Support for DC's Previously Incarcerated Youth

by Free Minds Book Club and Writing Workshop
Nick presented at the AWP Conference
Nick presented at the AWP Conference

Thank you for supporting Free Minds Book Club & Writing Workshop! We are off to a strong start in 2017, with new services and many exciting opportunities and experiences for the formerly incarcerated young men in our program.

In January, we launched a new element to our reentry services for formerly incarcerated youth—a weekly book club and writing workshop called “The Build Up.” Free Minds member Terrell named this new program The Build Up because, as he says, prison and the streets tear you down but in Free Minds we build each other up.

Free Minds reentry services now include job readiness and life skills training; supportive employment through partnerships with local businesses; personalized assistance in achieving career goals; connections to jobs, schools, vocational programs, and other services; and the Build Up, a weekly book club and writing workshop.

Members of the Build Up meet once a week to read and discuss literature, write and share poetry, and come together to support each other in navigating the challenges of reentry. One member of the Build Up, James, told us that he spends all week looking forward to it and doesn’t want to miss a single session.

So far in the Build Up, Free Minds members have read and discussed If You Can See It, You Can Be It: 12 Street-Smart Recipes for Success by Chef Jeff Henderson and War Child by Emmanuel Jal. In February, Free Minds welcomed Emmanuel Jal to the Build Up, where he spoke about his life story, his music and writing, and his techniques for overcoming obstacles and “reprogramming your life.” Jal, an author, activist, and musician, is a former child soldier from South Sudan. Free Minds members related to his struggle and found common ground in the way he used storytelling to heal from trauma.

Meanwhile, formerly incarcerated Free Minds members have been sharing their poetry and personal stories with audiences from across the country. In February, Free Minds members presented at the annual Association of Writers & Writing Programs (AWP) literary conference in Washington, DC. They participated in a panel discussion, a poetry reading, and the AWP Service Project, in which conference attendees read poetry by incarcerated Free Minds members and wrote words of encouragement to inspire and uplift the incarcerated poets.

In March, two Free Minds members, Nick and Hosea, traveled to Boston, Massachusetts to speak to students at Harvard Law School and to a group of over 100 high school students at St. Mary’s Church in Winchester, MA.

Free Minds members are also mentoring DC middle school students at a local public school, M.V. Leckie. Free Minds members facilitate monthly reading and writing workshops with the 7th grade students, serving as role models and credible messengers to the children.

As Free Minds member DeAngelo says, “The youth are our future. I didn’t really have adults in my life to tell me what was right, so I want to be that for the young people.”

Thank you to all of our supporters for making our work possible. We couldn’t do it without you!

Reentry Book Club members at "The Build Up"
Reentry Book Club members at "The Build Up"
Terrell shares his story with AWP conference-goers
Terrell shares his story with AWP conference-goers
Hosea speaks with a student at Harvard Law School
Hosea speaks with a student at Harvard Law School
Author Emmanuel Jal at the Build Up
Author Emmanuel Jal at the Build Up
Hosea speaks to teenagers in Massachusetts
Hosea speaks to teenagers in Massachusetts

Links:

The Free Minds Family welcomes new graduates
The Free Minds Family welcomes new graduates

Thanks to your support, we are able to provide comprehensive reentry support to formerly incarcerated youths in DC. In October, nine Free Minds members graduated from the Job Readiness and Personal Skill Building Apprenticeship. Congratulations to Terrell, Lawaun, Reginald, Anthony, Hosea, Nigel, Gary, Jeffrey, and David!

They worked hard during the month-long Apprenticeship, practicing reading and writing, computer literacy, entrepreneurship, workplace problem solving, and more. They gained real on-the-job experience working shifts at two local contracting companies founded and run by fellow returning citizens (formerly incarcerated).

Free Minds Members Go to the Supreme Court

The Apprentices went on a special behind-the-scenes tour of the Supreme Court of the United States! The Free Minds members toured the building and sat in the courtroom while arguments were happening. One Free Minds member said he couldn’t believe he actually got to visit the place he sees on TV and reads about in the newspaper. Another member said it was exciting to see what goes on in the Supreme Court because he knows that’s where the most important cases in the country are decided. We gave copies of our book, The Untold Story of the Real Me: Young Voices from Prison, to the Supreme Court Justices, and they wrote back telling us how much they appreciated the book and how the poetry and prose affected them. The voices of youth in the criminal justice system are being heard at the highest levels!

