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Book Club for Youth in Federal Prison

by Free Minds Book Club and Writing Workshop
Book Club for Youth in Federal Prison
Book Club for Youth in Federal Prison
Book Club for Youth in Federal Prison
Book Club for Youth in Federal Prison
Book Club for Youth in Federal Prison
Book Club for Youth in Federal Prison
Book Club for Youth in Federal Prison
Book Club for Youth in Federal Prison
Book Club for Youth in Federal Prison
Book Club for Youth in Federal Prison
"Ladder of Hope" by FM Member SK
"Ladder of Hope" by FM Member SK

The COVID-19 pandemic has had a profound impact on the members of our Prison Book Club, but thanks to you, we have been there with unwavering support. In response to the public health crisis, all federal prison facilities are currently on lockdown, meaning our members who are already hundreds of miles from home, are now locked in their cells for 22-24 hours per day, with only brief windows of time each week to call their loved ones, exercise, or even take a shower. Members have been writing to us with messages of fear and worry over their forced isolation in environments that already lack access to proper health and sanitary conditions. We are stepping up our services to help our members cope with this stress and trauma, and continue to access educational materials. We cannot thank you enough for supporting us during this crisis. Your generosity reminds us that times of uncertainty are times when we must all come together as a community!

We knew we needed to act quickly to ensure uninterrupted support for our members. We immediately moved our volunteer work online and knew our dedicated corps of volunteers would respond. They did not disappoint. We have been thrilled with the response from our community! Volunteers are writing letters to our members in our weekly Letter Writers Circle via Zoom, typing poems written by our members, and creating “lockdown” worksheets with puzzles, brain teasers, and writing prompts to help keep their minds active and free during quarantine. Our monthly Write Night has also gone virtual and attracted hundreds of new volunteers from across the globe! This is a special opportunity where volunteers provide feedback on poetry from our members, which is then mailed to our members in over 100 federal prisons across the country. The public is keenly aware of what incarcerated individuals are enduring in the coronavirus hotspot that is prison, and traffic has been enormous on our poetry blog where the community can post encouraging comments on our members’ poetry.

Thanks to your support, our community has been a ray of hope for our members! The appreciation from our members has been pouring in. What we call “attitudes of gratitude” letters have been nonstop.

“Thanks so much for everything: the books, the letters, the birthday cards, and most of all the feeling of family and support. I really thank you guys because just when it felt like I had nobody and I felt like giving up, you guys came through and let me know someone's there and they care. Thank you guys." - Free Minds member Demitrich

“Free Minds is a special program and helps a lot of us in here. Knowing somebody is willing to support me is something big for me. You can turn a negative to a positive. I'll show FMBC how bright I can get. Thanks for giving me the opportunity to share my thoughts." - Free Minds member Joshua

"I wanted to say thank all of you for everything that you do for all of us. See I learned wealth isn't all about money, it's about time. And we constantly forget that. You guys put so, so, so much time in us, you actually believe in us. You've helped change me to the man I am today, and writer I am today. I want each and every one of yall to hug each other and just drop a tear because teamwork makes the dream work." - Free Minds member Taurus

Connect: Remembrance 

As we entered into Spring, a time of new life, our members suggested we dedicate an issue of our newsletter to all our loved ones who we have lost, but who are living on in our hearts. In our latest issue of the Connect, Free Minds members, staff, and friends reflect on different pathways of remembrance and ways of celebrating the lives of our dear ones. The timing between the vibrant colors of Spring and our latest issue was also perfect, as we debuted our new redesign complete in full color.

In this vibrant and touching celebration of life and remembrance, stories include:

  • FM friend and therapist Edward’s guidance on how we can come to terms with our own grief and different ways we can honor loved ones who have died (p.6)
  • A touching tribute to Joshua, FM Congressman John Lewis Fellow who passed away last September, written by FM member Arthur (p. 23)
  • How FM member Luis, who was deported after his release, has adjusted to his new life and remembers his real home, D.C. (p.9)
  • Co-founder and Executive Director Tara's nephew, Jeffrey, shares how he overcame the obstacles of being blind in order to obtain his master's degree and become a youth counselor (p. 20)

