplift marginalized communities. Nick has been a Free Minds member since he was 17 years old. Now home, he runs his own catering business, works several retail jobs and still finds time to use his own experience with the foster care system to mentor youth who are in foster care in DC.
Reader Leaders in the Reentry Book Club
This month, our Reentry Book Club members who meet weekly to discuss books related to their own journeys, finished reading and discussing Long Way Down, a young adult novel written in verse by Jason Reynolds.
In Long Way Down, a teenage boy struggles to make a decision in the aftermath of his brother’s murder; Free Minds members such as Milyk, whose brother was murdered when Milyk was a child, could see themselves in the story and share their struggles with the supportive Free Minds members.
Milyk wrote the following poem, inspired by Long Way Down. He shared the relief he felt reading about a character experiencing the same emotional pain he is going through: "At first it was really hard reading the book. It brought up a lot of hard stuff I try not to think about. But then it felt better and then I just wrote about it. I never have before."
I wake up crust in my eyes1 o’clock in the morningPhone ringI don’t answerPhone keep ringingI cut ringer offI went to sleepI wish I didn’tThat ringing of the phoneWas the call no one wants to getMy BrotherISGONE
The power of reading and writing to cope with traumatic experiences is reaffirmed in every Reentry Book Club session. Next, the Reentry Book Club members will be reading Black and White by Paul Volponi
Ceremony for Poet Ambassador Isaiah
Our Free Minds family suffered the terrible loss of one of our Poet Ambassadors, Isaiah. He was tragically shot and killed on the street and there are no answers. He had attended our monthly Write Night, in April, only a few days prior. The 23-year-old, a devoted father, was his mother’s third son to pass at the hands of gun violence. His mother told us that for Isaiah, the death of two of his brothers inspired him to live in the moment. He graduated from school, started a family, and focused on his future. At our May Write Night event, the staff, Poet Ambassadors, and volunteers honored Isaiah and his contributions to Free Minds. His entire family, including his young son, attended the event. Write Night volunteers recited poems addressed to Isaiah from our Jail Book Club members and Poet Ambassadors read aloud poetry by Isaiah addressed to his son. We all recommitted ourselves to honor Isaiah's legacy by vowing to continue our work to end violence and show love and compassion to everyone we meet, just like Isaiah did.
To all of our incredible supporters - thank you for helping us facilitate a community of contemplative and expressive free minds! Thanks to your generosity, we’ve been able to provide the transformative tools of books, writing, and community support to nearly 400 youths and adults in 2018 so far. Since our last report, we have added 29 new members to “Books Across the Miles,” our long distance prison book club. This year alone, we have shipped over 700 books to incarcerated members in federal prisons across the United States.
Some of the letters we received this month reminded us of exactly why the support we get from you is so life-changing:
"This book was right on time. It came at a point in my life where I needed to look deeper into myself and the world around me to gain some perspective.” Free Minds member Stephen
“I'd love to learn how to write something because being a prisoner to your own inarticulation is worse than being in [the maximum security prison]!” Free Minds member Greg
We are thrilled to announce that since our last report, the DC Department of Corrections has made a new program available to members at the DC Jail, in which they can now take college classes with Ashland University and are learning to use tablets. This opportunity has helped our members at the jail to become ready and excited for higher education! In the words of our Free Minds members:
"This is my very first college experience with Ashland. I can see that this experience has motivated me to be more responsible. I am eager every day to get my tablet and participate in my lessons. Undertaking the courses gives me drive to prepare for responsibility in the community. My sense of self-worth has increased knowing that I will be able to say that I am educated and can use my education to make a difference." Free Minds member Duane
Meanwhile, Free Minds member Rafael graduated from college. Congratulations, Rafael!
Books Across the Miles: I Am Malala
Free Minds members just finished reading and discussing the most recent BAM book, I Am Malala, a memoir by Nobel Peace Prize-winner Malala Yousafzai — “the girl who stood up for education and was shot by the Taliban”. Here’s what some Free Minds readers in federal prison had to say in our book discussions:
“Reading this beautiful story, I still find myself in shock of Malala! Her tenacity and will to fight and speak out against the Taliban, for the right of all children receiving an education is phenomenal. We tend to take for granted the blessings we have over here in America, not realizing that there are a million Malalas all around the world. I wish every child had the opportunity to the read the words of this courageous young woman and learn from her words the importance of an education.”
