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!
This winter has already brought new adventures, new faces, and new stories to the Free Minds family. From the graduation of 11 Free Minds apprentices in January to a sold-out panel event discussing solutions to community violence in February, we can feel a shift in the air. As the weather continues to warm up, the growing momentum of change and inclusion in our community is tangible. Though there is still much work to be done, we are grateful for the chance to look back and celebrate our members’ accomplishments!
January Apprentices Graduate with Flying Colors
On February 5, we gathered to celebrate the graduation of 11 new apprentices from our January 2016 Job Readiness and Personal Skill Building Apprenticeship Program. After a short welcome from Executive Director Tara, Free Minds Reentry Coach Marcus took the stage. He shared words of encouragement and purpose with the audience, before introducing Alvin, the selected speaker from the graduating class, who spoke about his passion for writing and the power of community to bring about real change. Next up was Tony Belton, a returning citizen who serves as our Apprenticeship Job Supervisor, who shared all he has learned about perseverance, hard work, and success. We continued to celebrate as each apprentice walked across the stage and received his honorary Poet Ambassador shirt, before gathering together for lunch and some celebratory cake! A couple of months after the official graduation ceremony, 2 graduates are working full-time, 7 are in job programs, and the rest are choosing to continue their education. We are so excited for the continued success of these incredible young men!
Just recently, we started the March Job Readiness Apprenticeship, with our biggest group yet of 13. So far, they have been reading and writing poetry, discussing what makes a model employee, and practicing budgeting and financial literacy. They’ve also gone on field trips to the Martin Luther King, Jr., monument, where they learned about the history of advocacy and civil rights, and to Walls of Books, a used bookstore that recently opened in DC, where they learned about being a small business owner. Walls of Books owner Pablo Sierra spoke to the Apprentices about perseverance and the power of books to transform minds and hearts. Afterwards, the apprentices explored the aisles of books, finding everything from children’s books for their kids to mystery novels to read on their own. We are grateful for Pablo and his team at Walls of Books, and love seeing our members pass on the joy of reading to their family and friends!
We can't wait to watch these young men learn and grow--we know that they will do great things.
Reentry Successes: Getting On the Same Page
Recently, several of our members spoke at our Volunteer Write Night event in Foggy Bottom, where they shared their poetry and life experiences with a diverse group of volunteers from the D.C. area, and they read poetry by FM members who are currently incarcerated and wrote encouraging feedback for the poets. As we all know, reentry starts from the inside!
One of those young men is Varvie, who graduated from the Free Minds Apprenticeship Program in January. After completing the program, Varvie continued to participate in outreach with Free Minds, including an event at the Kennedy Center! You can watch a video of Varvie's poetry performance with the DC Legendary Musicians here (3:05). Although Varvie is now working full time for the DC government, he continues to do outreach with Free Minds, and even stopped by the March apprenticeship program a few weeks ago to say hi! We would also love to extend a huge congratulations to January apprentice Antonio, who recently completed the 7-week workforce training program with fellow DC nonprofit Building Futures. Antonio is now trained and certified to work in a variety of fields, including construction and contracting!
Free Minds has also had more opportunities over the past few months to speak with students at high schools around the area, including those at Sandy Spring Friends School and Ballou STAY High School. After sharing their stories and reading a poem or two from our literary journal, The Untold Story of the Real Me, our Poet Ambassadors facilitated discussions with high schoolers on topics like solitary confinement, change, and redemption. Keep up to date with our Violence Prevention Outreach programs--follow us on instagram here!
We Can Be The Change
As many families across the world spent their January's making New Year's resolutions, members of the Free Minds family gathered to resolve to end the violence in our city. On Thursday, January 14th, a group of 35 friends and family came together at an event called We Can Be the Change: An Evening Dedicated to Our Fallen Brothers and Sisters. After co-founders Tara and Kelli welcomed everyone, several Free Minds members shared poetry from our literary journal. One read a poem written by FM member Kuron, who was killed in September. Everyone then gathered in a circle around a glass bowl filled with water. One by one, people placed small stones in the bowl as they called out the names of each loved one they were honoring. Marcus, our Reentry Apprenticeship Trainer, explained a new Free Minds initiative called #IVow, a chance for each person to make a personal commitment to rid our community of violence. Marcus demonstrated by writing his vow on an index card, and placing this vow on a board. Dozens of Free Minds members, families, and friends followed, making personal pledges about ways they can reduce violence in our city.
