This spring has marked a season of continued success as 2023 comes around in full swing. Free Minds members are out and about at job fairs, rallies, and reentry trainings, and they’re making an impact on the community in unimaginable ways. Thank you to everyone who has made this incredible work possible.
Free Minds Welcomes Our Newest Peer Support Graduates
Earlier in March, Free Minds celebrated the newest graduates of our 12-week Peer Support training program. This training highlights the importance of recognizing the trauma of incarceration and the necessity of a strong community network for healing. Each new cohort of graduates honors the legacy of member Joshua, who was a passionate advocate for mental health and trauma healing. Graduates are paired with members in reentry to provide support and care in light of the many challenges the transition home can bring. At the graduation, mentor and writing coach Eyone spoke about the importance of having a network like this one, saying, “peer support is crucial, and it’s our responsibility to help each other out. By sharing our experiences and knowledge, we can all learn and grow together.” The teachings these graduates can bring to the lives of others is invaluable, and the connections they foster last a lifetime. Congratulations to Rick, Ernest, Jamal, Maurice, Ryan, Terrell, Tom, and Zachary for this amazing accomplishment! We are excited to see how they continue to use these skills, and we cannot wait to welcome our next Peer Support cohort down the line.
Building Skills in All Areas
In January, 10 members completed our in-house Job Readiness and Personal Skill Building Apprenticeship, where they received training on job interviews and resume building. Through the Apprenticeship program, members not only gain valuable job readiness skills, but also build social capital and connect with fellow formerly incarcerated members who can support them in their reentry journey and use their lived experience to provide key tips for employment in the short and long term. In March, Free Minds friend Eddie led 11 members through a 4-week educational series on exercises for mindfulness and emotional care in the face of stress, anxiety, and negative emotions. Attendees learned how to acknowledge their traumas and stresses and respond to them in healthy ways. Educational initiatives like these are just one of the ways members in our reentry program build their skills and connect with resources and support to achieve their goals.
Reentry Members Advocating for the Community
Free Minds staff and members gathered in DC to participate in the #HandsOff DC rally to raise their voices in support of DC statehood and the rights of DC residents. As of right now, DC residents don’t have Congressional representation, and marchers expressed the importance of DC residents’ ability to pass their own legislation with their own democratically elected council. The event took place during a hearing about Congressional oversight in DC legislation, and members were quick to raise their voices in support of DC residents. Our members gathered with other organizations to show their love and support for their community. Their enthusiasm about DC safety was palpable, and they marched to advocate for DC residents having a say in legislation, schooling, and judicial affairs. It was a day of connection and uplifting voices in the face of systemic oppression, and our members came together to ensure their local community was honored and respected.
Members in the News
We’d like to congratulate our members for representing Free Minds in the news! Nokomis recently appeared on WUSA Channel 9 News to talk about his work with Pathways, a program dedicated to providing others with job readiness skills. Nokomis, who benefitted from Pathways’ assistance in the past, now works there to continue to give back to community members in need. Member Joe, the founder of WeFitDC, was featured in an article by Fox 5 News. In it, Joe talks about the benefits of improved physical health, and how an active lifestyle helps lessen the impacts of challenging conditions. He gives back to his community by bringing everyone together and helping them take charge of their wellness. In March, DCist published an article about Building Blocks DC’s mini-grants and Free Minds member James’s financial literacy work with young people in the city. The article also highlights our members’ participation in educational and motivational workshops that equip them with the tools needed to thrive in the community.
As 2022 draws to a close, we are so grateful for how this year has been one for building connections and growing together. After over 2 years of virtual programming, we have been able to finally bring back a hybrid option for in-person programming for our formerly incarcerated members. Members have been able to meet each other and staff in-person, many for the first time since coming home. This is on top of record-breaking participation in our programming, and a continued commitment from members to uplift each other and the community. Thank you for making our work possible!
