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Support for DC's Previously Incarcerated Youth

by Free Minds Book Club and Writing Workshop
Support for DC's Previously Incarcerated Youth
Support for DC's Previously Incarcerated Youth
Support for DC's Previously Incarcerated Youth
Support for DC's Previously Incarcerated Youth
Support for DC's Previously Incarcerated Youth
Support for DC's Previously Incarcerated Youth
Support for DC's Previously Incarcerated Youth
Support for DC's Previously Incarcerated Youth
Support for DC's Previously Incarcerated Youth
Support for DC's Previously Incarcerated Youth
Support for DC's Previously Incarcerated Youth
Support for DC's Previously Incarcerated Youth
Support for DC's Previously Incarcerated Youth
Support for DC's Previously Incarcerated Youth
Support for DC's Previously Incarcerated Youth
Support for DC's Previously Incarcerated Youth
Support for DC's Previously Incarcerated Youth
Support for DC's Previously Incarcerated Youth
Support for DC's Previously Incarcerated Youth
Support for DC's Previously Incarcerated Youth
Support for DC's Previously Incarcerated Youth
Support for DC's Previously Incarcerated Youth
Support for DC's Previously Incarcerated Youth
Support for DC's Previously Incarcerated Youth
Fall apprentices pose for a group photo
Fall apprentices pose for a group photo

This fall our Free Minds members have been hard at work both on the job and serving as Poet Ambassadors sharing their personal journeys of change with the community. They speak to youth facing the same struggles they have experienced, such as poverty and dangerous neighborhoods, and let them know they are not alone. They share their love of reading and writing and how they can be a source of comfort and strength during difficult times.

Thanks to your support, more Free Minds members are employed, obtaining vocational certificates, and giving back.

Job Readiness and Personal Skill Building Apprenticeship Builds Confidence

We welcomed another group of enthusiastic young men into our intensive Job Readiness and Personal Skill Building Apprenticeship for recently released members, with workshops on a wide range of topics both practical such as budgeting, computer literacy, interview skills

and dressing for success on the job as well as personal growth areas such as goal setting and interpersonal communication.

The apprentices also learned about tenant and workplace rights from the DC Office of Human Rights, took a team-building trip to the Newseum, completed job applications, uploaded resumes and created email addresses...to name a few of their accomplishments!

On the final day, each apprentice presented vision boards they created with images of their goals for the future, while also receiving words of encouragement and best wishes from Free Minds staff and supporters. Senior Free Minds members who have been home in the community for several years joined each session, sharing advice and giving tools for success to their Free Minds brothers.

Apprentice Alantae shared, “I've learned from Free Minds that I can achieve the things that my friends who aren't here anymore wanted to do in life, like working and helping their families. I'm so glad I have Free Minds in my corner.”

This is just one stop on our apprentices’ journey to transformation!

Our School Outreach “On the Same Page” Program Reaches New Horizons  

Our Poet Ambassadors have used their motivating messages of change everywhere you could think of: places of faith, workplaces, neighborhoods, college campuses, and high schools. However, believing the impact of reading and writing is limitless; Free Minds reached a new horizon by expanding the message of non-violence to young children in grades 3rd, 4th, and 5th!

Hopeful HoriSONS, a DC based after school group that focuses on mentoring (academically and social-emotionally) black boys in 3rd-5th grade, Free Minds Poet Ambassadors had the pleasure of meeting twenty young boys and speaking with them about reading, writing, poetry, the effects of bullying, our “greatest weapons,” and incarceration/post-incarceration experiences. The boys expressed great enthusiasm for reading and writing as our Poet Ambassadors incorporated real life scenarios and physical activity into the session.

We thank the young boys of Hopeful HoriSONS for teaching us that age does not define knowledge!

