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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"

Attachments:
Mar 28, 2019

"The moment we say Enough! is the moment we can take charge of the destiny of our own lives"

Free Minds member Avery x Yerba Mate Tea
Free Minds member Avery x Yerba Mate Tea

Flowers are not the only things growing this spring! Our tenacious Poet Ambassadors are continuing to use the power of reading and writing to build up each other and the DC community. Additionally, our Poet Ambassadors continue to be role models and voices of change within the DC area as we have been visiting schools, offices, faith groups, and adult learning facilities. We are so happy that the community eagerly wants to jump-start (or continue) conversations on mass incarceration and how we can battle this national crisis.

Thanks to your continuous support, more Free Minds members are employed, in school, obtaining vocational certificates, but more importantly, giving back.

Free Minds Job and Readiness and Personal Skill Building Apprenticeship

"I knew if Joshua could do it, I could do it too" said apprentice DaQuan after reconnecting with childhood friend and Poet Ambassador Joshua during our Job Readiness and Personal Skill Building Apprenticeship for recently released members. The apprenticeship includes workshops on computer literacy interview skills, financial literacy, and personal growth.

The apprentices also heard from Poet Ambassador Cornelious, who left the apprentices with such encouraging and inspiring lessons: Focus on positivity, positive people, and positive habits. In the words of Cornelius, “You’re worthy and deserve a life worthy of being lived to the fullest.”

Per tradition, on the final day, each apprentice presented vision boards they all created with images of their goals for the future. Each apprentice expressed hopefulness and success for their future, while emphasizing success is not limited to financial gains. Afterwards, they all received words of encouragement and best wishes from Free Minds staff, supporters, and senior Free Minds members who sat in on each session as a means for support for their Free Minds brothers. Every apprentice was then gifted a book personally selected for them.

Apprentice Leo shared, “I recognized what barriers were in front of my goals during this apprenticeship and I will never forget Free Minds to be the one who made me breakthrough."

Congratulations, apprentices! 

Books and Belonging

The moment we say Enough! is the moment we can take charge of the destiny of our own lives” - Poet and Activist Sam J. Ssemaganda

We use reading and writing in every aspect of our book club! Although we have several book club and writing workshop members at the DC Jail and in federal prisons across the United States, we also have one for our members who are returning home from prison.

For the last few weeks, book club members have been reading Our Lives Matter: The Ballou Story Project, which highlights the powerful, personal stories of thirty teen writers from Frank W. Ballou High School in Washington, DC who came together to take part in a national conversation about race, inequality, violence, and justice.

To celebrate finishing the book, Free Minds invited special guest Ugandan Poet and Activist Sam J. Ssemaganda who read poetry from his book of poetry Enough: A harvest of poetry from a life of questions seldom answered. Sam shared that the country of Uganda has the youngest population in the world. Over 70% of the country is under age 30 and the unemployment for young people is 88% so there is a lot of hopelessness and crime to fight.

In addition, during this session our members had a wonderful and vulnerable conversation about trauma, healing, mental health, and the stigma for African American men to receive counseling or admit they are suffering with PTSD from incarceration. Free Minds is partnering with a licensed clinical social worker to provide trauma therapy for our formerly incarcerated members.

We’re so proud of the way our members have created a safe and nurturing space for each other. Our Reentry Book Club is more than just a book club; it is a brotherhood.

Free Minds Members: From Prison to a Paycheck (Update)

In the past year, 80% of our members in the Reentry Book Club have been working, studying, or participating in vocational training programs, resulting in a 13% recidivism rate as opposed to the national rate of 75.9%. We are so thankful to witness so many members achieving admirable accomplishments. Here are just a few of the highlights: Avery accepted a salaried position with Yerba Mate Tea; Andre is taking a placement test at Prince George’s Community College; Aaron graduated from the Generation Hospitality Program; Nick, Davon, and Darius graduated from the Office of Neighborhood Safety and Engagement Pathways Program; and Antwan graduated from Building Futures.

In our last report, we announced that Poet Ambassador Jordan was going to college! We met Jordan at the DC Jail when he was 17 years old. In January, he headed to college to study business management. He stopped by the office during his spring break, and let us know what he’s hoping to gain from his college experience. Jordan said, “What I hope to gain from college is a better understanding of how businesses operate and how to properly manage my own. My major is business management or “e-business” as they call it here, which means that I am learning about the functions and operations of a business electronically. Business has always stuck with me since I was younger. I always told myself ‘I want to be a businessman when I get older’ and I am just turning a dream into reality.”

Congratulations on a great start, Jordan!

Apprentice DaQuan presenting his vision board
Apprentice DaQuan presenting his vision board
Reentry Book Club poses with "Our Lives Matter"
Reentry Book Club poses with "Our Lives Matter"
Free Minds members Nick & Davon at Pathways Grad.
Free Minds members Nick & Davon at Pathways Grad.
Free Minds member Aaron with Free Minds staff
Free Minds member Aaron with Free Minds staff
 
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