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Jul 8, 2019

"Thank you FM for being here for me faithfully..."

Latest Free Minds Connect Issue
Latest Free Minds Connect Issue

Our Prison Book Club provides hope and light to our incarcerated members who are currently miles away from home in prisons all across the country. Thanks to your support, they feel a strong connection to Free Minds. In case you have not learned how Free Minds began, we wanted to share a brief history to show the power of one young man's dream to help others:

In 1996, our Co-founder Kelli Taylor, a news producer at the time, received a letter from a young man on death row in Texas by the name of Glen McGinnis. A son of a single mother battling substance abuse, Glen desperately took a .25 caliber handgun to rob someone for money to feed his mother’s addiction. In the process, he shot and killed a store clerk--a mother of young children. For the next few years, Kelli and Glen began to write to each other about different books, and she learned of his story, not just of his crime, but also of his life. Prior to his execution in 2000, Glen asked Kelli to continue corresponding with incarcerated youth due to the lack of programming and care for their harsh realities. Seventeen years later, Free Minds now serves hundreds of incarcerated youths through reading and writing and we are so thankful that you are a part of making it happen!

Every day, our members write us to tell us how much they appreciate receiving books, cards, words of encouragement, and our monthly newsletter, the Free Minds Connect. Here are some excerpts from letters:

“I wanna say thank you FM for being here for me faithfully... Don't laugh at me when I say this, but even though I’ve been single for years now, I feel like I'm ok because I'm in a relationship with all of you. As I say, it brings tears to my eyes because I was at a point in my bid where I was lost, and then I found (Allah) and you.” - Free Minds member Taurus

A star writer as a juvenile in Free Minds, Free Minds member Kenneth became discouraged to keep writing after receiving a 69-year sentence. After Free Minds encouraged him to keep writing poetry, he shared, “Me and some of the guys were hanging out just talking and the topic went to writing and poetry. We had close to a two-hour poetry slam and it was so motivational. I like to hear other people's poetry, it makes me actually want to write, and it stokes my eternal fire that always kindled waiting to the burn.”

Books Across the Miles: The Hate U Give

Our Free Minds members are reading Angie Thomas’ The Hate U Give, a fictional story of a young woman named Starr and her childhood friend Khalil, both black, who leave a party together and are pulled over by a white police officer who kills Khalil. The sole witness to the homicide, Starr must testify before a grand jury that will decide whether to indict the cop, and she is terrified, especially as emotions run high. The book discusses racism, police brutality, the Black Lives Matter movement, and much more. Here is what some of our readers had to say about it:

The Hate U Give is a heartbreaking story that really hit home for me. It overall, however, gave me the extra motivation needed to keep pushing for change.” - AE

“I received a book titled The Hate U Give. That is one of the best books I've ever read in my life! For the past two decades, I have had 5 books that I thought would never be out done. However, The Hate U Give knocked one of those books off my top 5 list. The author really does a great job of getting the reader involved with the story. I could feel Starr talking to me through her joys and pains.”- JL

Feel free to read along with us. We would love to have you join the conversation as well!

Connect: Healing

In the latest issue of our newsletter, the Free Minds Connect, our members, staff, and volunteers shared their thoughts — and poetry— on the theme, “Healing.”

Recently we have added one-on-one trauma therapy sessions with a licensed clinical therapist for our member’s home from incarceration. We know our incarcerated members are in need of the same support to heal from trauma, too.

We were so thrilled to receive feedback on the positive impact the Healing issue had on our Prison Book Club members. Here is a response we have received from Prison Book Club member Joseph: “This issue's theme - Healing- is probably the best issue I've read in the Connect so far. Knowing how to heal yourself mentally and emotionally is very important and can help teach one how to assist others in their healing. Every article in this issue offers a jewel that contributes to healing. I appreciated Edward for writing the article ‘We Repeat What We Don't Repair!’ I totally agree when he states that, ‘Although you are not to blame for the trauma you experienced in the past, you are 100% responsible for taking ownership over the process of healing from it!’ What he says not only works, but also helps confirm that I am on the right track.”

Page 18 of our Connect features an article entitled, “We Repeat What We Don’t Repair” written by our clinical psychologist. He explores psychological trauma, psychotherapy, and repetition compulsion, while also offering step-by-step advice on how to heal and control unresolved trauma.

On page 10 of our Connect, Free Minds member Davon relives his trauma as a gunshot victim (shot 11 times in three separate incidents) and his transformation from “running the streets” to working towards stopping the violence in his same community.

On page 4 of our Connect, Free Minds mom Rita shares her compelling story of strength and healing after dealing with the loss of three sons to gun violence. Determined to provide joy to her beautiful family, Rita wakes up every day to comfort others. She is a remarkable example of the extraordinary human capacity for healing and hard-won wisdom.

Glen McGinnis, original Free Minds member
Glen McGinnis, original Free Minds member
"The Hate U Give" by Angie Thomas
"The Hate U Give" by Angie Thomas
PA Jordan responds to a PBC member
PA Jordan responds to a PBC member's letter

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Jul 1, 2019

We are more than readers and writers, we are a community.

