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.
A few weeks ago, we received a letter from Free Minds member RG, who wrote, "This is the network system I never dreamed of. This is growth for me. You guys are my start to become the man I wish to be for my community. Sorry if I sound so emotional when I write, but this is what comes out from my heart. I want to give back."
Like many of our Free Minds members, RG credits books, writing, and letters for pushing him in the right direction. From live discussions with authors at the DC Jail to connecting over a graphic novel about the Civil Rights Movement, we are so grateful for the power of reading and writing to change lives.
Author Visits at the Book Club
In the last few months, we've had not one but three exciting events at the Book Club! Earlier this February, Congressman and Civil Rights icon John Lewis and his co-author Andrew Aydin visited the juvenile unit at the jail to share their graphic novel March: Book One and Congressman Lewis's extraordinary tale of courage and nonviolence. Congressman Lewis is the only surviving member of the "Big Six" leaders of the Civil Rights Movement, and the only living speaker from the famous 1963 March on Washington. The Book Club members listened intently and asked questions about coping with fear, anger, and grief. They presented Congressman Lewis with a poem they had written as a group, titled "Free Minds March." The Book Club members were deeply moved by his message of hope and nonviolence. One Book Club member, DeAngelo, described the visit as "life-changing." This event was covered by The Washington Post, Yahoo News, and ABC7/WJLA-TV. Read more on our website. We also welcomed author and TV writer/producer George Pelecanos (The Cut, The Martini Shot, HBO's The Wire) and filmmaker Stephen Kinigopoulos to the Book Club to screen their short film based on one of Pelecanos's stories, The Confidential Informant. The teens read the short story, and they came prepared with many questions about adapting the text into a film and about the complex relationship between father and son portrayed in The Confidential Informant. Read more on our website. Finally, Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely, co-authors of the award-winning young adult novel All American Boys, visited the Book Club to discuss their book about two teenagers whose lives are irrevocably altered by systemic racism and police brutality. The novel won the 2016 Coretta Scott King Author Honor Award as well as the inaugural Walter Dean Myers Award from We Need Diverse Books. Executive Director Tara Libert said, "We are so grateful for the authors not only for the amazing book and incredible discussion that it generated, but also for exemplifying hope through their personal friendship. It was very meaningful for the teenagers in the Book Club to see two people who were able to bridge the racial divide; for them to see in person, rather than just reading about it, the importance of respecting different experiences and perspectives. Jason and Brendan are two incredible people for embarking on this book project that sparked an empowering and enlightening discussion. They are also leading by example through their own friendship and fearlessness in talking about issues among themselves, demonstrating the kind of courage and compassion that we as a society can aspire to in order to bring about healing." Read more on our website.
Marching for Justice The teenagers in the Book Club at the DC Jail are not the only ones learning about Congressman Lewis's incredible life! This month, the Free Minds members in federal prisons across the United States are reading March: Book One in our correspondence-based book club, Books Across the Miles, and the feedback has been overwhelmingly positive:
I’m just writing to say thank you for the books you’ve sent. I really enjoyed the “March 1 & 2” comic. They were amazing and truly depict how far we have come as a people. It was very inspiring to say the least.
I received March “Book One” and I enjoyed every last word and page in the book. I was really excited to learn about John Lewis and the revolutionary change he sought for himself and others. I learned a great way to love people and forgive my enemies is by non-violence. I feel that nonviolence is a silent force capable of putting the devil at peace with you. I hope that March reaches across this country and touches the coldest hearts out there.
One of my cellmates is reading it now. I can see the whole unit reading this by the time I’m done passing it around. I just gave it to my friend this morning & he read it in less than 2 hours.
I just wanted to let you know I got the comic book, and although I generally couldn't care less for comics, I took the time to read it, because one you all sent it to me, and two, it must be important if it was a gift from Free Minds. What a blessing. You opened up my eyes to what African Americans went through back in the day. I don't study up on history, well I didn't use to, but now I think I will. See as a white man, I wasn't really interested in what happened to African Americans back in the day. I wasn't racist, in fact, I have more African American friends than white, but for some reason I was never really ever interested in what African Americans had to go through. This book opened up my eyes, I now want to learn more. I couldn't believe one book could have me to open up this way. Thank you, thank you, and thank you!!!
The "Books Across the Miles" readers are also reading books of their own choosing or books that were personally selected for them by our staff. Halim wrote to us a few days ago to tell us how much he loved Flight by Sherman Alexie:
"I read it in one night, couldn't put it down...It was GREAT and it addressed youth violence in a perfect way. Thanks again for everything, for investing in me, in us, the Lost Children of DC!"
Write Night Poetry Feedback
This spring, we have hosted several On the Same Page: Write Nights and Write Lunches across the DMV area. Volunteers of all ages and walks of life have come out, rain or shine, to provide feedback on our members’ poetry. Once the poems are filled with comments, we send the colorful pages back to each author. Our members are consistently amazed by the outpouring of community support, and the fact that people are taking the time out of their busy days to respond to their poetry:
"I never imagined using this medium to share my feelings and thoughts with people I've never met, then to feel such a connection with them thru their feedback! WOW!" -MH
“Really you guys were the ones who unlocked this hidden talent. If it weren't for you I don't think I would enjoy writing as much as I do. You guys gave me another way to express myself that allows me to connect with others.” -IS
The Free Minds Connect: “Keeping our Minds and Hearts Open to All Possibilities”
For our January/February issue of the Free Minds: Connect, our members focused on the theme of resolutions and transformation. In preparation for the publication, the entire Free Minds family reflected on our own personal goals, from reading more books, to living every day to the fullest, and focusing on music and poetry. JG, a regular columnist, shared how he is resolving to be grateful, graceful, and content while striving toward his goals:
[By expressing gratitude] we keep our minds and hearts open to all possibilities, allowing our desires to flow smoothly into our lives unhindered. The past is done, and the future is not promised, so why not cherish the present? ...In my humble opinion, by doing this we can accept our current situation for whatever it may be at the moment, while still moving forward.
A few pages later, a Reentry Profile of Free Minds member Stephen featured his resolution to obtain his education. Stephen is currently a sophomore at the University of the District of Columbia (UDC), and is committed to becoming a Civil Engineer:
My dream is to build one of those buildings that stretches over top of a road or tunnel, like the one in downtown DC near the entrance to 395…. The hardest part about being a full-time student is staying committed to it and actually doing the work. It’s not easy but it will be worth it. - Stephen
Our next issue, called “We Can Be The Change,” just went out this past week to over 300 young men and women in jails and prisons across the country. We can’t wait to read what our members think of it!
Free Minds Poets Honored at Scholastic Writing Awards
This year, two Free Minds members, DA and DJ, were honored at the DC Regional Scholastic Writing Awards. DJ won the Gold Key (the highest award!) for his poem, "Paradise," as well as an Honorable Mention for "Moment of Truth," and DA won an Honorable Mention for his poem "Gunfire." Neither of the poets had written a poem before joining Free Minds. Free Minds Poet Ambassador Kalef accepted the awards on their behalf as both writers are currently incarcerated. DA's mother attended the award ceremony and told us how proud she was of her son for expressing himself positively through poetry. Both young poets, although they could not be there in person, were thrilled when they heard that they had won. This recognition from the Scholastic Writing Awards represents more than just a certificate; it represents a warm welcome into a nation-wide community of writers.
Every time you donate, you are giving a young man in our program a second chance at life. Thank you for being the support and encouragement our members need and deserve in order to achieve their true potential and transform our communities for the better. We couldn’t do this work without you!