In August, 12 formerly incarcerated youths and adults graduated from the Free Minds Job Readiness and Personal Skill Building Apprenticeship. Congratulations to Caleb, D’Angelo, Damion, Delonta, Freddie, Ira, Isaiah, JaQuan, Joseph, Kenneth, Lorenzo, and Queyon!
With your support, the Apprentices studied and gained hands-on experience with literacy, goal setting, resume writing, job interviews, civil rights and history, health and wellness, budgeting and financial literacy, public speaking and communication skills, entrepreneurship, computer literacy, and more! Each Apprentice also worked a shift with a local contracting company, gaining valuable on-the-job experience alongside real employees and customers. The Apprentices went on a personalized tour of the US Capitol as well! Despite being born and raised in Washington, DC, this was the first time any of the Apprentices had been to the Capitol.
On August 17, Free Minds members and volunteers gathered to read and respond to poetry by incarcerated writers. At our latest On the Same Page: Write Night event, approximately 40 volunteers wrote feedback for Free Minds members who are currently incarcerated. Meanwhile, Free Minds members home from prison, including August Apprentices, shared some of their experiences with incarceration and reentry. For most of our Apprentices, it was the first time speaking in front of a crowd. They received a warm and friendly welcome home reception and we are so grateful.
Damion and Delonta read poetry on behalf of their Free Minds brothers who are currently incarcerated in federal prison. Joseph, Ira, DeAngelo, and Caleb spoke about the impact of their participation in our Reentry Book Club, and what being at Write Night meant to them personally.
DeAngelo shared what it felt like to receive feedback on his poetry when he was incarcerated: "Some of us have support from our families, but what Free Minds does, getting support from those who don't even know us? That means so much. Getting just three words on that paper helps us wake up and get through the day in a positive way."
Free Minds members, staff, families, and friends gathered at the end of the month to celebrate the Apprentices’ hard work at their graduation ceremony. Isaiah volunteered to speak to the gathered crowd: “Sometimes when you’re locked up, your family gives up on you. But Free Minds is like a family--a new family. And they are there for you.”
Two senior Free Minds members and past Apprenticeship graduates, Alvin and Gary, also spoke. Alvin shared how much he learned from the mentors he was introduced to during the Apprenticeship, and Gary spoke about how he values being able to give back to his community. Gary is a supervisor at a pet daycare, and he recently hired Free Minds member Gary, who graduated from the Apprenticeship in May!
Free Minds staff placed 100% of the August Apprentices in job opportunities, schools, or vocational training programs. We are now looking ahead and preparing for the next Apprenticeship class in October.
As Ira told the crowd at Write Night, "Hope, Understanding, and Love" is what Free Minds means to him—and that’s what we see in our supporters. Thank you for providing hope, understanding, and love.
Book Club at the DC Jail
In June, community activist and author Tony Lewis, Jr., (Slugg: A Boy’s Life in the Age of Mass Incarceration) visited the Book Club at the DC Jail to discuss his memoir about growing up with an incarcerated father and mentally ill mother. When Tony was 9 years old, his father, a former cocaine kingpin, was arrested and sentenced to life in prison for his connection to the largest drug operation in D.C. After his father’s arrest, Tony lived with his mother who struggled with mental illness exacerbated by his father’s incarceration.
Instead of living out what was expected of him, Tony wrote about how he overcame those expectations in Slugg: A Boys Life in the Age of Mass Incarceration. The teenagers in the Book Club chose this book to read because they could see themselves in Tony’s story, and they wanted to hear from the author himself.
When asked what he wanted to communicate to the Book Club members, Tony Lewis said, “I want them to be able to see themselves in me in terms of they can do anything. Coming from communities, families, that may not be perfect, but they can ascend no matter what they’re here for. They can start planning for life after this. And I hope that Sluggcan give them some instructions on how to pursue and reach their goals.” In addition to his work as an author and activist, Tony also works for the Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency, DC’s probation agency. “Not only am I somebody who’s an author, but I actually do the work in terms of reentry. So I want to connect with them on the level that if I can help them move forward, I’m here to do that as well. I hope they are inspired and also empowered to know what they can do, what’s possible.”
