We love this time of year as we have so many opportunities to get the word out about all our Free Minds members' successes--from graduation ceremonies, to Washington Post articles, to round tables with DC Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes-Norton! Our Poet Ambassadors' calendars have been packed with events. That's a true gift!
“The Apprenticeship is a Second Chance”
We had many extra reasons to be thankful this November, as we welcomed six new apprentices to the Free Minds family. The sessions covered a range of topics, including resume-building, budgets and finance, computer literacy, entrepreneurship, continued education, interview prep, and fitness. It was also a joy to welcome back many of our guest speakers from previous apprenticeships, including Donald Curtis from SOUL, Larry Carroll from KAAOS Gym, and Derrick Bey from Redefine Your Mind. One of our November Apprentices’ favorite sessions was when they spent the afternoon at the Newseum in downtown DC. While going through the Pulitzer Prize exhibit, Free Minds member Aaron saw a picture and remembered that the same photo was on the cover of a book from Free Minds that he received while locked up titled A Long Way Gone. He was so excited to recognize the photo that he began sharing the story from the book and how it affected him reading it while he was in the hole. He said the Newseum was the best museum that he had ever been to and he wanted to come back.
At the end of the month, it was time for another graduation ceremony, and the chairs in our community room were packed. After a short welcome from Executive Director Tara Libert, Free Minds Reentry Coach Marcus Bullock took the stage. He shared words of encouragement and purpose with the audience before introducing Doug, the chosen speaker from the graduating class. Speaking thoughtfully, Doug shared, “Free Minds is extended family. The Apprenticeship is a second chance. I never had a job before. I didn't think I could ... In this Apprenticeship, I learned so much. I appreciate everything. You all were a big help, [and] you welcomed me with open arms. I [even] remember that first book you gave me. Along Came A Spider by James Patterson. I'll never forget that first book!"
Since the graduation ceremony at the end of November, five out of six of our apprentices are working full-time, and the sixth is currently working towards his GED. We couldn’t be more proud of these Free Minds brothers and the 28 other apprentices who graduated from the program in 2015. As we come to the close of one year, we are looking forward to the continued success of the Free Minds Job Readiness and Life Skills Apprenticeship in 2016!
Sharing the Untold Story
In early December, Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton hosted a roundtable to examine ways to ensure assistance for returning citizens to DC as they transition back to society. Doug, who had just completed the Free Minds Apprenticeship, attended the meeting and spoke about his own experience coming home from prison in October. Although he was initially nervous to speak to the crowd, he got a round of applause after he talked! We are grateful for these opportunities for our members to share their untold stories of firsthand experience.
The Power of Art
The same week, Free Minds attended an event at the Public Welfare Foundation in DC called Creating Justice: The Transformative Power of the Arts in Advancing Justice Reform. An evening of visual art, performances, and discussion about the transformative power of the arts in advancing a new vision of justice, the event featured several speakers, artists, performers, and advocates who are leading campaigns across the country to transform the criminal and juvenile justice systems in the United States. The performances included a poetry reading by Free Minds member Malik. A graduate of our September apprenticeship, Malik read a piece from our most recent literary journal, The Untold Story of the Real Me: Young Voices from Prison.
The Reason for the Season
Later on in December, Free Minds participated in an Alternative Gift Fair in Takoma Park, Maryland. Instead of selling products, Free Minds joined 15 other local nonprofits to speak about our mission to community members looking for alternatives to the heightened materialism that often accompanies the holiday season. Free Minds Poet Ambassadors Juan and Phil spoke with dozens of people throughout the afternoon, sharing the impact of Free Minds on their lives and the lifeline poetry and creative writing can provide for incarcerated men and women. Community members had the opportunity to partner with us in our 10,000 Journals for Hope Campaign, in which we are raising the funds to send 10,000 literary journals to youth in solitary confinement, juvenile detention centers, and schools across the country (#10000JournalsForHope). Click here for more ways to get involved with the campaign.
Free Minds Celebrities
Recently, three of our members were featured in the Washington Post for their work around the city. Will Avila, a Free Minds member since the early 2000s, started a company last year called Clean Decisions to provide returning citizens with jobs and skills in hopes of keeping them out of prison. The Clean Decisions employees deep-clean stoves, countertops, floors, food containers, and more at restaurants around the city. More than providing a service for both business clients and employees, Clean Decisions provides a brotherhood of support and camaraderie. As Graham McLaughlin, co-owner of Clean Decisions, says, “[Will] really created a positive environment, where it’s not just about the helpers and those being helped. It’s a real brotherhood.”
You can read the Washington Post article here.
Solitary Confinement on 16th Street
During the second week of December, Foundry United Methodist Church on 16th Street in Washington, DC hosted a full-size replica of a solitary confinement cell, also known as a Special Housing Unit (SHU). Visitors were invited to walk through, sit in, and reflect on the installation, facilitated by the National Religious Campaign Against Torture (NRCAT). On the opening day, NRCAT hosted a panel of speakers to reflect on the use of Solitary Confinement in prisons and juvenile detention centers across the country. Free Minds Poet Ambassador Juan spoke on the panel, and also participated in an interview with PBS on his experience being in solitary confinement for 18 months.
