“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!
We are thrilled to announce that seven more apprentices have recently graduated from our Job Readiness and Life Skills Apprenticeship in April! They are brimming with knowledge about college preparation, resume writing, workplace problem solving, and more!
One of our mottoes here at Free Minds is “Show, don’t tell,” advice that works for creative writing and for life! We look for mentors who can show—not just tell—our apprentices how to lead a positive life because they are living proof of their own message. We work hard to provide workshop leaders that our apprentices can relate to and look up to, people who have come from similar backgrounds and overcome great obstacles to become successful business owners and community leaders. Some of these leaders include Donald Curtis from SOUL (Student Athletes to Understand Leadership), who taught our apprentices about college prep, and Larry Carroll, Sr. from KAAOS gym who trained the apprentices in physical fitness and wellbeing.
We are also thrilled to announce a new official member of our Reentry Team. Marcus Bullock, founder of the company and app Flikshop, has been working with Free Minds for several years leading our workshop on entrepreneurship and now will be our Apprenticeship Coordinator, co-facilitating our workshops and managing all aspects of our Apprenticeship program. Each apprentice will have an opportunity to work for Perspectives, a general contracting company that does residential and commercial remodeling. Perspectives is run by Marcus Bullock and Anthony Belton, both returning citizens and role models. A former inmate turned entrepreneur himself, Marcus brings invaluable energy, encouragement, and life experience to his new role as Reentry Coordinator.
Another invaluable component of our Apprenticeship is the chance for our apprentices to interact with high level business professionals as part of our partnership with the Advisory Board Company (ABC), who facilitated job role play workshops in which their wonderful employees acted out real-life workplace scenarios that Free Minds members have encountered on the job, and demonstrated ways to handle the various challenges. In each scenario, a Free Minds member acted as the boss or co-worker, and a member of the Advisory Board team acted as the employee. The folks from ABC continue to be courageous and flexible, especially since our roleplaying Free Minds members don’t go easy on them! The best part by far was when the Advisory Board volunteers shared their own personal stories of work challenges from both past and present jobs. Hearing that everyone goes through tough job stress makes the apprentices realize they are not alone. The opportunity to see a professional office and meet folks who really care about their success is invaluable for our apprentices.
Some of our apprentices also participated in the Our City Festival, a recent celebration of DC through film, music, and literature. A crowd gathered at the MLK Library on a Sunday afternoon to view "Our Voices," our collaborative show with Chris Ousley from the folk band Bumper Jacksons. The show opened with the talented spoken word artist Bomani Armah, and then seven Free Minds Poet Ambassadors performed an original spoken word piece. Each Poet Ambassador also individually shared poems written by fellow Free Minds members who are still incarcerated, backed up by musicians from the Chuck Brown trio, DC’s legendary go-go band.
"Our Voices, Our Voices, Our Voices are the key.
Now we feel accomplished, accepted, and free."
Combining the reflective process of writing and the creative process of performing with music made the collaboration and delivery all the more powerful. As poet Bomani Armah articulated, "The more these young men can tell their stories, the better off we all are."
None of these amazing ventures would have been possible without the dedicated support of people like you. Because of your support, our Free Minds members not only have their stories told, but they have their voices heard.
Thank you again for making our work possible!
Dear Free Minds Friend,
Thank you so much for supporting our project to provide comprehensive job readiness and life skills training for young adults returning from prison.
Six apprentices have already completed our program in 2015 since we expanded the program to be month-long instead of week-long. Meeting 3 times a week throughout February, the apprentices participated in a variety of job-readiness workshops and trainings, including roleplaying for job interviews and learning to plan a budget. We were also honored to host several guest speakers, including Maureen Herman from the Department of Education to discuss resumes, Donald Curtis from SOUL (Student Athletes to Understand Leadership) to talk about college prep, Dr. Norah Neale to discuss stress management and mental health awareness, and Larry Carroll, Sr. from KAAOS gym to go over physical fitness.
One of the guys’ favorite sessions was hosted by Marcus Bullock, founder of the company and app Flikshop. A former inmate himself, Bullock described his own journey from a cell block to the world of business entrepreneurship, creating a company that sends postcards to inmates around the country. Bullock challenged each apprentice to articulate his own goals and to see himself as an entrepreneur in his own right. That same day, the apprentices were also treated to a surprise visit from Shaka Senghor, the author of Writing My Wrongs, which the guys read and discussed as part of their training.