Free Minds Members: From Prison to a Paycheck

In the past year, 95% of our members in the Reentry Book Club have been working, studying, or participating in vocational training programs, resulting in a 13% recidivism rate as opposed to the national rate of 75% We are so thankful to witness so many members achieving admirable accomplishments. Here are just a few of the highlights: Aquil graduated from Excel Automotive Academy, Gary is working as a violence prevention specialist, Cornelious has been promoted to a supervisor position after being home less than a year, Aaron is studying hospitality, and so many more!

However, we are so ecstatic to announce our Poet Ambassador Jordan is going to college! We met Jordan at the DC Jail when he was 17 years old. Now, he’s headed to college to study business management. Please join us in congratulating Jordan and wishing him the best in his studies!

We are so proud of our members for overcoming the odds! Thank you for making our work possible.

Free Minds speaks to 3-5th graders about reading
Free Minds speaks to 3-5th graders about reading
Ingenuity student w/ "Untold Story of the Real Me"
Ingenuity student w/ "Untold Story of the Real Me"
Ingenuity student w/ "Untold Story of the Real Me"
Ingenuity student w/ "Untold Story of the Real Me"
Poet Ambassador Jordan w/ Ingenuity Prep student
Poet Ambassador Jordan w/ Ingenuity Prep student
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Free Minds member and John Lewis Fellow James
Free Minds member and John Lewis Fellow James

Summer is winding down, but not Free Minds. Thanks to your generous support, we had an eventful summer filled with inspirational events that have brought about peace and agency and impactful programming that has reached more youths affected by racial injustice and mass incarceration.

Free Minds Holds Their First Congressman John Lewis Fellowship Celebration

Our Congressman John Lewis Fellowship Celebration was a huge success thanks to our incredible supporters! 

On July 17, Free Minds held a celebration to commemorate Congressman John Lewis’s inspirational visit to our juvenile members at the DC Jail, which sparked our Congressman John Lewis Fellowship, a one-year paid position for a formerly incarcerated young adult to use poetry and lived experiences to promote nonviolence, hope, racial equity, and peace in under-served schools and neighborhoods. The fellow leads our poetry-based nonviolence and community outreach program, On the Same Page: Free Minds Poetry in the Classroom and Community During his visit, Lewis discussed his graphic novel trilogy March and shared about his life of nonviolence during the Civil Rights Movement.

Congressman John Lewis was not able to attend the celebration, but he wrote a letter to the Fellow, shared by his staff. He wrote, "I am proud to witness a new generation of bold leaders, like the Free Minds Poet Ambassadors and the first Congressman John Lewis Fellow. You are all courageous and you are leading the fight for what is fair and just."

Clint Smith, our newest Free Minds Book Club Facilitator at the DC Jail, spoke about the need for restorative healing for those enduring poverty, racial injustice, and incarceration. He read powerful poetry from his book, Counting Descent.

Andrew Aydin, who co-wrote the March graphic novel trilogy with Congressman Lewis, spoke passionately about the role reading can play in racial justice. "Reading is a liberation, an art, and a skill that can open up the heart."

James Allen, our Congressman John Lewis Fellow, shared how his own heart was opened by reading the memoir. "Reading the March series opened my eyes to the powers of positivity. I take my role as a positive, nonviolent influencer very seriously."

It was an incredible evening filled with inspiration and hope as we realized a dream--to reach more youths with the life-changing power of books, writing, and community.


Recently Released Members complete Job Readiness and Personal Skill Building Apprenticeship

This summer, Free Minds Book Club welcomed a group of young men, ages 16 and 17, into our intensive Reentry Book Club’s Job Readiness and Personal Skill Building Apprenticeship, for recently released members, with workshops on topics such as computer literacy, financial literacy, job interviews, storytelling, and more.

During the apprenticeship, apprentices mapped out their life and career goals; discussed who inspires them, what they love, and what is unique about them; took a team-building trip to the National Building Museum’s “Evicted” exhibit displaying the causes and effects of eviction by low-income populations; completed job applications, uploaded resumes, job searched, and created email addresses; and learned the ABC’s of financial literacy (budgeting, savings, investing, managing).