Members Build Skills And Meaningful Connections
In December, Free Minds hosted our Job Readiness and Personal Skill Building Apprenticeship. 16 members (the majority having spent over 25 years incarcerated since they were young adults) arrived at our office eager to increase their knowledge on a variety of subjects, including career exploration, financial literacy, and digital skills, and find out how they can contribute even more to the community of support that is Free Minds. The Apprentices participated in mock interviews, created a budget, read essays from our third anthology, When You Hear Me (You Hear Us), and wrote and shared poetry aloud. Throughout the week, members heard from special guest speakers about career fields, money management, and most importantly from their fellow Free Minds brothers about their personal experiences since coming home. Their personal experiences reinforce that while the reentry journey is full of challenges, they are not alone when facing them. Free Minds’ Peer Support Specialist Craig shared with members about his own journey of overcoming obstacles to reach forgiveness and healing. Exchanging stories creates strong bonds of trust that are vital for reentry success.
Reentry Book Club Has Record Attendance
Our weekly Reentry Book Club, “The Build Up,” is a unique space where members virtually gather together to uplift each other through reading, group discussions, and community resource sharing. We recently experienced a record attendance, with over 100 members logging on to join us! Members in the book club have been reading and discussing The Perfect Day to Boss Up: A Hustler’s Guide to Building Your Empire by Rick Ross. Despite having to overcome obstacles and challenges growing up, Ross never gave up on achieving his goals. In his book, he shares the secrets to his own success and offers a road map for how readers can build their own business empires. Members have found his book profoundly relatable and inspiring in the lived wisdom Ross shares throughout the book. As FM member Michael shared, “This book reminded me there is always another way if you are denied what you are hoping for, and sometimes it works out even better.” When Michael was denied his dream job due to his record, he decided to start his own business, and is much happier. Congratulations to Michael and all the other members who keep pushing through, no matter the obstacles that come their way!
A Community of Support
The Build Up is just one of the many avenues of peer support for our members. 12 members recently completed our Peer Support Training Program. This program equips members with the knowledge and social emotional skills to provide support to fellow members coming home. Graduates of the program, called “Peer Supporters,” host weekly check-ins with their partners.r 58 members have now been partnered with a Peer Supporter. The program continues to receive positive feedback from members. Peer Supporter James shared: "It's an honor to be able to share my experiences and listen to my brothers as they adjust to being home. We all understand the shared struggle…I normalize it for them and remind myself of what I need and to ask for it myself. We help each other. I really listen to what they are feeling, and it brings a lot of peace to both of us.”
Connecting at the Cookout
In October, Free Minds members and their families enjoyed a gorgeous sunny day filled with good food, laughs, reunion hugs, a 360 photo booth, and, of course tables filled with books to take home. Members who have moved to different cities came with their families to reconnect and be in person. Marvin, his wife, and son came from Baltimore. Decario, and his 3 children, drove 9 hours one way from North Carolina just to be with his Free Minds family. He drove back that same night! It was a chance for members just home after spending decades behind bars, to see friends, catch up, and enjoy togetherness. Member Dirik, who has only been home for a short while, shared, "To be able to see some of the people you were incarcerated with, and meet all the Free Minds community, it was just great. Coming together after doing extensive time was really great." After a year of losses and the ongoing communal trauma that incarceration causes, this day served as a sweet reminder that joy and hope are always there when we are together.
New Congressman John Lewis Fellow James
We would like to extend a warm welcome to James, our new Congressman John Lewis Fellow! The fellowship is a 7-month position where members carry on the legacy of the late Congressman John Lewis through peacebuilding at our racial equity events with classrooms and community groups around the country. The Fellow also gains professional, advocacy, and leadership skills. James is a recipient of the Incarceration Reduction Amendment Act, and was released after serving 24 years. As the Fellow, James serves as Vice Chair with Thrive Under 25, where he advocates for the rights and needs of youth impacted by the criminal legal system.
Thank you for journeying alongside us as we continue to grow. Your support is the pillar needed for us to begin a successful new year!
This summer our formerly incarcerated members in our Reentry Book Club have not taken a break from their year-round learning journeys! From graduations, to employment, to being recognized by the NFL Foundation for their passion and determination to build each other up, we have so many reasons to celebrate our members. Thank you for your support of our community, which gives us even more reason to celebrate. As the accomplishments of our members show, we are better when we all work together.