Several apprentices also had the opportunity to speak at our monthly Write Night at George Washington University. Despite initial anxiousness about speaking in front of a crowd of over 100 people, apprentices Ricardo and Joshua bravely shared a few poems and their personal experiences with the group.
The apprentices also spent one morning creating vision boards with magazine clippings and colored markers, reflecting on their future goals. For 17-year-old Anthony, that meant cutting out a huge picture of vegetable lo mein to represent his aspirations of working in the food industry. He hopes to eventually learn the ropes at the DC Central Food Kitchen once he turns 18.
One afternoon, the apprentices viewed a video about famous failures, where they heard the stories of personalities like Michael Jordan, Steve Jobs, Walt Disney, and Oprah Winfrey. Reflecting on the fact that each of these success stories was once told that they would never amount to much of anything, the apprentices recalled several similar experiences in their own lives. Tavon shared that when he was 13, an older guy on the block said that he would never make it to 21. This year, he celebrated his 22nd birthday. David M, a 26-year-old, was told he would never get an education because of his behavior issues. In 2007, however, he attained his GED, and he is now on track to full-time employment.
Truthfully, we could not do this without you. Because of your help, young men who thought they would never hold a job, nevertheless stick with a program, are beginning to experience both. We, and those we serve, deeply appreciate your generosity.
Dear Free Minds Friends,
I’d like to share with you a message from a young man in our program:
“I’ve been in the same predicament as so many troubled youth. It’s important for me to give back and mentor them, because it’s what I needed when I was their age. I’ve seen the weight that the label of ‘felon’ gives a person. I remember how Free Minds stuck with me throughout my bid. I remember how it felt when you were expecting mail from your family, or your man, or your girlfriend and you didn’t get anything. But then they called your name at mail call and it was a letter from Free Minds. That shows you have somebody that cares about you. They helped me so much. Now that I’m home, I’m here for Free Minds. I ain’t going nowhere! Helping others? For me, it’s a necessity!”
That’s Robert, a young man who joined Free Minds Book Club & Writing Workshop when he was 16 years old and incarcerated as an adult. Robert came home earlier this year at the age of 24, and in just a few weeks he got a job with the DC Department of General Services on a maintenance crew. He also began doing community outreach with Free Minds as a Poet Ambassador—if you’ve attended any of our Write Night events recently, you might have heard him share his poetry!
Robert is not the only one of our Reentry Support members to achieve success in the last few months—far from it!
Free Minds Members Finding Success
Since our last report, four recently released members have graduated from our Job Readiness Apprenticeship program: congratulations to Steven, Zach, Calvin, and Phil! During the apprenticeship, they provided program support in the Free Minds office, while practicing crucial job skills such as computer literacy, communication, and teamwork. They also learned how to write a resume, and how to succeed in a job interview!
At the end of the Apprenticeship, Phil began working full-time at a local restaurant. Andre, another Reentry Support member who came home in the fall, got a job at a supermarket. Aaron went back to school and is working towards his high school diploma. Finally, long-time Free Minds member Will launched his own cleaning business, achieving his goal of being his own boss!
This fall, our Reentry Support members had the opportunity to work with employees of the Advisory Board Company on skills such as public speaking, communication, and problem solving in the workplace. Free Minds members and Advisory Board Company staff acted out various scenarios and different methods of conflict management. It was an eye-opening day for everyone!
Poets With A Purpose
Free Minds “Poet Ambassadors” have also been sharing the voices of incarcerated youth and spreading the word about how books and writing can change lives. In October, five Poet Ambassadors traveled to Scranton University in Pennsylvania, taking On the Same Page on the road for the first time! They shared their poetry and life experiences with Scranton University students, who had this to say about the event:
“This really opened my eyes to the issues these young men face. Thank you.”
“Very inspiring! The speakers are very brave and it is so amazing that they are where they are!”
“Being a big writer, it’s awesome to see how writing helps incarcerated youth. Writing is such a freeing experience and you really emphasized that.”
Free Minds Reentry Support members have also brought their message to DC City Council: this fall, seven Poet Ambassadors testified at a City Council hearing on a bill to keep juveniles out of the adult criminal justice system, the Youth Offender Accountability and Rehabilitation Act (YOARA). Although the bill did not ultimately get a vote in this legislative session, the Free Minds members made their voices heard and helped mobilize community support for this legislation.