FM member Michael with artists Donna & Cindy
FM member Michael with artists Donna & Cindy

Our reentry members are seeing themselves in a new light thanks to your generous support. We celebrated our 2019 Congressman John Lewis Fellow who leads our nonviolence outreach program, welcomed a new group of apprentices into our intensive Job Readiness and Personal Skill Building Apprenticeship, and participated in our first ever portrait project! Read on to learn more about the inspiring human capacity for change and compassion.

Free Minds Holds Their Second Congressman John Lewis Fellowship Celebration

On May 22, Free Minds held our 2nd celebration to commemorate our Congressman John Lewis Fellowship, a one-year paid position for a formerly incarcerated young adult to use poetry and lived experiences to promote nonviolence, hope, racial equity, and peace in under-served schools and neighborhoods. The fellow leads our poetry-based nonviolence and community outreach program, On the Same Page: Free Minds Poetry in the Classroom and Community The fellowship was inspired Congressman Lewis’s visit to our book club at the DC Jail. During his visit, Lewis discussed his graphic novel trilogy March and shared about his life of nonviolence during the Civil Rights Movement.

Congressman John Lewis was not able to attend the celebration, but Andrew Aydin, who co-wrote the March graphic novel trilogy with Congressman Lewis, spoke passionately about the role reading can play in personal development and racial justice. 

As the 2019 Congressman John Lewis Fellow, Southeast DC native Joshua Samuel shared his thankfulness for being able to speak to youth similar to his younger self: “I want to thank you for giving me the opportunity to change lives. I have been able to prevent further damage to the community by sharing my story and helping kids elevate their lives. I have been able to speak to kids who resemble me and grew up in the same circumstances, and prevent them from making the same mistakes I endured.”

It was an incredible evening filled with inspiration and hope as we realized a dream--to reach more youths with the life-changing power of books, writing, and community.

Recently Released Members complete Job Readiness and Personal Skill Building Apprenticeship

Earlier this month, Free Minds Book Club welcomed a group of youth and adult men into our intensive Job Readiness and Personal Skill Building Apprenticeship for recently released members, with workshops on different topics led by expert presenters as well as formerly incarcerated Free Minds members.

During the apprenticeship, apprentices learned tech tactics, budgeting, and financial planning. They also presented their life and career goals through vision boards, role played in preparation for on the job work scenarios, conducted mock interviews, took a team trip to the National Museum of African American History of Culture, and heard powerful testimonies from guest speakers who have overcame adversity.

At the end of the apprenticeship, one apprentice shared, “I was at a point where I didn’t think I would ever get out, but now I don’t take anything for granted.” We are so happy to be a part of our apprentices’ new life journeys and we are thankful to them for joining our Free Minds family!

Congratulations to everyone, and good luck!

Volunteer Artists Paint Free Minds Members for “Portrait Project”

From April 30-May 3, professional portrait artists Donna Catotti and Cindy Dill traveled to Washington, DC to spearhead a “Portrait Project,” which featured several of our formerly incarcerated members. The artists visited our office and dedicated 2-3 hours per portrait. In 4 days, each artist was able to finish 2-3 oil paintings per day! Our members were exceptionally excited for the project, as none of them had ever experienced having their portrait painted before, let alone by a professional artist. The portraits turned out absolutely stunning!

These portraits are a unique way for our members to reflect on their own self-image, and a way to shift the public perception. Our goal is to display the portraits, as well as personal statements from our members, in a public exhibition to change the narrative of what it means to be a returning citizen in our society.

If pictures are worth a thousand words, how much is a portrait worth?

Thank you to the wonderful artists Donna and Cindy for their creativity, passion, and dedication to this project, and to our members for their courage to see themselves in a new light.

Thank you for making all of this possible. We are only as great as our community!

Artist Cindy Catotti with her portraits
Artist Cindy Catotti with her portraits
FM team pictured with artists Donna and Cindy
FM team pictured with artists Donna and Cindy
Andrew Aydin, 2019 Fellow, and Fellowship creator
Andrew Aydin, 2019 Fellow, and Fellowship creator
2019 John Lewis Fellow Joshua Samuel
2019 John Lewis Fellow Joshua Samuel
Apprentices showcase their visionary boards
Apprentices showcase their visionary boards
Apr 8, 2019

"I read it (Men We Reaped) in one sitting. The book is profound."

"Men We Reaped" by Jesmyn Ward
"Men We Reaped" by Jesmyn Ward

We have transitioned into the hopeful spring season, and that hope springs from knowing supporters like you believe in the transformative power of the literary arts! Our Prison Book Club program brings connection and healing to our members separated (sometimes by thousands of miles) from their families and loved ones. In our last report, we shared that we sent New Year’s cards to all of our Free Minds members incarcerated in over 55 federal prisons, and we have continued our nonstop effort to ensure every member gets the coveted mail call by sending birthday cards, postcards, personalized letters, and our own newsletter, the Free Minds Connect. Thank you for making this lifeline of correspondence possible.