Books Across the Miles: Man’s Search for Meaning

The latest Books Across the Miles book voted on by our members has been a huge hit! Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning is the real-life story of survival and finding purpose. A survivor of a Nazi concentration camp, Frankl believed that we cannot escape suffering but we can decide how we cope and use that suffering to find and pursue our meaning in life. Our members have found Frankl’s memoir both relatable and encouraging, inspiring them to reflect on their own meaning in life. Here is what some members had to say:

“I just started reading Man’s Search for Meaning. It is really powerful and taught me a lot about life. I can’t put it down for anything, I really do love this book.” - RC

“I think Frankl’s experience in concentration camps could be compared to incarceration in the United States. Although Frankl had a harsher experience, it is similar in ways. Concentration camps, prisons, and the likes could cause a mental death to the incarcerated. The cruel and unusual punishment that is endured could lead to mental health issues - anxiety, depression, stress, etc. It is different today because prison has better food and living conditions. We are not forced to work under inhumane circumstances. There are life sentences but we know our fate - they didn’t know theirs.” - SM

“For me, the meaning of life is to be a good person and a good human being. This can be interpreted in many ways but for me it is about leaving something better than you found it. Whether that something is a relationship, place, situation, or person.” - JL

“One step is for us as a people is to open our eyes and realize, not look, but realize that meaning is there for everyone.” - LA

Do you have your own thoughts about Man’s Search for Meaning and want to read more about what members had to say? You can follow along with the discussion in the Connect!

Thank you for sustaining our community of support during these times. Like our community is to our members, so you are a ray of hope to us!

The new design for the Free Minds Connect
The new design for the Free Minds Connect
Artwork by FM member RW
Artwork by FM member RW
Letters from FM members in prison
Letters from FM members in prison

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The latest issue of our Connect newsletter
The latest issue of our Connect newsletter

As we begin a new decade, Free Minds is eager to continue our commitment to  the transformative power of reading and writing for youth and young adults who have been incarcerated. Our Prison Book Club fosters community and creates bonds among our members, who are hundreds of miles away from home, and elevates their voices through books and poetry. Thank you for your support and your part in sustaining this community of encouragement and hope.

Connect: Forgiveness

In our latest issue of the Connect, members share their journey with forgiveness and what it means to not only forgive others, but also to forgive oneself. The stories of forgiveness found in this issue are inspirational reminders of the capacity for human compassion and transformation. 

  • How new member of the FM family, Reentry Coordinator Melody, came to forgive the man who killed her husband (p.7)
  • FM member, Craig, shares how the father of the person he killed forgave him and eventually testified in support of his resentencing and early release (p.10)
  • The emotional encounter FM member, BB, experienced when he met face-to-face with the victim of his crime (p.20)
  • Ubuntu Philadelphia Co-founder, Ghani, shares how his organization utilizes different experiences and perspectives of injustice to redefine justice and healing as a community (p.22)
  • Vicarious restorative justice as an alternative method for emotional healing to all parties impacted by the criminal justice system (p.6)

Our members love to show their “attitudes of gratitude”. We receive letters thanking us for everything from birthday cards to our encouragement for members to discover the outlets that reading and writing possess. Thanks to your generosity we are able to send a strong message of support to our members. Here are some excerpts:

“Here you all go again with another big birthday banger! Yes, I just got you all's birthday card today and it couldn't have come at a better, needful, and greater time. So thanks, you just made me that much happier! You got me hearing a new song, I'm holding on to 2 balloons and rising up above this mess! You got me feeling like a superstar! Thanks to all of the Free Minds Family, especially for all of those reinforcing encouraging words on my birthday cards.” - Free Minds member Derrick

“Thank you dearly for all that you do! You all are a God-send to me. Without you all, prison would be so boring. I wouldn’t be happy, I wouldn’t have started writing poems again and I wouldn’t have started writing books.” - Free Minds member Daniel

Books Across the Miles: Man’s Search for Meaning

We asked and our members answered! The next Books Across the Miles selection is Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning. A survivor of the Holocaust, Frankl chronicles his experience in a Nazi concentration camp and how he managed to discover his purpose in life and use this as a tool of survival. Frankl encourages the reader to mentally escape the confines of their current situation and develop the hope that a positive future is attainable. It offers the message of developing resilience and perseverance in the face of an unimaginable situation.

