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7 Questions – Juliana Ratner (Free Minds Book Club)

Welcome to “7 Questions” … Juliana Ratner, Program Director of Free Minds Book Club & Writing Workshop. The club meets weekly at the DC Jail, exploring literature and creative writing and empowering young inmates to transform their lives. Learn more!

1. What was your most interesting recent project, initiative, partnership, or event?

Every day is an interesting project with this job! On Friday, however, we hosted guest writer Michael Mattocks, co-author of the memoir Unlikely Brothers, in book club. That day book club met on the unit itself, where the acoustics are bad and it’s hard to hear, and all the book club members were so focused and attentive. Michael talked about his journey from drug dealing and incarceration to being an involved and responsible father of five boys, and what writing a book had taught him — and they were full of questions and eager to read their own writing aloud. Afterwards Michael said that it had been one of the most powerful moments of his life, to have the opportunity to share his story with them, and to hear their poetry.

2. What else are you up to?

We’re in the process of producing a literary journal of our member’s work. We do a book every year, but this year we’re taking it to the next level. The journal has an editorial board of four Free Minds members, three of whom are in prison and one of whom is home. They have been in charge of every aspect of the book, from selecting the themes for each section to doing the final pick of poems, and it has been amazing to watch. They are committed and insightful editors and so deeply pleased to be able to give back in a positive way, especially if it can influence other people’s lives and choices.

3. Is there a moment, person, or event that inspired you to do this particular work?

There is both a person and a moment. The person is Martin Luther King Jr. — my parents named me after him (my middle name is Martin), which I remember being really hard to explain when I was little. Since I’ve gotten older, however, I look to him as a real source of inspiration. I’ve been reading a lot of his work this summer, and I’m stunned at how timely much of it still feels.

The inspiring moment is a sadder story. I first met Free Minds when I was hired to help with Hear Us Out!, our annual poetry reading, four years ago. The reading went fabulously and about two weeks later, Chris, one of the young poets who had read, was shot and killed. He had just turned 20. I always say that I don’t think it should be death that makes us realize our priorities, it should be life, but death shakes you down, you know? I decided then that I really wanted to work with Free Minds. Sometimes it’s hard to remember in the midst of quotidian emails and everything else, but I do believe that Free Minds is helping to build a world where young people (or anyone, for that matter) will no longer choose violence.

4. Who is your hero in the nonprofit/philanthropy world?

My boss! Seriously. Tara Libert, Free Minds’ co-founder and executive director, inspires me constantly with her passion, drive, and vision. The new ideas don’t stop! I get these voice mail messages from her: “What if we had a radio show in prison? Why don’t we invite Jay-Z to book club? What if we did yoga in a reentry workshop?” and I’m always amazed.

5. What is the single greatest (and non-financial) challenge to the work that you do every day?

I grew up in the DMV, and to me there are so many layers to this city. One of the deepest things that I see Free Minds doing is trying to bring some of these separate spheres into awareness of each other, and it’s not always easy. There are a lot of issues that people don’t want to talk about or acknowledge. That said, it’s also amazing when you can lead people into a dialogue — that’s why book club is so essential. You and I may think we have nothing in common, but if we read the same book, then we share a story.

6. What advice do you have for other people who want to work in your field?

Take care of yourself! If you can’t be present and alive with the work that you are doing, it affects everything. I think that the demands can be so vast and the resources feel so few that it’s hard to remember to cultivate joy, but it’s essential. Every time I walk into the jail, I am reminded of this. I learn every day from the book club members behind bars who, despite circumstances, choose to keep learning and growing. I get letters from people in solitary confinement telling me about blessings in their lives — it’s humbling.

7. What’s next?

Reading more books!

EXTRA:?If you could have a power breakfast with any three people (living, dead, or fictional) who would they be?

Jarvis Masters (another inspiring figure), Alexandra David-Neel, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

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