“Free Minds, just with books, poetry, and expressing myself, they saved my life. Not from harm or death, but from giving up.” – Andre
On Saturday, October 17th, Free Minds officially launched The Untold Story of the Real Me: Young Voices from Prison, featuring poetry and personal essays from Free Minds members. Supporters gathered at Busboys and Poets in Takoma to recognize the voices of incarcerated youth. They listened to life-changing stories and poetry from Free Minds Poet Ambassadors Juan and Andre, both featured in the literary journal, as well as Master of Ceremonies Bomani Armah who energized the crowd and shared his unique perspective on the power of literacy, and local soulfolk singer/songwriter LEA who finished the night with her original song “Freedom” inspired by the work of a Free Minds poet.
Free Minds Co-Founders Tara Libert and Kelli Taylor shared their hopes for the literary journal to reach youth in need and the value of listening and of being heard. Kelli explained the origin of the title: a letter from a young man in federal prison who wrote that he did not want to be defined by the crime he committed, that he wanted to express the “untold story” of his true self. MC Bomani Armah introduced the stars of the evening, Juan and Andre.
Juan began by sharing the importance of literacy. When he was 16 years old and incarcerated at the DC Jail, he was facing up to 60 years in prison. “I almost gave up on myself in that moment,” he said. But he joined the Book Club, and discovered something remarkable. Many of his fellow Book Club members could not read or write. When they received letters from home, they would eagerly pore over the photographs, but would discard the letters unread. At the time, there was no school or library for juveniles at the DC Jail, so the Book Club was the only educational program. As Juan said, watching a teenage boy who had previously been illiterate finish a book for the first time “made a gloomy situation that much brighter.”
Juan also said that reading united the teenagers in the Book Club, regardless of neighborhood tensions; now, that continues with the Poet Ambassadors who are home in the community. Young men who otherwise would not have had anything to do with each other, are now part of a supportive community of Free Minds members. In addition to doing community outreach as a Poet Ambassador, Juan works full time and is starting college in 2016.
When Andre stepped up to the podium, he jokingly shared that he had never done public speaking before, having been incarcerated for ten years. Then he began, “I love Free Minds so much, more than life itself.” It didn’t take long for everyone on stage and in the crowd to get teary. Like Juan, he was initially reluctant to join the Book Club when he was 16 years old and incarcerated as an adult. “I had to free my mind,” he said. “That’s not a title, that’s a way of life. Free Minds, just with books, poetry, and expressing myself, they saved my life. Not from harm or death, but from giving up.” Now, Andre works two jobs, one full time and one part time, and he has a degree in Business Management, which he credits to Free Minds for encouraging him to pursue his goals while incarcerated.
Juan and Andre read two poems by Free Minds members who are currently incarcerated: “Free of Charge” by Makkah Ali and “Always Had My Mother” by Antwon. You can read these poems and others in The Untold Story of the Real Me: Young Voices from Prison.
This literary journal follows the successful 2011 journal They Call Me 299-359: Writings by the Incarcerated Youth of Free Minds Book Club & Writing Workshop, which has been in use in classrooms and community spaces around the city as part of the Free Minds violence prevention initiative On the Same Page since its publication in 2011. Read about both journals here.
The new journal contains a collection of poems exploring a variety of complex themes, including parenthood, love, pain, identity, race, and freedom. All of the poems were written by Free Minds members who were charged and incarcerated as adults at the age of 16 or 17. Many of the poets are currently incarcerated in the DC Jail or federal prison. In addition, this anthology features individual profiles of Free Minds members who are home from prison and serving as Poet Ambassadors in the violence prevention initiative, On the Same Page. Already being used in classrooms and workshops to start conversations around youth violence and the justice system, The Untold Story of the Real Me provides a new take on the power of one voice.
The event on October 17th also marked the official start of our campaign to provide 10,000 literary journals to youth in need. You can join us in our campaign by sponsoring a classroom set of literary journals for a school, facility, or community space of your choice.
The event was sponsored by United Bank, TJFACT, and Pipe Gordon Wells. Thank you to the following companies and organizations for donating raffle prizes: Catch Can, Entertainment Software Association, Ford’s Theatre, Flow Yoga, Hyatt Place Hotel, Jaleo (Think Food Group), Lumina, One Washington Circle Hotel, and Politics & Prose. Thank you to everyone at Busboys and Poets for hosting us and helping us make the event a huge success. Finally, thank you to our host and fundraising committee, and to all of our incredible supporters, both new and familiar, who came out on Saturday to listen to the voices of incarcerated youth. The untold story—until now!
Photographs by Tim Nicholson