Members have also written in with thoughtful reflections from the previous Books Across the Miles choice, Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds. In this work of fiction, teenager Will experiences the cycle of gun violence while trying to seek revenge for the death of his brother. Here is what some members had to say: 

“Long Way Down was a first for me. I never read a book composed of poems that vividly told a story like that before. It was a good book that I plan on sending to my son that is 11 years old. The ending was different and great. It left room for the reader to place themselves in the elevator and gave them the choice to stay on or get off. Not many books can pull the reader in to that level.” - TJ

"I think Reynold's use of poetry is to get the reader to look at his words as a work of art. He gets you to look at Will's situation with the eyes of someone looking at a picture. This is why I think it impacts the reader in a way normal sentences wouldn't. For instance it doesn't read like a novel, it reads like a series of poems that turn into a story." - DS

“There were “rules” in my neighborhood [like Will’s]. If you didn’t follow them, the ole heads would step in and make sure you knew you were outta line. To me not having a father, I looked up to a lot of the ole heads. It was the only option. The ole heads set the rules because they been there, done that, they set the foundation. Changing the rules to the hood is to try to get the youth to understand that it’s not cool to do certain things.” - MZ

“Crying is a sign of weakness in the hood and the weak are taken advantage of. I think not crying has an impact on not just the community but individuals as a whole who have no way to express emotions like hurt, anger, pain and happiness. A baby cries because it can’t talk and tell you what’s bothering it. Crying is a form of release.” - DS

Have you read Man’s Search for Meaning or Long Way Down? You can find discussion questions in our newsletter, The Connect, and follow along with what our members are discussing about each book.  

Again, thank you for supporting Free Minds and listening to and elevating the voices of our members. We appreciate you!

The next Books Across the Miles selection
The next Books Across the Miles selection
A drawing shared by FM member AE
A drawing shared by FM member AE
A letter from FM member DJ
A letter from FM member DJ
Holiday cards from FM members in prison
Holiday cards from FM members in prison

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Latest Free Minds Connect Issue
Latest Free Minds Connect Issue

Over the last seventeen years, Free Minds has seen hundreds of incarcerated youths “free their mind” through reading and writing. We are so thankful to have you be a part of our member’s growth, betterment, and invaluable circle of support!

Our Prison Book Club has proven to be the bit of hope and light for our members who are currently miles away from home. Every day, our members write us to tell us how much they appreciate receiving books, cards, words of encouragement, and our monthly newsletter, the Free Minds Connect. Here are some excerpts from letters with “attitudes of gratitude:”

“I received the latest Connect and enjoyed the contents. I love to hear other people share their story because it lets me know I'm not alone. I love the politics and the news of the world. The poetry is art and I love to hear the progression of the organization. As a whole, the Connect keeps me at peace.” - Free Minds member Sanchez

“I appreciate all of the support you guys have showed me while incarcerated in federal prison even from when I was a youth...I look forward to my books, postcards, and letters from you guys. I don't think I told you guys that y’all are one of the reasons I started writing music. The advice and feedback y’all would give me when I was on the juvenile block made me realize that I have a talent and a story. I want to pursue moving forward with my goals and plans that I created while in this predicament.” - Free Minds member Antonio

Books Across the Miles: Long Way Down

Votes are in! Our Free Minds members have chosen to read New York Times Best Selling Author Jason Reynolds’ Long Way Down, a fictional story of story about 15-year-old Will who is haunted by the “ghosts of gun violence” after wanting to seek revenge on his brother Shawn’s murderer. On an author visit to the DC Jail to speak to our 16 and 17-year-old members at the DC Jail last August, Reynolds shared, “I wrote this book speaking to my 16- and 17-year-old self...Why violence? No one ever tells us what to do with the pain.” While Long Way Down makes its way across the miles through the mail, we are still receiving feedback on Angie Thomas’ The Hate U Give, a fictional story of a young woman named Starr and her childhood friend Khalil, both black, who leave a party together and are pulled over by a white police officer who kills Khalil. Here is some feedback:

“Lisa [Starr’s mother] reminds me of my mother. As long as I can remember, my mom’s life focus was and is her children. Every move we made was an upgrade in living conditions as well as safety. I don’t fault Lisa or any mother for wanting the best for her child, you can advocate from a distance. You don’t have to be in the skillet to know it’s hot.” - RB

Feel free to read along with us. We would love to have you join the conversation as well!