When Juan first arrived at the church, he couldn’t look at the cell, and almost left when he first saw it. In the end, he decided to stay because he realized that the public needs to know what is going on behind the prison walls, and that someone needs to be the one to talk about it.
None of these amazing ventures would have been possible without the dedicated support of people like you. Every time you contribute, you are joining the mission to build a stronger and safer community. THANK YOU from all of us for believing in the power of sharing our untold stories!
Since our last report, we have become much more familiar faces at our local US Post Office. Last week, we mailed approximately 300 copies of our brand new literary journal, “The Untold Story of the Real Me: Young Voices From Prison.” A collection of poetry written by young men charged and incarcerated as adults in DC while under the age of 18, this anthology covers a broad range of topics, including race, family, education, and love, and freedom. It also features individual profiles of 15 of our members, who have completed their sentences and have since returned to the community (Find out more about the journal here). Although each untold story is unique, one common theme is the transformative power of reading and writing in the lives of these young men.
“A Smash Hit”
This past month, our members have been reading Debbie Doesn’t Do It Anymore, a novel by Walter Mosley about a black porn star who finds her husband dead in a hot tub with another woman. With his Jewish and black heritage, the Californian-born author has a unique perspective on the racial inequalities in the US, about which he is quite outspoken. In this particular novel, Mosley explores the tensions of race, gender, sexuality, loss, and money as Debbie decides to leave the porn industry for good and put the pieces of her life back together, alone and in debt.
Although the portrait of an exploited and defeated spirit fighting to survive was on the heavier side, Free Minds members were transfixed by Debbie Doesn’t Do It Anymore:
“Thanks for the new BAM! books. I didn’t think every one was going to be like a smash hit, to the point I can’t put it down and I read it in a day or so… [Debbie Doesn’t Do It Anymore] was good, a lil wild at times but raw at the most... Debbie was really from the streets, her whole MO was cold. Nice but cold. I mean when you’re in the streets or have come from the streets you learn to never really show your feelings. To show feelings makes you weak, makes you the prey they soon to be eating. She has a lot going on… She sad, lonely, overworked, I mean she going through life. I know it seems sad or crazy but this is the life of more than half of colored people in the US. Not all of us will have a helping hand and it’s going to be way harder without it. But killing yourself will never be the answer to whatever you’re looking for. Live life, love life, and try to see it to the end. God put us here for that reason, at least give him that much respect. Good book, I liked it. I read it in 3 days.” -SJ
“Debbie Doesn’t Do It Anymore is a good book to read. Why? Because it shows you life’s challenges in your life, my life, and Debbie’s. Next time if you feel like doing something dumb or putting yourself in harm’s way, think about the book you have read.” -MH
“It has a lot of powerful acts and ways to help a person who lived a messy life to look at things in another light. I also got from the book is that when you want to change your life from one that you are used to living it just can’t happen overnight and you also need your friends, family, and loved ones to help.” -DM
The Free Minds Connect: Moving Forward
In September, we mailed out another issue of our bimonthly newsletter, which focused on the theme “Moving Forward.” Free Minds member JG, who writes a regular column for the Connect, talked about how moving forward reminds him of flowing water:
“Water, when in its natural state, is always fluid, flowing, never stagnant...When we focus on our goals and what we want, always looking at the glass as half full, we’ll always remain in a state of forward motion.” - JG
The mother of one of our Free Minds members who is in federal prison wrote a column about how she copes with her son’s incarceration:
“I went to therapy which really helped me...Every time I left her office I felt so relieved and happier...I’ve always been a happy person but the therapy really helped. I would definitely recommend it to other moms out there.” - CW
Other columns included a piece entitled “Forgiveness,” written by a black pastor in DC about the shooting in Charleston, NC, as well as a brand new legal advice column called “The Legal Pad.” We also included Part One of a story written by a returning citizen from Portland, Oregon, who talks about growing up amidst drugs, addiction, and abuse:
“...Each morning, I had to fend for myself, because everyone was asleep from partying… Both of my parents and all of my uncles (except for one that had had been shot and became a paraplegic) were in the federal pen... It wasn’t a hard decision for a kid with no positive male figure in his life being raised by the realities of his environment. Just like that I gave up what I loved for a life of pain. Yet the crazy thing about “gang culture” is that it will make you believe pain is love if you have never felt loved.”-LA
Our next issue of the Free Minds: Connect, will focus on Family, both biological and those who have earned that place in our lives. Poems around the topic have already arrived at the office, and we can’t wait to read even more about how our members continue to create family wherever they are.
Write Night Is Back In Session!
In September, we had Write Night at Seekers in Takoma Park, Maryland, with a huge turn out! When asked how many were there for the first time, half of the room raised their hands! At least a third of the room also responded favorably when asked if they wrote poems themselves. By the end of the night, our volunteers wrote encouraging comments and notes on over 30 different poems, which we will mail to each of the authors. It is moments like these that continue to remind us of the power of poetry to build bridges between people behind bars and individuals on the outside.