New Chapters: Graduations
We want to extend hearty congratulations to all of our members who have graduated from a variety of programs over the past few months. Anthony, Andre and DeAngelo recently completed the intensive Building Futures Construction Pre-Apprenticeship program, where they earned certifications and are now ready to begin careers with growth opportunities! Joe and Donald graduated from Georgetown University’s Pivot Program, a one-year program for formerly incarcerated individuals that blends academic work and supported employment to provide leadership and professional development. We are so proud of Anthony, Andre, DeAngelo, Joe, and Donald, and are excited to watch as they continue to pursue their professional goals!
Camaraderie and Inspiration at the Job Readiness Apprenticeship
Our July Job Readiness and Personal Skill Building Apprenticeship was both an exchange of support among members and workshops on practical skills such as interviewing, public speaking, understanding workplace norms, and conflict resolution. Member Joe gave a presentation to the apprentices on starting his own nonprofit improving health outcomes of Black communities. Hearing directly from fellow members on their reentry journeys always provides an invaluable source of motivation and hope. Marquell, one of our apprentices, reflected on how hearing Joe’s accomplishments helps him, “Know it can be done, and it’s not impossible.”
Working from the Kitchen to the Road
An important component of Free Minds is exposing our members to a broad array of career options. At our apprenticeship in July, members heard from DC Central Kitchen, a DC nonprofit that provides culinary training, thus sparking Kelvin’s interest in the field. He recently gained employment as an assistant manager for a chef, where he will receive training to advance his career within the culinary world. Meanwhile, Irving recently started a job at a local hospital in the linen department. A long-held dream became reality for Brandon, who recently obtained license tags for his own tractor trailer and has started his own trucking business.
“True Team Members” NFL Player on Peer Support Program
This June, 11 members graduated from our Peer Support Training Program! This 12-week cohort trains participants on trauma-informed care, healthy boundaries, social and emotional support, and crisis response. Graduates of the program, called “Peer Supporters,” are matched with “Peer Support Partners,” who are fellow members recently home from prison; the Peer Supporters provide one-on-one encouragement and social emotional support to their partners. This graduation was extra special, as we were gifted with a personal video from Arizona Cardinals Offensive Tackle, Kelvin Beachum. Kelvin is a member of the NFL Players Coalition Task Force, who selected Free Minds as a recipient of NFL Foundation's Inspire Change grant for our Peer Support Training Program. Kelvin stated, “Y’all have demonstrated great commitment and dedication to your fellow members, helping them as they transition home from incarceration. We applaud you for that. You are true team members. Thank you for all that you do, and keep up the great work.”
The evening was filled with jubilant reflections and shared gratitude for the program which, in addition to skilled knowledge, also builds compassionate friendships, support, and personal healing. Graduate James shared, “This program is very powerful. The ripple effects from the positive energy continue to spill over into the community.”
You are part of that community James is talking about. As we continue to feel positive energy and support from you, we hope that feeling is reciprocated to you. Thank you for being a part of our community!
Happy Spring from the Free Minds Family! A huge thanks to you all; with your help you have enabled our reentry program to continue to innovate and provide a safe and therapeutic program for our members returning home. Despite the challenges members face, your support has created space for members to be in community and solidarity with one another. The collective power and camaraderie shown through members' support of one another has been outstanding and inspiring. Your indelible support has made this crucial material and mental health support possible. Thank you!
Welcome, New Congressman John Lewis Fellow: Gene
Gene, our newest Congressman John Lewis Fellow, started his fellowship in January! Gene is a Washington, D.C. native and Free Minds member who was recently released from prison after serving 21 years. His release came after the passage of the Second Look Amendment Act, a DC law offering young people with extreme sentences an opportunity for resentencing. After his release, he was selected as the Congressman John Lewis Fellow. Gene also serves as a Poet Ambassador and as the Vice Chair of Thrive Under 25, a transformative coalition in the District that uses advocacy, legislation, and public education to end the racist, damaging, and punitive responses of DC’s adult criminal legal system toward people who came into contact with the system when they were under age 25. Gene is passionate about giving back to the youth and building up the DC community. Gene uses poetry and storytelling to raise awareness about the root causes of incarceration and to promote hope and healing through the arts. His poetry touches on various salient topics such as racial justice, the prison industrial complex, collective power, and love.