At the end of the apprenticeship, apprentices unanimously expressed interest in either finishing or returning to school, establishing a career in a field of their interest, as well as sharing their thankfulness for their Free Minds family.

Our apprentice Avery shared that after the apprenticeship, he landed his first job, “I was 16 when I got locked up; I had never had a job. Without the apprenticeship, I would not have had the job readiness skills to do so well on my interviews. I knew exactly what I needed to do and I am so grateful.”

We are excited to see everyone’s next phase!

Free Minds Discusses U.S. Prison System with Criminal Justice Experts from Uruguay

On behalf of the U.S. Department of State, World Learning invited Free Minds to participate in a project for the International Visitor Leadership Program entitled “U.S. Prison System and the Criminal Procedure Code” on August 21. Administered for visiting detention and criminal justice professionals (who all hold key roles related to current Uruguayan prison system transformation), the project’s goal was to teach visiting participants about U.S. alternatives to incarceration, federal policy-making processes, and nongovernmental perspectives on criminal justice.

In a roundtable, Free Minds shared our work, with an emphasis on the value of reading and writing. Free Minds Poet Ambassador Anthony shared his own experiences and perspective on incarceration and reentry, which led to an in-depth discussion of sentencing, human rights, youth incarceration, and reentry.

The roundtable included guests from DC Prisoners’ Project (Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs), Catholic Charities of America; and international agencies Psycho-Social Treatment, National Institute for Rehabilitation (INR), Yoga and Values in Prisons (NGO), Office of Supervised Release (OSLA), and Office of Supervised Release (OSLA).

Thank you, World Learning, for creating a space to speak on the need for criminal justice reform!

Summer Reading: Reentry Book Club Members Explore Black and White

The power of reading and writing to cope with traumatic experiences is reaffirmed in every Reentry Book Club session. This summer, the Reentry Book Club members have been reading Black and White by Paul Volponi.

An ALA Best Book for Young Adults, Black and White follows best friends Marcus (black) and Eddie (white) who found the strength to break through the racial barrier by looking past stereotypes to successfully come out on top on and off the basketball court. However, when both boys face the consequences of one wrong decision, their friendship is put to the test.

Reentry Book Club members have been eagerly following the action in the book, and predicting what is to come next in the book by placing themselves in the shoes of the characters. One member stated, “Black and White is a story that describes the importance of loyalty. I could relate to the story because it reminded me of what led to my incarceration. It’s easy to get into trouble, but hard to get out." 

We are glad to know our members are able to relate to the characters of Black and White. We wonder whose predictions will come true!


Free Minds Partners with Bread for the City for “Poetry & Write Night”

For over 40 years, Bread for the City has been a standout non-profit for strengthening low-income and homeless DC residents directly affected by the burden of poverty and racism. On August 23, Free Minds Book Club & Writing Workshop had the pleasure of collaborating with Bread for the City for “Poetry & Write Night,” a part of our community building initiative.

At “Poetry & Write Night,” community members read poetry written by incarcerated Free Minds members, and listened to formerly incarcerated Poet Ambassadors share their compelling stories and original poetry.

We asked attendees to leave uplifting feedback on the poems since we send all comments back to the authors. Due to not being a state, DC does not have a prison, so the majority of our members are incarcerated in federal prisons across the country. For many of our members who have no moral support or communication from the outside, receiving feedback on their poetry can be the calm in the storm. One attendee mentioned one poem was so good "not even [Langston] Hughes or [James] Baldwin could touch that."

Such words can go a long way! Poet Ambassador Terrell shared with the group the value and helpfulness of leaving comments stating, “When I was locked up, I looked forward to the positive remarks AND constructive feedback; the constructive feedback strengthened my style and made me a better writer.”

Thank you for making our work possible!