A little over a month later, on Thursday, February 18th, we held our We Can Be The Change: Working to End Violence in Our City event downtown at the Shakespeare Theatre Company. Over 150 people attended the event, with some of our guests standing at the back and sides of the theatre just to hear from our evening’s panelists. Hosted by ABC7’s Leon Harris, the event featured poetry readings from several Free Minds members, along with a panel including author George Pelecanos, author and community activist Tony Lewis Jr., public defender James King, and WJLA/ABC7’s Jennifer Donelan. Guests were overwhelmingly supportive, and had great questions for our panelists on the causes and potential solutions for violence in our community. As guests were leaving, they added their own “vows” to the board started a few weeks prior. We’re so grateful for the chance to continue spreading the message of hope and change in the new year, and are already looking ahead to our next panel event in April. More information on this upcoming event here.
We couldn't be prouder of our Free Minds members, and we look forward to seeing what they accomplish next! Thank you for your continual support, and for believing in the power of books and writing to heal communities and transform lives!
As we reflect back on 2015 and cast vision for 2016, we have much to celebrate and much to continue to strive for. From seeing young men go from disengaged learners to articulate poets and celebrating their voices in our literary journal The Untold Story of the Real Me: Young Voices from Prison, we are encouraged by the renewing power of reading and writing to change lives.
When Justice and Mercy Meet
This past month, our members have been reading Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson. Founder of Equal justice Initiative (EJI), a nonprofit organization that provides legal representation to indigent defendants and prisoners who have been denied fair and just treatment in the legal system, Stevenson writes about his work as a lawyer for people on death row in Alabama. The book details his varied experience with the criminal justice system, specifically focusing on the story of a man named Walter McMillan who spent decades on death row for a murder he didn’t commit. Though it was at times painful to read for many of our members who have experienced similar situations, they poured out accolades for Just Mercy:
“I thought it was insightful and taught me about the inequality of justice in America throughout history. I identified with the section about the children being sentenced to life in prison being as though I came in as a juvenile. Even though I wasn’t given a life sentence and got 24 years, I feel as though 24 years is more than a lifetime especially for a juvenile.
"A quote out the book that I believe is true is: ‘The power of mercy is that it belongs to the undeserving. It’s when mercy is least expected that it’s most potent, strong enough to break the cycle of victimization and victimhood, retribution and suffering. It has the power to heal the psychic harm and injuries that lead to aggression and violence, abuse of power, mass incarceration.’
"What I think this quote mean is that everybody is deserving of mercy, even those who don’t think they deserve it.”-DJ
“It’s a really intense book but I love how it keeps me wondering about a lot of things.” -LB
“Hands down, Just Mercy is a very moving book. Reading this book, I found myself moved to frustration. There were too many parts where I fully understood the pain expressed, especially the part where he was having such a peaceful moment only to be interrupted by the police pointing guns at him. This book was a sorrowful reminder of America’s problem with the minorities and poor. Just Mercy painted a vivid picture for all to see America’s corrupt legal system. Besides that, Mr. Stevenson should be congratulated for all his efforts and I can say that I admire his courage. This book is a must read and belongs in every library.” -MH
“That Just Mercy book was so uplifting in many ways.” -DW
10,000 Journals for Hope
In October, we launched our newest literary journal, The Untold Story of the Real Me: Young Voices from Prison with a celebration and poetry reading. At the end of the night, we announced our 10,000 Journals For Hope campaign. We are committed to sharing the untold stories of incarcerated youth and the stories of hope, success, and second chances. We decided to raise funds to send 10,000 copies of our literary journal to disconnected youths in juvenile detention centers, solitary confinement, and schools across the country. Reading stories of success from youth home from prison and overcoming the odds can bring hope and inspiration to these young people.