Congratulations To Our Newest Peer Support Graduates
A huge congratulations to our newest graduates as we celebrate a very important part of Free Minds—the support from fellow members to help navigate the challenging road of reentry. This spring, 13 members graduated from our Peer Support Training Program, a 12-week program that equips members with the skills, resources, and support to help each other navigate the challenges of reentry. The graduation ceremony was filled with emotional sharing and nonstop shoutouts. Graduation speaker Sunny shared, "[Peer Support Training] was like food for the soul. It was so great for me... I'm extremely grateful for the men who facilitated and attended the group."
After graduation, Peer Supporters are partnered with a Free Minds member coming home from incarceration, checking in with them weekly to provide one-on-one encouragement and emotional wellness support. These men went through 12 weeks of training to be able to support their fellow members because they are committed to fostering an environment of healing and positive energy to guide their fellow Free Minds members in their journey to reenter society, no matter the stage of development they are in.
When You Hear Me (You Hear Us)
At our weekly Reentry Book Club, “The Build Up,” members discussed excerpts from our latest anthology, When You Hear Me (You Hear Us): Voices on Youth Incarceration. Members used the text to spark profound reflections on the unique circumstances of transitioning home after incarceration, including the effect this has on communication. During group discussions, members shared the challenges communicating with different groups of people, such as women and children, as well as relearning how to converse with people they already knew prior to incarceration. Members also discussed neighborhood pride, and how systemic oppression intentionally destroys Black communities.
Job Readiness Apprenticeship
In February, we hosted another Job Readiness and Personal Skill Building Apprenticeship, where reentry members were trained on topics including computer literacy, job interview skills, and how to dress for success. Members also heard from fellow reentry members Gary and Antraun about the challenges and the successes they’ve had in the workforce. They discussed the importance of creating action plans, practicing patience, and being open to new possibilities. Gary shared: “Don’t be afraid to ask for help and reach out to your reentry coach for support. Have a plan and don’t give up. Everything takes time.”
Celebrating Free Minds Members’ Accomplishments
We would like to extend a huge congratulations to our reentry members who are working hard to achieve their goals. Members Malik and Jerard graduated from the Office of Neighborhood Safety and Engagement’s Pathways Program, a transitional employment opportunity that aims to improve system-involved DC resident’s employment and education options. Member Kwame, who just came home in March, has already secured a job in the culinary arts industry as a cook. Meanwhile member Darnell began working with a janitorial company. A team of Free Minds members also collected donations of warm clothing, coats, and shoes and donated the items to people experiencing homelessness. These are just a few of our members’ latest accomplishments– 86% of our reentry members are currently employed, while the recidivism rate is 8%. We are so proud of all of our members, who continue to inspire and pursue new opportunities!
Happy Fall From the Free Minds Family! As another year of change and innovation comes to an end, we thank you for the support you provide our members returning home. With your help, this season at Free Minds has been marked by exciting beginnings and committed advocacy. Members are returning home to an ever-stronger Free Minds family and network of peer supporters ready to journey alongside them in their transition back into the community. Every day our members are authoring new chapters in their lives—and your support plays an indelible part. Thank you!
Support Comes Full Circle
Members in our weekly “Build Up” reentry book club have continued to nurture a safe and brave space for sharing and support. Members read and discussed excerpts from Ian Manuel’s My Time Will Come: A Memoir of Crime, Punishment, Hope, and Redemption, as well as Free Minds’ newest release, When You Hear Me (Your Hear Us): Voices on Youth Incarceration, and Ali: A Life, by Jonathan Eig. The immense amount of respect our members have for Ali was clear in their discussions, and appreciating Ali’s sacrifices, especially his refusal to be drafted into the Vietnam War, going to jail, and consequently not being able to fight during his peak athletic years, deepened their longings to build a legacy marked by, as one member said, an “evolution from prison to freedom.”
Members have also courageously waded into other challenging themes, such as releasing emotion to cope with hardship and loss. A relationship therapist, presented to our members and sparked discussion about the importance of boundaries and communication—keys to nourishing loving relationships. Support came full circle as Build Up members attended our monthly virtual Write Night. There they showed their support for the Free Minds family and provided encouragement on incarcerated members’ poetry in the same way it was once offered to them.