At the graduation ceremony, senior Free Minds members welcomed the new graduates into the Free Minds brotherhood, a network of support among formerly incarcerated Free Minds members in the workforce. One Free Minds member, Gary, who is a supervisor at a pet daycare, said, “I remember going through everything [the current Apprentices] are doing now. It actually helped me prepare for what I’m facing now.”

As a supervisor, Gary recommended another Free Minds member, Greg, for an open position at the pet daycare center. Greg has now been working there for several months and is excelling at the job.

Since we launched the remodeled Apprenticeship program in January 2015, over 80 Free Minds members have graduated and gone on to pursue exciting new adventures. We are very proud, and look forward to seeing what they accomplish next.

Free Minds Members Sharing the Untold Story

In September, Free Minds members and Apprenticeship graduates participated in the National Book Festival, sharing their poetry and personal stories, and elevating the voices of their fellow Free Minds members who are currently incarcerated. Visitors to the National Book Festival could read poetry in The Untold Story of the Real Me: Young Voices from Prison, a collection of poetry and personal essays by Free Minds members.

One young man, D’Angelo, said, “When I was in prison, I was always telling myself, I’m going to do better. When I get out, I’m going to make a good life for myself. And now, seeing these books, and our words in these books? And people reading them, hearing our stories? It gives me hope. That’s hope right there.”

At the National Book Festival, Free Minds members met a television producer who invited them to appear on the local Fox 5 Morning Show. Terrell appeared on the Morning Show to talk about Free Minds, youth incarceration, and the value of creative expression.

Free Minds members at the Supreme Court
Free Minds members at the Supreme Court
Terrell with Fox5 host Annie Yu
Terrell with Fox5 host Annie Yu
David at his Apprenticeship graduation
David at his Apprenticeship graduation
Lawaun at his Apprenticeship graduation
Lawaun at his Apprenticeship graduation
Apprentices practice for job interviews
Apprentices practice for job interviews

Links:

Isaiah graduates from the Apprenticeship
Isaiah graduates from the Apprenticeship

In August, 12 formerly incarcerated youths and adults graduated from the Free Minds Job Readiness and Personal Skill Building Apprenticeship. Congratulations to Caleb, D’Angelo, Damion, Delonta, Freddie, Ira, Isaiah, JaQuan, Joseph, Kenneth, Lorenzo, and Queyon!

With your support, the Apprentices studied and gained hands-on experience with literacy, goal setting, resume writing, job interviews, civil rights and history, health and wellness, budgeting and financial literacy, public speaking and communication skills, entrepreneurship, computer literacy, and more! Each Apprentice also worked a shift with a local contracting company, gaining valuable on-the-job experience alongside real employees and customers. The Apprentices went on a personalized tour of the US Capitol as well! Despite being born and raised in Washington, DC, this was the first time any of the Apprentices had been to the Capitol.

On August 17, Free Minds members and volunteers gathered to read and respond to poetry by incarcerated writers. At our latest On the Same Page: Write Night event, approximately 40 volunteers wrote feedback for Free Minds members who are currently incarcerated. Meanwhile, Free Minds members home from prison, including August Apprentices, shared some of their experiences with incarceration and reentry. For most of our Apprentices, it was the first time speaking in front of a crowd. They received a warm and friendly welcome home reception and we are so grateful.

Damion and Delonta read poetry on behalf of their Free Minds brothers who are currently incarcerated in federal prison. Joseph, Ira, DeAngelo, and Caleb spoke about the impact of their participation in our Reentry Book Club, and what being at Write Night meant to them personally.

 DeAngelo shared what it felt like to receive feedback on his poetry when he was incarcerated: "Some of us have support from our families, but what Free Minds does, getting support from those who don't even know us? That means so much. Getting just three words on that paper helps us wake up and get through the day in a positive way."

Free Minds members, staff, families, and friends gathered at the end of the month to celebrate the Apprentices’ hard work at their graduation ceremony. Isaiah volunteered to speak to the gathered crowd: “Sometimes when you’re locked up, your family gives up on you. But Free Minds is like a family--a new family. And they are there for you.”

Two senior Free Minds members and past Apprenticeship graduates, Alvin and Gary, also spoke. Alvin shared how much he learned from the mentors he was introduced to during the Apprenticeship, and Gary spoke about how he values being able to give back to his community. Gary is a supervisor at a pet daycare, and he recently hired Free Minds member Gary, who graduated from the Apprenticeship in May!

Free Minds staff placed 100% of the August Apprentices in job opportunities, schools, or vocational training programs. We are now looking ahead and preparing for the next Apprenticeship class in October.