Congressman Lewis's staff and Free Minds team
Congressman Lewis's staff and Free Minds team
Poet Ambassador Anthony with Uruguayan visitors
Poet Ambassador Anthony with Uruguayan visitors
Apprentices express what they're thankful for
Apprentices express what they're thankful for
Poet Ambassadors at "Poetry & Write Night"
Poet Ambassadors at "Poetry & Write Night"

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Proud Leckie students with their poetry book
Proud Leckie students with their poetry book

Our summer of impactful programming is already in full swing thanks to your generous support! We have reached new heights in elevating both the voices and the life skills of our reentry members through mentoring, public speaking, and our weekly reentry book club sessions.

Poet Ambassadors Mentor Middle School Students

During the past school year, our Free Minds Poet Ambassadors—formerly incarcerated young adults—continued our strong partnership with DC Title I schools, by serving as "Poets with A Purpose" working to end youth violence through the tools of reading, writing and healing. We have a special relationship with the 8th grade boys at M.V. Leckie Education Campus, who were so inspired by our Book Club that they started their own: The Leckie Lion Hearts Book Club. Free Minds Poet Ambassadors served as positive role models, facilitating regular reading and writing workshops and inspiring them to create their own poetry book! James spoke at their 8th grade graduation, reminding the boys that they are now equipped with the powerful tools of reading and writing through difficult times. Following the ceremony, the students’ teacher, Mr. Donald Ross, distributed the newly printed poetry books From the Heart of a Lion: The Next Chapter, causing great excitement among the young poets as they saw their hard work in print.

Poet Ambassadors Creating Change

Free Minds was honored to be invited to present our unique program model at the annual Students for Prison Education and Reform (SPEAR) Conference at Princeton University. Poet Ambassadors James and Demetrius loved traveling and meeting so many passionate criminal justice reformers. Our session was packed with enthusiastic college students eager to make real change. It was inspiring to learn about and be part of the many local efforts united in a national movement.

The National Book Foundation’s third annual "Why Reading Matters" conference in Brooklyn, NY, was our next stop on our busy speaking schedule. Poet Ambassador Nick shared the long-lasting impact the Free Minds Book Club has had on his life and encouraged the conference attendees to use the tools of book club discussions to increase literacy and uplift marginalized communities. Nick has been a Free Minds member since he was 17 years old. Now home, he runs his own catering business, works several retail jobs and still finds time to use his own experience with the foster care system to mentor youth who are in foster care in DC.

Reader Leaders in the Reentry Book Club

This month, our Reentry Book Club members who meet weekly to discuss books related to their own journeys, finished reading and discussing Long Way Down, a young adult novel written in verse by Jason Reynolds.

In Long Way Down, a teenage boy struggles to make a decision in the aftermath of his brother’s murder; Free Minds members such as Milyk, whose brother was murdered when Milyk was a child, could see themselves in the story and share their struggles with the supportive Free Minds members.

Milyk wrote the following poem, inspired by Long Way Down. He shared the relief he felt reading about a character experiencing the same emotional pain he is going through: "At first it was really hard reading the book. It brought up a lot of hard stuff I try not to think about. But then it felt better and then I just wrote about it. I never have before."

LOST

I wake up crust in my eyes
1 o’clock in the morning
Phone ring
I don’t answer
Phone keep ringing
I cut ringer off
I went to sleep
I wish I didn’t
That ringing of the phone
Was the call no one wants to get
My Brother
IS
GONE

The power of reading and writing to cope with traumatic experiences is reaffirmed in every Reentry Book Club session. Next, the Reentry Book Club members will be reading Black and White by Paul Volponi

Ceremony for Poet Ambassador Isaiah 

Our Free Minds family suffered the terrible loss of one of our Poet Ambassadors, Isaiah. He was tragically shot and killed on the street and there are no answers. He had attended our monthly Write Night, in April, only a few days prior. The 23-year-old, a devoted father, was his mother’s third son to pass at the hands of gun violence. His mother told us that for Isaiah, the death of two of his brothers inspired him to live in the moment. He graduated from school, started a family, and focused on his future. At our May Write Night event, the staff, Poet Ambassadors, and volunteers honored Isaiah and his contributions to Free Minds. His entire family, including his young son, attended the event. Write Night volunteers recited poems addressed to Isaiah from our Jail Book Club members and Poet Ambassadors read aloud poetry by Isaiah addressed to his son. We all recommitted ourselves to honor Isaiah's legacy by vowing to continue our work to end violence and show love and compassion to everyone we meet, just like Isaiah did.