Connect: Adulthood

In the latest issue of our newsletter, the Free Minds Connect, our members, staff, and volunteers shared their thoughts — and poetry— on the theme, “Adulthood.” In this issue, you’ll find the following:

  • A personal essay written by Free Minds member Nick that explores how growing up in areas of high crime can expose children to PTSD, as well as strip them of their innocence and childhood at an early stage of life. Page 5
  • Free Minds member Davon recounts the common misconceptions children have about what it means to be an adult. Now a working man in his early 20’s, Davon commits his time to helping others, fulfilling his responsibilities, and making the right decisions. Page 10
  • Free Minds intern Ben explains the coming of age traditions of Latin America, the Jewish community, Japan, and the Amazon Jungle. The journey from childhood to adulthood is full of challenges—so why not celebrate it? Page 16
  • Free Minds intern Ben highlights important changes to the Youth Rehabilitation Act, a new DC law that may allow members to have their criminal record set aside after completing their sentence. Page 17

We are thrilled to have you witness our members exploring their creativity through books and writing. Thank you for making all of this possible!

Free Minds member Brandon asks for more books
Free Minds member Brandon asks for more books
"Long Way Down" by Jason Reynolds
"Long Way Down" by Jason Reynolds
Free Minds member Muquan makes FM a card (1/2)
Free Minds member Muquan makes FM a card (1/2)
Free Minds member Muquan makes FM a card (2/2)
Free Minds member Muquan makes FM a card (2/2)
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Latest Free Minds Connect Issue
Latest Free Minds Connect Issue

Our Prison Book Club provides hope and light to our incarcerated members who are currently miles away from home in prisons all across the country. Thanks to your support, they feel a strong connection to Free Minds. In case you have not learned how Free Minds began, we wanted to share a brief history to show the power of one young man's dream to help others:

In 1996, our Co-founder Kelli Taylor, a news producer at the time, received a letter from a young man on death row in Texas by the name of Glen. A son of a single mother battling substance abuse, Glen desperately took a .25 caliber handgun to rob someone for money to feed his mother’s addiction. In the process, he shot and killed a store clerk--a mother of young children. For the next few years, Kelli and Glen began to write to each other about different books, and she learned of his story, not just of his crime, but also of his life. Prior to his execution in 2000, Glen asked Kelli to continue corresponding with incarcerated youth due to the lack of programming and care for their harsh realities. Seventeen years later, Free Minds now serves hundreds of incarcerated youths through reading and writing and we are so thankful that you are a part of making it happen!

Every day, our members write us to tell us how much they appreciate receiving books, cards, words of encouragement, and our monthly newsletter, the Free Minds Connect. Here are some excerpts from letters:

“I wanna say thank you FM for being here for me faithfully... Don't laugh at me when I say this, but even though I’ve been single for years now, I feel like I'm ok because I'm in a relationship with all of you. As I say, it brings tears to my eyes because I was at a point in my bid where I was lost, and then I found (Allah) and you.” - Free Minds member Taurus

A star writer as a juvenile in Free Minds, Free Minds member Kenneth became discouraged to keep writing after receiving a 69-year sentence. After Free Minds encouraged him to keep writing poetry, he shared, “Me and some of the guys were hanging out just talking and the topic went to writing and poetry. We had close to a two-hour poetry slam and it was so motivational. I like to hear other people's poetry, it makes me actually want to write, and it stokes my eternal fire that always kindled waiting to the burn.” 

Books Across the Miles: The Hate U Give

Our Free Minds members are reading Angie Thomas’ The Hate U Give, a fictional story of a young woman named Starr and her childhood friend Khalil, both black, who leave a party together and are pulled over by a white police officer who kills Khalil. The sole witness to the homicide, Starr must testify before a grand jury that will decide whether to indict the cop, and she is terrified, especially as emotions run high. The book discusses racism, police brutality, the Black Lives Matter movement, and much more. Here is what some of our readers had to say about it: 

The Hate U Give is a heartbreaking story that really hit home for me. It overall, however, gave me the extra motivation needed to keep pushing for change.” - AE

“I received a book titled The Hate U Give. That is one of the best books I've ever read in my life! For the past two decades, I have had 5 books that I thought would never be out done. However, The Hate U Give knocked one of those books off my top 5 list. The author really does a great job of getting the reader involved with the story. I could feel Starr talking to me through her joys and pains.”- JL

Feel free to read along with us. We would love to have you join the conversation as well!