As the presentation ended, the young men all rushed over to have Tony autograph their books. We asked the Book Club members if they felt inspired, and the teens answered with a resounding, “yes!” As one teenager said, “If he can do it, that means I can too.”
Federal Prison Book Club
Meanwhile, the young adults incarcerated in federal prison have been reading about another activist with a remarkable life, Congressman and civil rights icon John Lewis (D-GA). In our last update, the readers were discussing March: Book One, the first graphic novel in a trilogy about Congressman Lewis’s experiences as one of the “Big Six” leaders of the Civil Rights Movement. The response was so overwhelmingly positive that, by popular demand, we are shipping over 200 copies of March: Book Two to members of the “Books Across the Miles” long-distance book club in over 40 facilities in 20 states.
Here’s what the “Books Across the Miles” readers had to say about Book One:
“His book is AWESOME! And it being in comic form shows the hero he truly is for civil rights. I love the way the book gives history of the civil rights era and the reasons it came into being.” - JL
“I got John Lewis’s book “March” yesterday. I loved it. Can’t wait to read part 2. John Lewis is an inspiration and a role model…I love John Lewis’s love for the chickens and especially his love for God and humanity. John Lewis was and still is a straight up soldier. I would have loved to grow up on a farm like him minus the segregation part. He is a true example of leadership. He also is living proof of how God works. Him, Gandhi, MLK, and a lot others and you…Whenever you think you strong and a man or a woman because you able to hurt somebody, see if that strength could out match John Lewis and the others at them diners or on that bridge in Selma, or MLK marching in protest with bricks and everything else being thrown at him and others. Or knowing that it was a strong possibility that he would die if he gave that speech but yet still went anyway. Ultimate sacrifice.” - R
Free Minds Connect: I Believe
Last month’s theme for the newsletter, the Free Minds Connect, was “I Believe,” with Free Minds members, staff, and friends sharing their experiences with the power of belief.
Free Minds member JG wrote about the book As a Man Thinketh by James Allen and its profound impact on his own beliefs. “It’s important to be optimistic because when we have enough faith in something, that something becomes our truth, and our life experience will reflect this…Have faith that all your dreams and goals will come to pass. Have faith in humanity and a better world.” - JG
As always, thank you for your support and your belief in the power of books and writing to transform lives.
These last few months have been a true spring with growth happening all around at Free Minds! From graduation ceremonies and Write Nights to Harvard Law School and poetry panels, we are grateful for all of the opportunities you have enabled us to have share the untold stories of our members.
MAY APPRENTICESHIP GRADUATION
On Friday, June 3, friends, family, and community members gathered to celebrate nine Free Minds members graduating from our month-long Job Readiness and Personal Skill-Building Apprenticeship. From the stage, 3 senior Poet Ambassadors welcomed them to the brotherhood of Free Minds.
During the Apprenticeship, the Apprentices participated in a book club and poetry writing session, practiced budgeting and financial literacy, entrepreneurship, resume writing, job interview techniques, computer literacy, nutrition and fitness, mental wellness, and more. At the end of the month, each Apprentice left with a job placement or vocational program placement.
One Apprentice, Charles, gave the valedictorian speech at the graduation. He said, “The Apprenticeship gave me courage and made me believe in myself. Before, in prison, I didn’t know where I was going or what I was going to do when I came home. I had no direction, no goals for my life. I thought I wasn’t going to be anything. But I came home and joined Free Minds; they showed me that there was more to life than what I was doing before. I can better myself, and I’ve got goals and things that I want to accomplish.”
For some of the apprentices, this was the first graduation ceremony they have ever experienced. One apprentice named Greg shared that because he dropped out of school in 8th grade, he felt like he never really accomplished anything in his life--until he graduated from the Free Minds Apprenticeship. We are grateful to stand side by side with these incredible Free Minds members, as they continue to step into their true potential as change-makers and community leaders.
MAY WRITE NIGHT
On Wednesday, May 25, dozens of community members gathered in DC’s Takoma neighborhood to attend Free Minds’ monthly On the Same Page: Write Night.