As Ira told the crowd at Write Night, "Hope, Understanding, and Love" is what Free Minds means to him—and that’s what we see in our supporters. Thank you for providing hope, understanding, and love.

Delonta prepping for job interviews
Delonta prepping for job interviews
The Apprentices at the Capitol
The Apprentices at the Capitol
Apprenticeship Trainer Marcus leading discussion
Apprenticeship Trainer Marcus leading discussion
Caleb speaking to volunteers at Write Night
Caleb speaking to volunteers at Write Night
Delonta and Damion reading poetry at Write Night
Delonta and Damion reading poetry at Write Night

Links:

Carlos thanks you for giving him a second chance!
Carlos thanks you for giving him a second chance!

These last few months have been a true spring with growth happening all around at Free Minds! From graduation ceremonies and Write Nights to Harvard Law School and poetry panels, we are grateful for all of the opportunities you have enabled us to have share the untold stories of our members.

 

MAY APPRENTICESHIP GRADUATION

On Friday, June 3, friends, family, and community members gathered to celebrate nine Free Minds members graduating from our month-long Job Readiness and Personal Skill-Building Apprenticeship. From the stage, 3 senior Poet Ambassadors welcomed them to the brotherhood of Free Minds.

During the Apprenticeship, the Apprentices participated in a book club and poetry writing session, practiced budgeting and financial literacy, entrepreneurship, resume writing, job interview techniques, computer literacy, nutrition and fitness, mental wellness, and more. At the end of the month, each Apprentice left with a job placement or vocational program placement.

One Apprentice, Charles, gave the valedictorian speech at the graduation. He said, “The Apprenticeship gave me courage and made me believe in myself. Before, in prison, I didn’t know where I was going or what I was going to do when I came home. I had no direction, no goals for my life. I thought I wasn’t going to be anything. But I came home and joined Free Minds; they showed me that there was more to life than what I was doing before. I can better myself, and I’ve got goals and things that I want to accomplish.”

For some of the apprentices, this was the first graduation ceremony they have ever experienced. One apprentice named Greg shared that because he dropped out of school in 8th grade, he felt like he never really accomplished anything in his life--until he graduated from the Free Minds Apprenticeship. We are grateful to stand side by side with these incredible Free Minds members, as they continue to step into their true potential as change-makers and community leaders.

 

MAY WRITE NIGHT

On Wednesday, May 25, dozens of community members gathered in DC’s Takoma neighborhood to attend Free Minds’ monthly On the Same Page: Write Night.

Free Minds Apprentices and Poet Ambassadors stepped forward and shared parts of their stories. Shadeed shared about the lack of direction he had while he was locked up, and the focus he now has to chase after his goals. David talked spoke about the depression and anxiety he felt before and during his time being locked up, and the joy he is able to experience now. One Free Minds apprentice, Delonté, took a deep breath before speaking. “In prison,” he said, “I felt like I wasn’t wanted and nobody cared. Free Minds taught me to open my mind and change my life.”

The rest of the night, volunteers read and responded to poetry written by our incarcerated members. Ranging in age from 17 to 75, these volunteers spent time writing insightful comments and encouraging feedback on the poems. At the end of the night, the staff walked away with a huge stack of poems, each one filled with colorful comments. We are excited to send the poems back to the incarcerated authors in [x] prisons across the country.

 

VISIT TO HARVARD

In April, Reentry Program Manager Keela and Poet Ambassador Phil flew to Boston, Massachusetts, to meet with a class of Harvard Law students. After a brief introduction to Free Minds from Keela, Phil stood and shared his story of incarceration at the age of 16 and the transformation that followed as a result of the power of reading, writing, and mentorship in his life. Keela and Phil hosted an On the Same Page: Write Night with them. We are thankful for the opportunity to connect with the future generation of lawyers and law-makers, and for the chance to share our members’ voices on such an influential campus.

 

WE CAN BE THE CHANGE: WRITING SOLUTIONS TO VIOLENCE

On April 27, 2016, approximately 100 people filled the Lincoln Hall at the Hill Center at the Old Naval Hospital for a very special reading and community dialogue presented by three nonprofits that have teamed up for a unique approach to violence prevention through the power of the written word. Free Minds, PEN/Faulkner Writers in Schools, and Shout Mouse Press partnered to share powerful voices and untold stories from the community. Free Minds Poet Ambassadors read poetry and spoke about their personal stories of youth incarceration and reentry. Then the audience listened to a panel discussion with a Poet Ambassador, two high school students and authors, and an English teacher from a DC Public High School, all of whom have participated in the partnership between Free Minds, PEN/Faulkner, and Shout Mouse Press.