NBF "Why Reading Matters" conference
NBF "Why Reading Matters" conference
Poet Ambassadors enjoying Write Night
Poet Ambassadors enjoying Write Night
FM member David in the office with Ms. Keela
FM member David in the office with Ms. Keela
Poet Ambassador Anthony reads to DC students
Poet Ambassador Anthony reads to DC students
FM member James can't stop reading "Long Way Down"
FM member James can't stop reading "Long Way Down"

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Wilson taking in the view in New York City
Wilson taking in the view in New York City

Happy Spring! With your support, we continue to provide intensive reentry support for formerly incarcerated youths and adults, including weekly reading and writing workshops, weekly job readiness and personal skill building sessions, and personalized connections to job opportunities, vocational programs, schools, and community services.

In our job readiness and personal skill building program, Free Minds members continue to learn and grow in preparation for career success. In the last few months, Free Minds members have participated in workshops on creative writing, storytelling, financial literacy, starting your own nonprofit, testifying in front of local legislators, job interviews, computer literacy, public presentation, parenting, and more.

Meanwhile, Free Minds members also gather weekly at “The Build Up,” a book club and writing workshop named for the way the streets and prison tear you down, but Free Minds builds you up. At weekly “Build Up” sessions, Free Minds members read and discuss poetry or essays, write and share their own poems, and discuss topics such as perseverance and goal setting.

Free Minds member Aaron wrote the following poem in one of these sessions:

Letter to the Voice in My Head
By Aaron
 
Please, I only want positive not negative
Please, help me with temptation, don’t face it
Please, accommodate my needs. Don’t disintegrate to be fed
Please, I need help, the way out of this place
If you stop throwing temptation in my face
 
Help, I am seeking knowledge
Help, I only feed off positivity
Help, my needs are more important than wants
Help, positivity I seek, negativity I leak

In February, Free Minds staff and Poet Ambassadors James, Brandon, and Wilson traveled to New York City to visit Columbia Law School. There, they gave a presentation to assembled law students. James, Brandon, and Wilson shared their experiences with public defenders, the judicial system, and incarceration and reentry. Thank you to the Columbia Jailhouse Lawyer’s Manual team for sponsoring the event. The Jailhouse Lawyer’s Manual is a handbook of legal rights and procedures designed for use by people in prison. Wilson said of the experience, “My favorite part of the event at Columbia University was answering all of the questions that the future lawyers in the room had. It made me proud to know that they genuinely wanted to know how to make the system better from folks who have already been in the system.” This represents an important part of our work to build understanding and empathy between future attorneys and those who are directly impacted by the criminal justice system.

In March, Poet Ambassador took another trip, this time to Tampa, Florida, to the Association of Writers & Writing Programs (AWP) annual conference. James spoke on a panel called “Redemption in the Pen: Insights from the Journeys of Formerly Incarcerated Writers.” James shared his perspective as a poet and lyricist, and how creative writing helped him maintain his sense of self throughout his incarceration. He also opened up about writing and sharing his story now that he has been released: “People need to hear my story, to understand what I’ve been through and where I’m going.” Thank you to AWP and all the attendees, as well as panelists Michael Fischer, Randall Horton, and Reginald Dwayne Betts.

We are so proud of James, Brandon, and Wilson for sharing our message of hope and healing through poetry.