Meanwhile, in addition to our On the Same Page events with local student and community groups, our Poet Ambassadors conduct weekly writing workshops with incarcerated youth at New Beginnings Youth Development Center, and biweekly workshops with students at a DC middle school.
Poet Ambassador Anthony shared with us why he enjoys going to the school:
“I like going there because when I share my story with the middle school kids it helps them open up about what’s going on in their lives and it also helps me process what I was going through when I was their age so I can understand my life better. Low income and fixed income children have dreams as the kids share with us every Friday. Our goal as poets with a purpose, Free Minds Poet Ambassadors, is to help them with their dreams.”
Thank you for helping Free Minds members achieve their dreams this holiday season.
Dear Free Minds Friends and Supporters,
We hope everyone had a lovely summer and that you are all ready for fall! At Free Minds, we’ve been very busy, and the past few months have flown by. As always, your support has helped us and our members achieve many of our goals, but this summer, especially, you’ve helped us make lasting connections with people all over the country! Here’s what we’ve been up to lately:
Creating Life-Changing Opportunities
In August, Free Minds Executive Director Tara Libert, Free Minds member Wilbert, and Free Minds friend Liz Ryan traveled to Los Angeles to attend the Homeboys National Network Conference, organized by Homeboys Industries. Homeboys Industries, based in California, provides employment, job training, and other free services and programs to formerly-gang-involved people, giving them opportunities to make important lifestyle changes and avoid violence.
At the conference, Tara, Wilbert, and Liz learned more about Homeboys Industries’ comprehensive therapeutic approach to violence prevention and creating lasting community change. They also met with Homeboys Industries founder Father Greg Boyle, whose motto is “nothing stops a bullet like a job.” Additionally, while at the conference, our Free Minds delegates met with other organizations who share our mission, such as the Anti-Recidivism Coalition. We’re excited to incorporate what they learned into our own programs in DC!
As an added bonus, this was Wilbert's first opportunity not only to fly in an airplane, but also to see the ocean and to see his horizons broadened (literally!). We can't wait to see where this journey takes him next.
Bringing Awareness to College Classrooms
In our last update, we talked about our youth violence prevention program, On the Same Page, and its exciting expansion to include college students. This summer, we continued this trend, reaching classrooms at Georgetown and Howard Universities. Students had this to say about the experience:
“Thank you so much. I know this is supposed to be our day of service, but I feel like you all have done a great service to me. Thank you.” - A Howard University student who participated in On the Same Page as part of the annual Day of Service
"Meeting the Free Minds Poet Ambassadors was the highlight of my freshman orientation. Hearing their stories made me even more committed and excited to pursue my passion for social justice." - A Georgetown University student
Free Minds friend Frank, a returning citizen, was honored to participate in On the Same Page as a Poet Ambassador:
"Sharing my life story with the Howard students was life-changing for me. It was amazing having people who really listened. It made me realize that this is what I want to do. I want to keep talking to people and telling them about the prison system and what we can do to keep people from entering that system."
Learning doesn’t stop at the primary or secondary levels, so our violence prevention program shouldn’t either. We hope to reach even more college campuses in the near future, and we are eager to see where our growth leads us next!
Going Above and Beyond
This summer, we conducted in-house apprenticeships with two younger members, Steven and Diquan. Steven and Diquan just came home from the DC Jail, and at only 17 years old, they are our youngest members to complete the apprenticeship program! As apprentices, they learned valuable job readiness skills, provided program support for other Free Minds members who are still incarcerated, and created action plans to help them achieve their educational and career goals.
Meanwhile, our other Reentry Support members have continued on their paths to success, with successful job placements in construction, commercial driving, and food services. Poet Ambassador Charlie signed on as a co-facilitator for our weekly writing workshops at the New Beginnings Youth Development Center (DC's juvenile detention facility), meeting with the teenagers every week to share his story and talk about how books and writing helped him change his life. Finally, Wilbert began working in a food truck in preparation for his plan to launch his own food truck, where he hopes to employ Free Minds members in the future. We are so proud of our Reentry Support members and their incredible accomplishments. We hope you will join us in congratulating them all!
We know that our success and the changes we and our members continue to make in our communities would not be possible without your unfailing support. Thank you again for helping us achieve our goals!
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