Free Minds Apprentices and Poet Ambassadors stepped forward and shared parts of their stories. Shadeed shared about the lack of direction he had while he was locked up, and the focus he now has to chase after his goals. David talked spoke about the depression and anxiety he felt before and during his time being locked up, and the joy he is able to experience now. One Free Minds apprentice, Delonté, took a deep breath before speaking. “In prison,” he said, “I felt like I wasn’t wanted and nobody cared. Free Minds taught me to open my mind and change my life.”
The rest of the night, volunteers read and responded to poetry written by our incarcerated members. Ranging in age from 17 to 75, these volunteers spent time writing insightful comments and encouraging feedback on the poems. At the end of the night, the staff walked away with a huge stack of poems, each one filled with colorful comments. We are excited to send the poems back to the incarcerated authors in [x] prisons across the country.
VISIT TO HARVARD
In April, Reentry Program Manager Keela and Poet Ambassador Phil flew to Boston, Massachusetts, to meet with a class of Harvard Law students. After a brief introduction to Free Minds from Keela, Phil stood and shared his story of incarceration at the age of 16 and the transformation that followed as a result of the power of reading, writing, and mentorship in his life. Keela and Phil hosted an On the Same Page: Write Night with them. We are thankful for the opportunity to connect with the future generation of lawyers and law-makers, and for the chance to share our members’ voices on such an influential campus.
WE CAN BE THE CHANGE: WRITING SOLUTIONS TO VIOLENCE
On April 27, 2016, approximately 100 people filled the Lincoln Hall at the Hill Center at the Old Naval Hospital for a very special reading and community dialogue presented by three nonprofits that have teamed up for a unique approach to violence prevention through the power of the written word. Free Minds, PEN/Faulkner Writers in Schools, and Shout Mouse Press partnered to share powerful voices and untold stories from the community. Free Minds Poet Ambassadors read poetry and spoke about their personal stories of youth incarceration and reentry. Then the audience listened to a panel discussion with a Poet Ambassador, two high school students and authors, and an English teacher from a DC Public High School, all of whom have participated in the partnership between Free Minds, PEN/Faulkner, and Shout Mouse Press.
At the end of the evening, Free Minds Poet Ambassador Carlos read the poem “Belonging to Love” by an incarcerated author. Carlos spoke about his own feelings of isolation and loneliness when he was incarcerated, the desire to belong to a supportive community, and the incredible impact of receiving feedback on his poetry from volunteers at Free Minds On the Same Page: Write Night events. Carlos said, “It sows the seeds of that connection that we so desire.”
VIOLENCE PREVENTION OUTREACH
Free Minds staff and Poet Ambassadors Carlos and Greg visited Brightwood Center City Public Charter School to speak with a group of sixth, seventh, and eighth graders. After going around and sharing their names, the students listened attentively to Carlos and Greg’s stories of incarceration and reentry. Carlos shared how he would read a book a day while he was in solitary confinement, and how writing poetry saved his life.
The students read their favorite poems from the Free Minds literary journal The Untold Story of the Real Me. A sixth grader read "Memory I Can't Forget" by Free Minds Member Kevin. In the poem, Kevin talks about his younger sister passing away and the pain he feels that he couldn’t protect her. The young student then shared about how her little brother got hurt and she also felt guilt about it.
Some students wrote poetry and stories in response to the pieces in the literary journal. The first student to share, Jalen, wrote a personal narrative in response to Free Minds Member Jonas's poem "Dignity." In a story called "I Want to be A Dignified Black Man," Jalen shared vulnerable and personal details about his childhood and dreams for the future.
At the end of the session, the students crowded Greg and Carlos, literary journals and colored pens in hand, asking for their autographs. When asked whether the program inspired them in their writing or for the future, the Brightwood Center City PCS students had this to say:
"Yes it has [inspired me] because it makes me want to express myself more"
"This program has inspired me to write more, because even though I might not be the best writer, I want to write just to convey a message"
"It has inspired me because I can discuss about my life and what I've been through"
Thank you again for standing with us to bring the power of reading and writing to young men and women affected by the criminal justice system.