Finally, congratulations to Free Minds member Gary, who received an award from the Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency (DC probation agency). Gary accepted his award for successful reentry at the Citywide Justice Assembly. Gary has been home and working for five years. We are excited to see what's next on his path!

Thank you for being a partner in our work to support formerly incarcerated youths on the road to success.

Free Minds members practicing for job interviews
Free Minds members practicing for job interviews
Free Minds members practicing computer skills
Free Minds members practicing computer skills
Poet Ambassadors speaking at Columbia Law School
Poet Ambassadors speaking at Columbia Law School
Free Minds team with the Columbia organizers
Free Minds team with the Columbia organizers
James with the AWP panelists in Florida
James with the AWP panelists in Florida

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Nick won an award from DC's probation agency
Nick won an award from DC's probation agency

Thanks to your generosity, together we are helping young men home from prison transform their lives. Free Minds has been very busy these last few months, celebrating Youth Justice Awareness Month, organizing job readiness workshops, and cheering on our members as they continue to inspire us!

Youth Justice Awareness Month (#YJAM)

We honored our Free Minds Reentry Book Club members with a special #YJAM ceremony at our October Write Night. We wanted to celebrate our members’ persistence in the face of the many challenges of reentry. We honored 17 Free Minds members for participating in our Reentry Book Club and Job Readiness Apprenticeship. FM member Louis won the “Perfect Attendance” award, and Lorenzo won the “Perseverance” award! We are so grateful for all of our FM members and their dedication to change; thank you to our supporters for believing in the power of second chances.

Reentry Workshops

To help our members adjust to reentry, Free Minds hosts workshops on job readiness and other important life skills, with formerly incarcerated facilitators who serve as mentors and credible messengers to our members coming home from jail or prison. Since our last report, Free Minds members have learned about fatherhood, co-parenting, job interviews, budgeting and financial literacy, conflict mediation, health and wellness, and more. Free Minds members also went on a field trip to the National Museum of Natural History to expand their horizons and learn more about the world around us. One of our Apprenticeship Trainers, Marcus Bullock, was recently selected as part of John Legend’s inaugural “Unlocked Futures” cohort, a 16-month accelerator for social entrepreneurs impacted by the criminal justice system. Free Minds member Will Avila (Founder/CEO of Clean Decisions) is also part of the Unlocked Futures cohort. Marcus, Will, and other formerly incarcerated business owners are inspirations to all of us and important role models for our members.

Free Minds Members Tell Their Life Stories

DC nonprofit Theatre Lab recently selected Free Minds to be part of their Life Stories Program! This organization helps young people tell their stories through film or theatre as a way to control their narrative and increase their awareness of their creative potential. Our Reentry Book Club members are working with Theatre Lab trainers and professional actors to learn how to tell their stories through theater. We cannot wait to see what they create!

Free Minds Members in the Community

Free Minds members have been actively participating in local politics. Several FM members testified at the DC Council Education committee hearing on education for students during and after incarceration. Free Minds member James spoke at press conference about proposed legislation to curb school suspension. James shared his experiences with being school suspension and the school-to-prison pipeline. We are so proud of our members’ commitment to making a difference!

Free Minds members have also shared their stories with publications such as the Marshall Project and the Washington Post. Finally, huge congratulations to Nick, who won the "Most Improved" Award from the Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency (DC’s probation agency)!

Thank you for everything you have done to support our members on the path to success. We can’t do it without you!

Terrell and Demetrius testified at DC Council
Terrell and Demetrius testified at DC Council
Aaron (center) at the Reentry Recognition Ceremony
Aaron (center) at the Reentry Recognition Ceremony
Free Minds members at the Recognition Ceremony
Free Minds members at the Recognition Ceremony

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Organization Information

Free Minds Book Club and Writing Workshop

Location: Washington, DC - USA
Website:
Facebook: Facebook Page
Twitter: @FreeMindsDC
Project Leader:
Tara Libert
Washington, DC United States
$30,318 raised of $35,000 goal
 
480 donations
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