At the end of the evening, Free Minds Poet Ambassador Carlos read the poem “Belonging to Love” by an incarcerated author. Carlos spoke about his own feelings of isolation and loneliness when he was incarcerated, the desire to belong to a supportive community, and the incredible impact of receiving feedback on his poetry from volunteers at Free Minds On the Same Page: Write Night events. Carlos said, “It sows the seeds of that connection that we so desire.”

 

VIOLENCE PREVENTION OUTREACH

Free Minds staff and Poet Ambassadors Carlos and Greg visited Brightwood Center City Public Charter School to speak with a group of sixth, seventh, and eighth graders. After going around and sharing their names, the students listened attentively to Carlos and Greg’s stories of incarceration and reentry. Carlos shared how he would read a book a day while he was in solitary confinement, and how writing poetry saved his life.

The students read their favorite poems from the Free Minds literary journal The Untold Story of the Real Me. A sixth grader read "Memory I Can't Forget" by Free Minds Member Kevin. In the poem, Kevin talks about his younger sister passing away and the pain he feels that he couldn’t protect her. The young student then shared about how her little brother got hurt and she also felt guilt about it.

Some students wrote poetry and stories in response to the pieces in the literary journal. The first student to share, Jalen, wrote a personal narrative in response to Free Minds Member Jonas's poem "Dignity." In a story called "I Want to be A Dignified Black Man," Jalen shared vulnerable and personal details about his childhood and dreams for the future.

At the end of the session, the students crowded Greg and Carlos, literary journals and colored pens in hand, asking for their autographs. When asked whether the program inspired them in their writing or for the future, the Brightwood Center City PCS students had this to say:

"Yes it has [inspired me] because it makes me want to express myself more"

"This program has inspired me to write more, because even though I might not be the best writer, I want to write just to convey a message"

"It has inspired me because I can discuss about my life and what I've been through"

--


Thank you again for standing with us to bring the power of reading and writing to young men and women affected by the criminal justice system.

Charles talks to volunteers at the May Write Night
Charles talks to volunteers at the May Write Night
Audience members at We Can Be the Change
Audience members at We Can Be the Change
May Apprentices at their graduation ceremony
May Apprentices at their graduation ceremony
Poet Ambassador Phil speaks at Harvard Law School
Poet Ambassador Phil speaks at Harvard Law School
"On the Same Page" at Brightwood Center City PCS
"On the Same Page" at Brightwood Center City PCS

Links:

Varvie (center) with staff Marcus and Keela
Varvie (center) with staff Marcus and Keela

This winter has already brought new adventures, new faces, and new stories to the Free Minds family. From the graduation of 11 Free Minds apprentices in January to a sold-out panel event discussing solutions to community violence in February, we can feel a shift in the air. As the weather continues to warm up, the growing momentum of change and inclusion in our community is tangible. Though there is still much work to be done, we are grateful for the chance to look back and celebrate our members’ accomplishments!

 

January Apprentices Graduate with Flying Colors

On February 5, we gathered to celebrate the graduation of 11 new apprentices from our January 2016 Job Readiness and Personal Skill Building Apprenticeship Program. After a short welcome from Executive Director Tara, Free Minds Reentry Coach Marcus took the stage. He shared words of encouragement and purpose with the audience, before introducing Alvin, the selected speaker from the graduating class, who spoke about his passion for writing and the power of community to bring about real change. Next up was Tony Belton, a returning citizen who serves as our Apprenticeship Job Supervisor, who shared all he has learned about perseverance, hard work, and success. We continued to celebrate as each apprentice walked across the stage and received his honorary Poet Ambassador shirt, before gathering together for lunch and some celebratory cake! A couple of months after the official graduation ceremony, 2 graduates are working full-time, 7 are in job programs, and the rest are choosing to continue their education. We are so excited for the continued success of these incredible young men!

Just recently, we started the March Job Readiness Apprenticeship, with our biggest group yet of 13. So far, they have been reading and writing poetry, discussing what makes a model employee, and practicing budgeting and financial literacy. They’ve also gone on field trips to the Martin Luther King, Jr., monument, where they learned about the history of advocacy and civil rights, and to Walls of Books, a used bookstore that recently opened in DC, where they learned about being a small business owner. Walls of Books owner Pablo Sierra spoke to the Apprentices about perseverance and the power of books to transform minds and hearts. Afterwards, the apprentices explored the aisles of books, finding everything from children’s books for their kids to mystery novels to read on their own. We are grateful for Pablo and his team at Walls of Books, and love seeing our members pass on the joy of reading to their family and friends!

