Thank you so much for supporting our project, Book Club for Youth in Federal Prison! With your support, we provided approximately 600 books to incarcerated youths. Here are some highlights from our life changing work at the DC Jail and in federal prisons across the country:
Jail Book Club Author Visits
In the past three months, we have been honored to host two amazing authors at our Book Club for teen boys at the DC Jail.
In February, the award-winning author Patricia McCormick came to visit from New York City to discuss her book Sold. It’s a story of a 13-year-old girl named Lakshmi whose family is struggling in the mountains of Nepal. Her step dad arranges for a job for her in Mumbai and she soon finds out that she has been sold into prostitution. It was an eye-opening discussion for the Free Minds members who were shocked to learn what a pervasive problem prostitution is in both the United States and other parts of the world. They also learned about the oppression of women and girls around the world and the desperate choices families are sometimes forced to make to survive poverty.
This was followed by one of Free Minds all-time favorite authors Coe Booth, discussing her very popular book Bronxwood. It’s the story of Tyrell, a young man who is facing all kinds of pressures as his father is just home from prison, his brother is being placed in foster care, and the drug dealers in his neighborhood are coming down hard on him to sell. Each member shared how much they could relate to Tyrell and his struggles. Seeing themselves in the characters and sharing that excitement with the author always brings the Book Club to new heights.
Books Across the Miles: Prison Book Club
Our BAM for this month is March: Book Three by Congressman John Lewis, Andrew Aydin and Nate Powell. March: Book Three is the third book in a graphic novel trilogy that depicts Congressman John Lewis’s experiences as one of the “Big Six” leaders of the Civil Rights Movement. Previously, the book club members read March: Book One and March: Book Two. We returned with March: Book Three by popular demand! It made a major impact on the Free Minds readers and evoked strong emotions.
“I am so honored to receive this book called March! It was amazing to read. I LOVED IT...It was very fun and easy to read. A very cool way to share history of the American Struggle! I truly believe it should be taught in every school in America...This book has enlightened me on some very touching things and it brought me so much strength, hope, and faith to never give up! No matter the circumstances. But yeah, kids really need to read this. Shout out to Congressman. John Lewis and everyone who brought this empowering freedom here today in America with this amazing, heartfelt comic book.” - Free Minds member VM
“I enjoyed the book. It was an intimate depiction of an aspect of the struggle for civil rights within this country, and it was illustrated from the perspective of someone who was involved in that particular struggle, firsthand experience! Beautiful in its truth...When I read something like March, it is a reminder not to take things for granted, it gives clarity to the journey and a deeper appreciation for what we have, but it is also a reminder that we must all take our places in the struggle, contributing to what is right and making life better. We are charged with such a task!” - Free Minds member KM
“It was a great book, but more importantly the message was received. It made me look at not just black history but America and the history of this country. We have overcome a lot, and knowledge is key. I’m learning with every book I read.” - Free Minds member DP
The Free Minds Connect: Legacy
In addition to reading, our Free Minds members have been busy writing poetry and personal essays for our bimonthly newsletter, the Free Minds Connect. Recently, our members took time to explore the idea of their legacy.
Free Minds member KB wrote, "Oh how humbled and awakened I have become by the uplifting and healing legacies left behind by our historic figures who dedicated their lives trying to find solutions to problems affecting humans as a whole and the legacies of those whose mission is to help others become better.”
Another Free Minds member TB reflects, “I’ve always been a thinker, but when I was 16 I was just constantly trying to prove myself. That means that I went with the crowd. Whatever they were doing, I was doing it too. I was trying to prove myself, and that’s what got me in trouble...to be honest, I never had a concept of the future. I was busy planning my legacy. I didn't expect to survive and so I just wanted to be remembered as someone who was bad. I wanted my tough reputation to be glorified. I wanted kids in my neighborhood to be saying, ‘Yeah, I knew him!’ Now when I look back, I see that it was all just ignorance and stupidity.”
Free Minds member MK shared this poem, What Legacy Will I Leave Behind.
When it’s all said and doneWhat legacy will I leave behind????The answer to that precious questionsIs held in the hands of time…As for now in this present momentI give the gift of my life in these lines…I am a Muslim, I am a PO-ET, I am an artistPainting pictures that will forever shineBrighter than the darkness of crimeWould you believe even while confinedI find peace in having a FREE MIND…
As always, thank you for your wonderful support you offer to our members. We could not provide these services without your generosity and your belief in our cause.
Thank you for supporting Free Minds Book Club & Writing Workshop! We are off to a strong start in 2017, with new services and many exciting opportunities and experiences for the formerly incarcerated young men in our program.
In January, we launched a new element to our reentry services for formerly incarcerated youth—a weekly book club and writing workshop called “The Build Up.” Free Minds member Terrell named this new program The Build Up because, as he says, prison and the streets tear you down but in Free Minds we build each other up.