We were also excited to welcome a film team from Sojourners Magazine, who featured Free Minds in their September/October issue. See the video of our Poet Ambassadors sharing their stories at Write Night here.
A Story of Justice and Redemption
Next month, every Books Across the Miles Book club member will receive a copy of Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson. Arguably one of the most important defense attorneys and civil rights leaders of our time, Stevenson founded the Equal Justice Initative (EJI), a non-profit organization dedicated to reforming the criminal justice system and defending poor people who have been denied effective representation. To date, the organization has prevented 115 men from being executed on death row.
This book, perhaps more challenging than comforting, tells about one of Stevenson’s first cases defending Walter McMillian, a young man who was sentenced to die for a murder he didn't commit. We are eagerly anticipating our members’ reactions to this important and inspiring argument for compassion in the pursuit of justice.
As we continue to expand and improve our programs, we want to extend a special thank you to all of you who have contributed to our success. Thanks to your support, more incarcerated youth are sharing their stories and writing new chapters in their lives.
“I joined the Apprenticeship Program to turn my life around."
In our work with returning citizens, one thing that we’ve learned is that reentry begins on the inside--mentally and physically. That’s why we were so excited a few weeks ago when a federal prison invited us as reentry experts to lead a workshop in the prison with over a hundred inmates planning ahead for their release. Our reentry team traveled to the facility where we met approximately 120 inmates, several of whom were Free Minds members, proudly telling everyone about the Book Club! We led the participants in workplace role playing sessions, and Free Minds Reentry Apprenticeship Trainer inspired everyone with his personal story of becoming a successful business owner after being incarcerated at a young age. We shared our new motto about the three most important aspects of reentry: Belief, Action, and Motivation. Believe that you can do it, take action to achieve your goals, and remember what motivates you, such as a loved one or a dream for your future, even when you’re facing difficult odds. We’ve received a stack of letters from the participants telling us how motivated they are now, and the prison has invited us back to do a job fair in a few months!
Meanwhile in DC, our Apprenticeship is going strong!
This past June, six more young men from DC have graduated from our Job-Readiness and Life Skills Apprenticeship and are already on to their next steps to success!
The apprentices worked hard throughout the month, providing program support in the Free Minds office, learning crucial job skills, and gaining practical on-the-job experience with Clean Decisions, a cleaning and contracting company founded by Free Minds member Will, and Perspectives, a contracting company founded by Reentry Apprenticeship Trainer Marcus Bullock and his business partner Anthony Belton. In addition, many of our community leaders and facilitators from previous apprenticeship sessions continued to invest in our apprentices, including Donald Curtis from SOUL (Student-Athletes Organized to Understand Leadership) and Larry Carroll Sr from KAOOS gym in DC. We recognize the importance of having mentors that you can relate to and who understand what you’re going through, which is why we connect our apprentices with formerly incarcerated entrepreneurs such as Will (a former Free Minds member, now founder of Clean Decisions!), Marcus Bullock, Anthony Belton, Donald Curtis, Larry Carroll, Sr., and more!
Other topics of our Monday, Wednesday, Friday sessions included resume writing, job interviews, college preparation, nutrition, physical fitness, entrepreneurship, advocacy, and more. Apprentices also visited the Newseum where they learned about civic responsibility and the Civil Rights Movement. In another session, they discussed advocacy with representatives from the Corrections Information Council (CIC). This was particularly interesting because a Free Minds member currently works for the CIC!
One recent Apprenticeship graduate, Anthony, hadn’t thought about what he wanted to do with his life when he first started the Apprenticeship after being released from prison. But after meeting Reentry Apprenticeship Trainer Marcus Bullock he began to work on concrete career goals. He was particularly inspired by a workshop on decision-making with guest speaker Dave Ungrady from the Born Ready project. As Anthony recalls, “I joined the Apprenticeship Program to turn my life around." Now he has completed additional vocational training programs and is thinking about different careers. He even referred a friend to the Apprenticeship program, giving us his stamp of approval!
Terrell, a current Apprentice, shared with us why he’s motivated to complete the program and change his life: “The Apprenticeship is a real opportunity for me to grow. I’m learning more about me. At first I wasn’t a big people person but I’m discovering that I can deal with all types of people from all walks of life. I want to help people now. Before when I was younger I had so much resentment and negativity toward others. I’m wiser now. I know how to think instead of just acting. I have new goals now. I’m able to learn how to better myself and be more productive. When I was into the lifestyle of the streets it was all about instant gratification...Now I have an entirely different motivation. The Apprenticeship is helping me because everyone needs help, you just can’t be afraid to ask for it.”
Recently, several of our members spoke at our Volunteer Write Night event in Takoma Park, 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!
At Write Night, our senior Reentry Support members who have been in the program for a long time joined us in congratulating Phil on his 1-year anniversary of his release from prison. Phil has been working steadily for the Corrections Information Council, as well as doing outreach with Free Minds!
Another member, Tony, proudly told everybody about being a firefighter and how much it meant to him to be able to help people and support his community. Free Minds member Khalef brought his entire family to the event to show them the program that he was a part of.
We couldn't be prouder of our 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!