We were overjoyed at the response to this campaign. So far, we have raised over 90% of our goal (9,000 journals), and have already started distributing the journals. Young inmates in federal prison have written to us to share their responses to the stories and poems in the journal:
"Again, thanks a lot for letting me be part of y'all family. And as far as the poems, I didn't have just one favorite and that's being honest. I really loved the book as a whole and the creativity plus the way the guys got a chance to express their inner feelings through words. Every soulja has a story to tell. So I've sent 2 of my own poems for you to check out. Until next time, thanks again." -CM
"I love our new book. I'm so proud of everyone in Free Minds. This movement is really life changing and I'm living testimony to that. That was a great idea too to have the pictures and something on the guys in the book. I also loved the fact that Charlie was the first one with that big smile. I miss that guy there. And you know if it's any way I can help, I'm all for it. A book dedicated to just a glimpse into our stories is a hit. It is only right that we get full exposure into the whole aspect of our lives instead of just a crime. One major benefit from being in the program is the positive effect the written word has so a book of our stories, good or bad is a very good read. Especially for an audience that would get a different glimpse into incarcerated youth..." - MH
“I promise … that I won't let no one ever take my voice. As long as I have a pen in my hand, I will write. I understand full now what you was trying to get me to see back when I was younger.” -AH
When writing back to our members about the literary journal, we asked what we should tell people if they were considering donating books to go inside prisons, and received these responses:
"Tell them that the contribution they made is a contribution into the future of a young man who finally figured out that he was too valuable to be forgotten." -DH
"By buying and giving the books to us, people out there are giving the hapless hope, they are making human beings who feel abandoned feel like someone still knows they are here." - RD
Though we still have a little ways to go, we can’t wait to distribute the rest of the 10,000 journals and watch the hope continue to spread among these incredible young people.
The Free Minds Newsletter: Family Edition
Our members often describe Free Minds as a family, so we decided to use that as the theme for the November/December edition of our monthly newsletter, the Free Minds Connect. Featuring a black and white collage of various family photos on the cover, the articles inside told the untold stories of family, including an adoption story, an interview with a member and his 21-year-old daughter, and an account of a mother’s journey from El Salvador to the USA 20 years ago. In addition to our regular columns, the Connect also features recent poems written by our members. One member, TSD, had this to say about seeing his poems in the newsletter:
“I have really been enjoying the poems, events and life stories of others, that you have allowed me to share in through your newsletter. Thank you. The newsletter is very informative and a great outlet for those of us, that feel voiceless and abandoned behind these walls. I am shocked and happy at the same time, right now. Why? Because I didn't know that you would be sharing my poems with others during one of your sessions. Smile. Now! I am all excited, smiling and waiting patiently, but anxiously, to see what your guest had to say about my poems. I am really pleased to hear that they liked what I wrote, because it is really hard in prison to get an honest opinion on anything that is remotely positive. Thank you again for sharing my poems with others and for making my night!“ -TSD
Our next issue of the Free Minds Connect, will focus on resolutions. Titled “I Resolve,” we have asked our members to consider why people make resolutions in the first place, and what changes they would like to make in their own lives in their entries for the newsletter. As a result, the Free Minds staff has been wrestling with the same questions, and coming up with our own goals and plans for success!
We are grateful for the opportunity to encourage each other in becoming our best selves, and to keep ourselves and each other accountable through writing and bringing these goals into reality.
Marching to the Beat of Justice
Our next Books Across the Miles (BAM!) book will be the graphic novel March: Book One by Congressman and civil rights leader John Lewis. As part of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s, Lewis’s work alongside Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is an inspiration to our members. March is a graphic novel about the events in his life that led him to joining the Civil Rights Movement. We are looking forward to our members’ responses about this book and the pictures that tell such an important story.
As we start this new year, we can’t help but reflect on the power your generosity and support has already had in our members’ lives. We couldn’t do it without you! Thank you again for believing in the power of books and writing, and for continuing to spread hope in the darkest places.