Connect: Healing

In the latest issue of our newsletter, the Free Minds Connect, our members, staff, and volunteers shared their thoughts — and poetry— on the theme, “Healing.”

Recently we have added one-on-one trauma therapy sessions with a licensed clinical therapist for our member’s home from incarceration. We know our incarcerated members are in need of the same support to heal from trauma, too.

We were so thrilled to receive feedback on the positive impact the Healing issue had on our Prison Book Club members. Here is a response we have received from Prison Book Club member Joseph: “This issue's theme - Healing- is probably the best issue I've read in the Connect so far. Knowing how to heal yourself mentally and emotionally is very important and can help teach one how to assist others in their healing. Every article in this issue offers a jewel that contributes to healing. I appreciated Edward for writing the article ‘We Repeat What We Don't Repair!’ I totally agree when he states that, ‘Although you are not to blame for the trauma you experienced in the past, you are 100% responsible for taking ownership over the process of healing from it!’ What he says not only works, but also helps confirm that I am on the right track.”

Page 18 of our Connect features an article entitled, “We Repeat What We Don’t Repair” written by our clinical psychologist. He explores psychological trauma, psychotherapy, and repetition compulsion, while also offering step-by-step advice on how to heal and control unresolved trauma.

On page 10 of our Connect, Free Minds member Davon relives his trauma as a gunshot victim (shot 11 times in three separate incidents) and his transformation from “running the streets” to working towards stopping the violence in his same community.

On page 4 of our Connect, Free Minds mom Rita shares her compelling story of strength and healing after dealing with the loss of three sons to gun violence. Determined to provide joy to her beautiful family, Rita wakes up every day to comfort others. She is a remarkable example of the extraordinary human capacity for healing and hard-won wisdom.

*Free Minds Book Club & Writing Workshop has consent to use names and pictures for this report.

Glen McGinnis, original Free Minds member
Glen McGinnis, original Free Minds member
"The Hate U Give" by Angie Thomas
"The Hate U Give" by Angie Thomas
PA Jordan responds to a PBC member's letter
PA Jordan responds to a PBC member's letter

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"Men We Reaped" by Jesmyn Ward
"Men We Reaped" by Jesmyn Ward

We have transitioned into the hopeful spring season, and that hope springs from knowing supporters like you believe in the transformative power of the literary arts! Our Prison Book Club program brings connection and healing to our members separated (sometimes by thousands of miles) from their families and loved ones. In our last report, we shared that we sent New Year’s cards to all of our Free Minds members incarcerated in over 55 federal prisons, and we have continued our nonstop effort to ensure every member gets the coveted mail call by sending birthday cards, postcards, personalized letters, and our own newsletter, the Free Minds Connect. Thank you for making this lifeline of correspondence possible.

Books Across the Miles: Healing

Free Minds members are reading and reflecting on Men We Reaped by two-time National Book Award winner Jesmyn Ward, whose memoir contends with the deaths of five young men dear to her, and the risk of being a black man in the rural South. The book had a strong emotional impact on our members. Here are just a few of many responses we received:

“I read it in one sitting. The book is profound in its simple approach to how it is she was able to get her very personal family history and experience down, for all the world to see, without going insane. Not many of the people working this beautiful planet of ours, today, is capable of doing such. After reading Ms. Ward's memoir, I've fallen in love with writing once again. No fear or shame.” AW

“I myself have never worn a memorial t-shirt. I don’t think it is bad because we should remember our loved ones in a good light. Same thing with obituaries. They get padded with all kinds of accolades: church, college, job, volunteer work etc. etc. And in most cases, these are over-stated, but it is making the loved one feel good.” -RJ reflecting on memorial t-shirts, a tradition referenced in Men We Reaped, which memorializes loved ones whom have passed away.