“Malala is an amazing young lady. I wish there were more people in the world like her. She stands up for what she believes in. The Taliban is trying to repress the future of Pakistan because the children are the future. Think about all the kids here in the United States that don’t go to school and wonder where their next meal is coming from. I have a 14 year- old daughter that lives in Mexico with her mom. She is a US citizen but her mom isn’t, so she is being deprived the right to go to school in the US. The schools in Mexico are not very good at teaching the students there. This is a must-read book for all, and I respect Malala for all her work and wish her well and good luck. I think if one family taught one child to think like her and then taught another, we could change the world.”
Free Minds Members voted for our next nation-wide read to be Slugg: A Boy’s Life in the Age of Mass Incarceration, as the next book club selection for 2018. As always, feel free to read along with us and follow our discussion in the next Connect issue.
In the latest issue of our newsletter, the Free Minds Connect, our members, staff, and volunteers shared their thoughts — and poetry— on the theme, “education,” and how knowledge can set us free. Topics ranged from The Things You Can’t Learn From a Book to Education from Behind Bars and Education: A Tool to Help Us Survive. You can read the entire issue in the link at the bottom of this post.
As always, thank you for making our work possible. We look forward to the rest of the year, and want to leave you with a quote from one of our Free Minds members, Gary, who continues to inspire us to pay your kindness forward:
"Thank you for giving me the opportunity to reconstruct a culture that I’ve helped to destruct.”
Happy Spring! With your support, we continue to provide intensive reentry support for formerly incarcerated youths and adults, including weekly reading and writing workshops, weekly job readiness and personal skill building sessions, and personalized connections to job opportunities, vocational programs, schools, and community services.
In our job readiness and personal skill building program, Free Minds members continue to learn and grow in preparation for career success. In the last few months, Free Minds members have participated in workshops on creative writing, storytelling, financial literacy, starting your own nonprofit, testifying in front of local legislators, job interviews, computer literacy, public presentation, parenting, and more.
Meanwhile, Free Minds members also gather weekly at “The Build Up,” a book club and writing workshop named for the way the streets and prison tear you down, but Free Minds builds you up. At weekly “Build Up” sessions, Free Minds members read and discuss poetry or essays, write and share their own poems, and discuss topics such as perseverance and goal setting.
Free Minds member Aaron wrote the following poem in one of these sessions:
Letter to the Voice in My Head By Aaron Please, I only want positive not negative Please, help me with temptation, don’t face it Please, accommodate my needs. Don’t disintegrate to be fed Please, I need help, the way out of this place If you stop throwing temptation in my face Help, I am seeking knowledge Help, I only feed off positivity Help, my needs are more important than wants Help, positivity I seek, negativity I leak
In February, Free Minds staff and Poet Ambassadors James, Brandon, and Wilson traveled to New York City to visit Columbia Law School. There, they gave a presentation to assembled law students. James, Brandon, and Wilson shared their experiences with public defenders, the judicial system, and incarceration and reentry. Thank you to the Columbia Jailhouse Lawyer’s Manual team for sponsoring the event. The Jailhouse Lawyer’s Manual is a handbook of legal rights and procedures designed for use by people in prison. Wilson said of the experience, “My favorite part of the event at Columbia University was answering all of the questions that the future lawyers in the room had. It made me proud to know that they genuinely wanted to know how to make the system better from folks who have already been in the system.” This represents an important part of our work to build understanding and empathy between future attorneys and those who are directly impacted by the criminal justice system.
In March, Poet Ambassador took another trip, this time to Tampa, Florida, to the Association of Writers & Writing Programs (AWP) annual conference. James spoke on a panel called “Redemption in the Pen: Insights from the Journeys of Formerly Incarcerated Writers.” James shared his perspective as a poet and lyricist, and how creative writing helped him maintain his sense of self throughout his incarceration. He also opened up about writing and sharing his story now that he has been released: “People need to hear my story, to understand what I’ve been through and where I’m going.” Thank you to AWP and all the attendees, as well as panelists Michael Fischer, Randall Horton, and Reginald Dwayne Betts.
We are so proud of James, Brandon, and Wilson for sharing our message of hope and healing through poetry.
Finally, congratulations to Free Minds member Gary, who received an award from the Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency (DC probation agency). Gary accepted his award for successful reentry at the Citywide Justice Assembly. Gary has been home and working for five years. We are excited to see what's next on his path!
Thank you for being a partner in our work to support formerly incarcerated youths on the road to success.