Free Minds reentry services now include job readiness and life skills training; supportive employment through partnerships with local businesses; personalized assistance in achieving career goals; connections to jobs, schools, vocational programs, and other services; and the Build Up, a weekly book club and writing workshop.
Members of the Build Up meet once a week to read and discuss literature, write and share poetry, and come together to support each other in navigating the challenges of reentry. One member of the Build Up, James, told us that he spends all week looking forward to it and doesn’t want to miss a single session.
So far in the Build Up, Free Minds members have read and discussed If You Can See It, You Can Be It: 12 Street-Smart Recipes for Success by Chef Jeff Henderson and War Child by Emmanuel Jal. In February, Free Minds welcomed Emmanuel Jal to the Build Up, where he spoke about his life story, his music and writing, and his techniques for overcoming obstacles and “reprogramming your life.” Jal, an author, activist, and musician, is a former child soldier from South Sudan. Free Minds members related to his struggle and found common ground in the way he used storytelling to heal from trauma.
Meanwhile, formerly incarcerated Free Minds members have been sharing their poetry and personal stories with audiences from across the country. In February, Free Minds members presented at the annual Association of Writers & Writing Programs (AWP) literary conference in Washington, DC. They participated in a panel discussion, a poetry reading, and the AWP Service Project, in which conference attendees read poetry by incarcerated Free Minds members and wrote words of encouragement to inspire and uplift the incarcerated poets.
In March, two Free Minds members, Nick and Hosea, traveled to Boston, Massachusetts to speak to students at Harvard Law School and to a group of over 100 high school students at St. Mary’s Church in Winchester, MA.
Free Minds members are also mentoring DC middle school students at a local public school, M.V. Leckie. Free Minds members facilitate monthly reading and writing workshops with the 7th grade students, serving as role models and credible messengers to the children.
As Free Minds member DeAngelo says, “The youth are our future. I didn’t really have adults in my life to tell me what was right, so I want to be that for the young people.”
Thank you to all of our supporters for making our work possible. We couldn’t do it without you!
Thank you so much for supporting our long-distance book club and writing workshop with incarcerated youth. In the past 3 months, we have sent books, newsletters, and more to over 300 young adults in federal prisons across the country. Instead of us telling you the impact of your gift, we will let our members speak for themselves as they say it best!
In our “Books Across the Miles” long-distance book club, Free Minds members in federal prisons across the country have been reading Tears for Water by Alicia Keys, a book of poetry and lyrics.
SL, a new Free Minds member participating in “Books Across the Miles” for the first time, reflected on his favorite poem in the book, “When Gone Is the Glory.” SL said, “I feel like this expresses how I felt about having a name/rep in the streets. Now I’m gone and my name/rep means nothing. All the so-called friends left with it.”
LC in long-term solitary confinement wrote, “The Golden Child poem was so powerful to begin with…I’m eager to read her words and give a full review of the book. I am certain that she will elevate my poetic skills.” After he finished the book he wrote back, “She is so raw and real with her words. Her poems are beautiful. She paints on the canvas of her heart. I try to do the same.”
DP wrote, “I’ve always been a fan of Alicia Keys, but reading Tears for Water made it seem like she was right here talking to me. It’s hard for me to pinpoint one poem as my favorite because I have so many pages folded over, and those are all the ones that I like.”
GL wrote, “I appreciate the book by Alicia Keys, Tears for Water. I just started the book, but so far it seems to be a good book of poetry. As a poet, I can relate to her work… Mainly because I feel it deep within the confines of my heart and soul.”
The Free Minds Connect: Empathy
In addition to reading and writing poetry, Free Minds members explored the idea of empathy in the latest issue of our newsletter, the Free Minds Connect, mailed to readers in prisons across the United States.
Free Minds member BG shared his experiences after participating in a victim’s impact group: “One of the guests played a 911 call from a time when someone broke into a woman’s home when she was alone with her baby. It was awful. After hearing the stories in the group, it made me feel for people I have victimized and I didn’t ever want to take advantage of anyone again.”
MS wrote about the difficult of feeling empathy while incarcerated: “The word empathy is like the polar opposite of our surroundings. Behind these walls you can find some of the most unempathetic people. I highly promote the emotion empathy and at the same time to exercise empathy in this culture is a monumental task. At first, I felt like empathy is an emotion I can leave behind. It gets very tiring to feel someone else’s pain while dealing with your own. However, I need to work on empathy to become the well-rounded man I strive to be.”
After reading this issue of the Connect, one Free Minds member, TB, wrote back: “I consider myself to be a highly intelligent individual, and whenever I have been asked about what the word empathy meant to me over the years, my response had always been a formal one, very dry and lacking in its true meaning. But after reading this issue of the newsletter, I fully understand its true meaning.”
Your generosity allows us to reach more and more young adults, and to make these moments of change and inspiration possible. Thank you for believing in the transformative power of reading and writing.