Free Minds member Antonio wrote us after receiving Assata by Assata Shakur:

“The autobiography was extraordinary. The book provided the opportunity to carefully see the orchestrated distortions of fact concerning the motivations of Assata Shakur, born Johanna Chesmard. Reading the book explained simply and vividly about the racism that permeated her childhood and young womanhood, as well as the ordinary experiences of Blacks in the United States. 

“Her book led me to understand more about society and the demise of the system. Clearly, it was the racism that riddled her and made her fight. The book broke down the struggle for self-determination in the twentieth century. Assata Shakur’s own words as she writes some of the most intellectually gifted poems had me in deep thoughts. She writes about her experiences not as a historical icon, seeking to crystallize the “critical life,” but as one whose experiences can help another individual get through similar struggles.

Look for the next issue of the Connect, exploring the theme of “healing” later this month!

Our Jail Book Club was featured in its entirety on BookTV on C-SPAN 2!

We were thrilled viewers could witness the power of our book club discussions on national TV! Our book club at the DC Jail was featured in its entirety on BookTV on C-SPAN 2. It was incredible to see our members, along with facilitators Stacey Houston and Clint Smith, sharing their thoughts and experiences with the world.

While discussing Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried, a collection of linked short stories about a platoon of American soldiers fighting on the ground in the Vietnam War, our members drew connections between their own experiences and the experiences of the soldiers in the novel. Free Minds member Jonas said, “Prison [Tim O'Brien] trying to express it in the best way he can and it still does not seem adequate. That's how I feel when trying to express what it's like to be in prison." 

Though the segment premiered earlier this year, we are still receiving so much honest and hopeful feedback on social media! One viewer shared that the segment not only inspired her but also challenged her to consider her biases about people who are incarcerated. She said, "I forgot they were inmates and saw them as men." We are committed to changing the narrative around incarceration and elevating the voices of those directly impacted by our prison system.

We are thankful to everyone who has taken the time to listen to our members and help us spread the word that books and writing bring social change.

Click here to watch the full segment

Author Tiffany Jackson Visits Free Minds Book Club at New Beginnings

In October 2018, new legislation went into effect in DC stating that all youths charged as adults will now be housed in a juvenile detention center until they turn 18 or are released. Previously, these young people were incarcerated at the DC Jail, where Free Minds led weekly book club and writing workshop sessions. We began our book club at New Beginnings Youth Development Center in Fall 2018.A residential treatment facility for youths, the development center provides rehabilitation and planning for young people through educational services, workforce development, health care, and community engagement. Kicking off this new phase, our friends at the Open Book Foundation brought author Tiffany D. Jackson to meet and speak with our young men as well as provided everyone with a copy of her book Allegedly.

Pulling inspiration from interviewees, such as young women (ages 18-23) who lived through youth detention centers and group homes, Jackson was determined to write a book that would “spread awareness on young teenage girl issues.” Her book follows the story of a sixteen-year-old girl, now living in a group home, who was convicted of killing a baby at the age of nine. Despite receiving 55 rejections of her manuscript over the course of 5 years, she told herself, “Life is all about rejections. Rejections come, but you have to keep pushing. I had to be confident in myself and perseverance is important.”

While reading excerpts from Allegedly to our 16- and 17-year-old Free Minds members, Jackson took a moment to express the importance of sharing your story, stating, “I was inspired to write after attending a predominantly white high school where I experienced macroaggressions and racism. Writing became my escape. I was in my own world and could just be there. I want you guys to read about people’s stories, but I also want you guys to read about each other’s. I hope these book clubs inspire you to tell your own stories.”

Moved by her words of advice, Free Minds member JC shared, “She inspired me to see that I can go for my goals. I want to write two books.”

We can’t wait to read JC’s books as he joins a community joined together in the joy, healing and insight writing provides.

Author Tiffany D. Jackson (center) visits DC Jail
Author Tiffany D. Jackson (center) visits DC Jail
FM members read "The Things They Carried"
FM members read "The Things They Carried"
FM Member reads along to "The Things They Carried"
FM Member reads along to "The Things They Carried"

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Free Minds Book Club and Writing Workshop

Location: Washington, DC - USA
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Twitter: @FreeMindsDC
Project Leader:
Tara Libert
Washington, DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA United States
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