We can't wait to watch these young men learn and grow--we know that they will do great things.

 

Reentry Successes: Getting On the Same Page

Recently, several of our members spoke at our Volunteer Write Night event in Foggy Bottom, where they shared their poetry and life experiences with a diverse group of volunteers from the D.C. area, and they read poetry by FM members who are currently incarcerated and wrote encouraging feedback for the poets. As we all know, reentry starts from the inside!

One of those young men is Varvie, who graduated from the Free Minds Apprenticeship Program in January. After completing the program, Varvie continued to participate in outreach with Free Minds, including an event at the Kennedy Center! You can watch a video of Varvie's poetry performance with the DC Legendary Musicians here (3:05). Although Varvie is now working full time for the DC government, he continues to do outreach with Free Minds, and even stopped by the March apprenticeship program a few weeks ago to say hi! We would also love to extend a huge congratulations to January apprentice Antonio, who recently completed the 7-week workforce training program with fellow DC nonprofit Building Futures. Antonio is now trained and certified to work in a variety of fields, including construction and contracting!

Free Minds has also had more opportunities over the past few months to speak with students at high schools around the area, including those at Sandy Spring Friends School and Ballou STAY High School. After sharing their stories and reading a poem or two from our literary journal, The Untold Story of the Real Me, our Poet Ambassadors facilitated discussions with high schoolers on topics like solitary confinement, change, and redemption. Keep up to date with our Violence Prevention Outreach programs--follow us on instagram here!

 

We Can Be The Change

As many families across the world spent their January's making New Year's resolutions, members of the Free Minds family gathered to resolve to end the violence in our city. On Thursday, January 14th, a group of 35 friends and family came together at an event called We Can Be the Change: An Evening Dedicated to Our Fallen Brothers and Sisters. After co-founders Tara and Kelli welcomed everyone, several Free Minds members shared poetry from our literary journal. One read a poem written by FM member Kuron, who was killed in September. Everyone then gathered in a circle around a glass bowl filled with water. One by one, people placed small stones in the bowl as they called out the names of each loved one they were honoring. Marcus, our Reentry Apprenticeship Trainer, explained a new Free Minds initiative called #IVow, a chance for each person to make a personal commitment to rid our community of violence. Marcus demonstrated by writing his vow on an index card, and placing this vow on a board. Dozens of Free Minds members, families, and friends followed, making personal pledges about ways they can reduce violence in our city.

A little over a month later, on Thursday, February 18th, we held our We Can Be The Change: Working to End Violence in Our City event downtown at the Shakespeare Theatre Company. Over 150 people attended the event, with some of our guests standing at the back and sides of the theatre just to hear from our evening’s panelists. Hosted by ABC7’s Leon Harris, the event featured poetry readings from several Free Minds members, along with a panel including author George Pelecanos, author and community activist Tony Lewis Jr., public defender James King, and WJLA/ABC7’s Jennifer Donelan. Guests were overwhelmingly supportive, and had great questions for our panelists on the causes and potential solutions for violence in our community. As guests were leaving, they added their own “vows” to the board started a few weeks prior. We’re so grateful for the chance to continue spreading the message of hope and change in the new year, and are already looking ahead to our next panel event in April. More information on this upcoming event here.

 

We couldn't be prouder of our Free Minds members, and we look forward to seeing what they accomplish next! Thank you for your continual support, and for believing in the power of books and writing to heal communities and transform lives!

The "I Vow" board displaying vows for change
The "I Vow" board displaying vows for change
James (left) talks to Walls of Books owner Pablo
James (left) talks to Walls of Books owner Pablo
The sold out crowd at "We Can Be the Change"
The sold out crowd at "We Can Be the Change"
Antonio at his Building Futures graduation
Antonio at his Building Futures graduation
Charlie speaks at the DC Public Defender Service
Charlie speaks at the DC Public Defender Service

Links:

 

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Organization Information

Free Minds Book Club and Writing Workshop

Location: Washington, DC - USA
Website: http:/​/​www.freemindsbookclub.org
Project Leader:
Tara Libert
Washington, DC United States
$23,790 raised of $30,000 goal
 
304 donations
$6,211 to go
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