Books Across the Miles: Healing

Free Minds members are reading and reflecting on Men We Reaped by two-time National Book Award winner Jesmyn Ward, whose memoir contends with the deaths of five young men dear to her, and the risk of being a black man in the rural South. The book had a strong emotional impact on our members. Here are just a few of many responses we received:

“I read it in one sitting. The book is profound in its simple approach to how it is she was able to get her very personal family history and experience down, for all the world to see, without going insane. Not many of the people working this beautiful planet of ours, today, is capable of doing such. After reading Ms. Ward's memoir, I've fallen in love with writing once again. No fear or shame.” AW

“I myself have never worn a memorial t-shirt. I don’t think it is bad because we should remember our loved ones in a good light. Same thing with obituaries. They get padded with all kinds of accolades: church, college, job, volunteer work etc. etc. And in most cases, these are over-stated, but it is making the loved one feel good.” -RJ reflecting on memorial t-shirts, a tradition referenced in Men We Reaped, which memorializes loved ones whom have passed away.

Free Minds member Antonio wrote us after receiving Assata by Assata Shakur:

“The autobiography was extraordinary. The book provided the opportunity to carefully see the orchestrated distortions of fact concerning the motivations of Assata Shakur, born Johanna Chesmard. Reading the book explained simply and vividly about the racism that permeated her childhood and young womanhood, as well as the ordinary experiences of Blacks in the United States. 

“Her book led me to understand more about society and the demise of the system. Clearly, it was the racism that riddled her and made her fight. The book broke down the struggle for self-determination in the twentieth century. Assata Shakur’s own words as she writes some of the most intellectually gifted poems had me in deep thoughts. She writes about her experiences not as a historical icon, seeking to crystallize the “critical life,” but as one whose experiences can help another individual get through similar struggles.

Look for the next issue of the Connect, exploring the theme of “healing” later this month!

Our Jail Book Club was featured in its entirety on BookTV on C-SPAN 2!

We were thrilled viewers could witness the power of our book club discussions on national TV! Our book club at the DC Jail was featured in its entirety on BookTV on C-SPAN 2. It was incredible to see our members, along with facilitators Stacey Houston and Clint Smith, sharing their thoughts and experiences with the world.

While discussing Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried, a collection of linked short stories about a platoon of American soldiers fighting on the ground in the Vietnam War, our members drew connections between their own experiences and the experiences of the soldiers in the novel. Free Minds member Jonas said, “Prison [Tim O'Brien] trying to express it in the best way he can and it still does not seem adequate. That's how I feel when trying to express what it's like to be in prison." 

Though the segment premiered earlier this year, we are still receiving so much honest and hopeful feedback on social media! One viewer shared that the segment not only inspired her but also challenged her to consider her biases about people who are incarcerated. She said, "I forgot they were inmates and saw them as men." We are committed to changing the narrative around incarceration and elevating the voices of those directly impacted by our prison system.

We are thankful to everyone who has taken the time to listen to our members and help us spread the word that books and writing bring social change.

Click here to watch the full segment

Author Tiffany Jackson Visits Free Minds Book Club at New Beginnings

In October 2018, new legislation went into effect in DC stating that all youths charged as adults will now be housed in a juvenile detention center until they turn 18 or are released. Previously, these young people were incarcerated at the DC Jail, where Free Minds led weekly book club and writing workshop sessions. We began our book club at New Beginnings Youth Development Center in Fall 2018.A residential treatment facility for youths, the development center provides rehabilitation and planning for young people through educational services, workforce development, health care, and community engagement. Kicking off this new phase, our friends at the Open Book Foundation brought author Tiffany D. Jackson to meet and speak with our young men as well as provided everyone with a copy of her book Allegedly.

Pulling inspiration from interviewees, such as young women (ages 18-23) who lived through youth detention centers and group homes, Jackson was determined to write a book that would “spread awareness on young teenage girl issues.” Her book follows the story of a sixteen-year-old girl, now living in a group home, who was convicted of killing a baby at the age of nine. Despite receiving 55 rejections of her manuscript over the course of 5 years, she told herself, “Life is all about rejections. Rejections come, but you have to keep pushing. I had to be confident in myself and perseverance is important.”

While reading excerpts from Allegedly to our 16- and 17-year-old Free Minds members, Jackson took a moment to express the importance of sharing your story, stating, “I was inspired to write after attending a predominantly white high school where I experienced macroaggressions and racism. Writing became my escape. I was in my own world and could just be there. I want you guys to read about people’s stories, but I also want you guys to read about each other’s. I hope these book clubs inspire you to tell your own stories.”

Moved by her words of advice, Free Minds member JC shared, “She inspired me to see that I can go for my goals. I want to write two books.”

We can’t wait to read JC’s books as he joins a community joined together in the joy, healing and insight writing provides.

Author Tiffany D. Jackson (center) visits DC Jail
Author Tiffany D. Jackson (center) visits DC Jail
FM members read "The Things They Carried"
FM members read "The Things They Carried"
FM Member reads along to "The Things They Carried"
FM Member reads along to "The Things They Carried"

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