Finding Healing in Community
Recent months have also seen the kickoff of a cornerstone addition to Free Minds’ extensive reentry services: its brand new Peer Support Program. After a successful pilot of the training program this spring, we added five part-time Peer Supporters to our staff. In the next year, the program will train 30 more Free Minds members. The program, which officially kicked off in November, trains Free Minds members as peer supporters and connects them with fellow returning members to uplift them through their transition home from prison.
The power of our Peer Support Program begins and ends with the shining characters of our peer supporters: these members are trusted, credible sources of empathy, understanding, and healing in the community. “People like Shannon,” writes Davonta, Shannon’s mentee who recently graduated from high school, "I listen to because I know he went through the same stuff. So I take big heed of what he says … Peer Supporters treat me like one of their sons, or brothers. I can call them for anything.” Our trained peer support mentors participate in a 12-week certification program where they build and develop skills around trauma-informed care, social emotional wellness, healthy boundaries, and crisis response. By identifying and discussing their shared experiences, Peer Supporters and returning members find solace in each other and successfully address their social emotional needs, enabling them to foster healthy outlets and seek new possibilities.
The courageous and vulnerable healing journey is ongoing in still more spaces. Members participated in a first-ever four-part series on Anxiety and Panic Attack Relief. Members continue to sustain community through our Incarceration Reduction Amendment Act (IRAA) Support Group, where IRAA recipients join together to navigate the unique experiences of returning to the community as an adult after being incarcerated for 15 or more years as a child. They even took each other on a fishing trip—many casting out for the first time—with gear provided by Free Minds.
Changemakers See the Change They Envision
Over the past year, a group of Free Minds Poet Ambassadors have been working along with other advocates and families to seek posthumous pardons for the Martinsville 7, a group of seven young African American men from Martinsville, VA who were unjustly convicted by an all-white jury and executed in 1951. Free Minds members wrote op-eds, created a social media campaign, and led weekly phone call campaigns to the governor’s office. After the team of Free Minds activists, family members of the Martinsville 7, and other advocates met with Gov. Northam of Virginia on August 31, their advocacy helped compel Northam to grant these men posthumous pardons, 70 years after their lives were unjustly taken. “I’m grateful to the advocates and families of the Martinsville 7 for their dedication and perseverance,” Northam commended in a press conference following their meeting. “While we can’t change the past, I hope today’s action brings them some small measure of peace.” As author and Build Up facilitator Eyone reflects, “This wrong was done for decades...To see the emotions and relief, the weight lifted from [the families]. To see their long fight cross the finish line victoriously, it was rewarding. We were helping people today. I knew it was worth all my time and effort.”
In October, Free Minds members and staff also testified before the DC Council in support of the Redefinition of Child Amendment Act of 2021, which would change the statutory definition of a “child” in the District of Columbia so that all youth accused of a crime are initially charged in juvenile court. The legislation is a vital step towards advancing racial equity and furthering public safety in the District.
Reentry Members Explore Creativity
We celebrated the release of Free Minds’ third book, When You Hear Me (You Hear Us): Voices on Youth Incarceration, an anthology of poetry and personal stories centering the voices of those directly impacted by the incarceration of young people in the United States.This rich collection includes firsthand accounts from both the young people charged and incarcerated in the adult criminal legal system and from the community at large: the mothers, the loved ones, the correctional staff, public defenders, prosecutors, and others harmed and left with unhealed trauma. Their voices are a calling for accountability, transformative justice, and healing.
At our On the Same Page community events, Reentry members, known as Poet Ambassadors, continue to engage with issues of youth violence and incarceration, as well as find healing through creative writing. Their stories have touched an ever-widening circle of listeners this fall, from employees of corporations like Capital One to local middle school students, from law students in reentry clinics to Washingtonians at a community “poetry and paint” event.
Members Shannon and Jameon showcased their acting talents in the play “Dry Bones,” which ran through November at a local theater. A complex story about returning citizens, their families, and the social conditions which they must navigate, many of our members and staff made their way to the production and watched their incredible performances. Next step: Broadway!
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