“We had no idea how it would go over and here we are 13 years later not only going to the DC jail twice a week but working with over 350 young men in federal prisons all around the country and offering an intensive Reentry Support program when they come home.”
Free Minds Book Club & Writing Workshop uses books, creative writing, and peer support to awaken DC youth incarcerated as adults to their own potential. Through creative expression, job readiness training, and violence prevention outreach, these young poets achieve their education and career goals, and become powerful voices for change in the community. Before co-founding Free Minds in 2002, Tara worked as a radio and television news and documentary producer for twelve years. After producing many features on the US criminal justice system, showcasing such topics such as the death penalty, prison overcrowding and juvenile justice reform she was drawn to direct service.
1. What motivated you to begin working with your organization?
It was my work as a television news producer. My good friend and colleague Kelli Taylor (Free Minds Co-founder) and I had covered many stories about crime and incarceration and we’d seen firsthand the lack of educational and rehabilitative programs inside prisons. Then Kelli got a letter from a young man on death row in Texas named Glen McGinnis. He was writing to any journalist he could find and asking them to share with the world the stories of the many young men of color on death row. Kelli produced a documentary about Glen and afterwards became his friend and mentor. They both read the same book and discussed it through letters. Even though their lives were very different (Kelli a white, middle class mom on the East Coast and Glen a poor, African American young man in Texas) they came together; on the same page, reading, discussing and sharing universal emotions.
Glen dropped out of school at age 11, educated himself and changed his whole outlook on life through reading. We call him the “original Free Mind” because even though he was locked up his world view was so expansive and he was so curious about everything. We tried everything we could to stay his execution but we couldn’t and he was executed in 2000. It was so heartbreaking and tragic. All the lives lost and families forever shattered. We wanted to direct our pain and powerlessness into something positive so we started conducting book club and writing sessions at the DC Jail in 2002 in Glen’s memory. Since Glen was charged as an adult at age 16 we intentionally wanted to work with young teens in the adult criminal justice system. We had no idea how it would go over and here we are 13 years later not only going to the DC jail twice a week but working with over 350 young men in federal prisons all around the country and offering an intensive Reentry Support program when they come home.
If you had told me I’d be running a nonprofit I would have never believed you. I was very happy with my job as a TV news producer but I discovered that what I love about Free Minds is very similar to what I loved about being a news producer and that is sharing stories- sharing the voices of incarcerated youth with a wider audience.
2. What exciting change or innovation is on your mind?
We have a very active violence prevention project we call “On The Same Page: Free Minds Poetry in the Community and the Classroom” where our members who are home from prison speak to schools and community groups about the root causes of youth incarceration. We call them Poet Ambassadors because they represent all of their Free Minds brothers who are still incarcerated. They share their childhood experiences and use poetry to start a dialogue and bring about healing and creative solutions to youth violence. We also host monthly “Write Night” events where diverse volunteers from all over the DMV gather to read and write encouraging feedback to our members’ poetry.
Both outreach efforts have been really successful so I’m thinking about combining them and expanding to bring together groups that don’t usually interact. Poetry would be a bridge builder. We see it all the time and call it the “Free Minds magic” where shared poetry is an immediate connector. Differences just seem to melt away. I’m envisioning sessions where our Poet Ambassadors along with other youth gather together with say, police officers or prosecutors and read and discuss poems together. We would then all write poems on the same topic, exchange them and write feedback to each other. Everyone would get a better understanding of each other’s perspective. Poetry has this awesome way of breaking down stereotypes and misconceptions and getting to the raw humanity that connects all of us.
3. Who inspires you (in the philanthropy world or otherwise)? Do you have a hero?
Oh, there are so many. I am so lucky because every day I’m inspired by the Free Minds members. It is incredulous to me the resilience, grit and hopefulness they possess when faced with such staggering burdens and obstacles. I can’t imagine enduring what most of them have in their short lives. As Free Minds member Alonzo writes “I have seen things no child should see.” To go from not believing you will live to the age of 21 to having the courage to change your entire way of being in the world fills me with awe and gives me strength to make small changes in my life. I’m continuously inspired by my fellow nonprofit colleagues who never give up in the face of daunting challenges and accomplish so much with so little. I call them the “little engines that could” from my favorite children’s book. It’s amazing to see the impact they have on people’s lives with heart, soul and shoestring budgets.
One of my personal heroes is Father Greg Boyle, the Founder and Executive Director of Homeboy Industries, a gang intervention, rehabilitation and reentry program in California. His book “Tattoos on the Heart” is a must read. Father Greg inspires me with his ability to create this positive brotherhood among Homeboy Industries to replace the gang family something we try to emulate at Free Minds by building a network of support among Free Minds members so they can help each other through the challenges of reentry. I’m also inspired by the Homeboy Industries model of addressing practical problems with practical solutions, as they help former gang members find employment. Free Minds is part of the Global Homeboy Network, which brings together like-minded nonprofits to share wisdom and resources. I’m a big fan of motivational quotes and he has the best ones. One of my favorites is:
“We imagine no one standing outside of that circle..of compassion.., moving ourselves closer to the margins so that the margins themselves will be erased. We stand there with those whose dignity has been denied. We locate ourselves with the poor and the powerless and the voiceless. At the edges, we join the easily despised and the readily left out. We stand with the demonized so that the demonizing will stop. We situate ourselves right next to the disposable so that the day will come when we stop throwing people away.”
4. What was your most interesting recent project/partnership?
As part of our Reentry program, we do a month-long Job Readiness and Life Skills Apprenticeship for our members returning from prison, and we partner with The Advisory Board Company to do job role play workshops in which their wonderful employees act out real-life workplace scenarios that Free Minds members have encountered on the job, and demonstrate ways to handle the various challenges. They are courageous because our Free Minds members act as the bosses or unreasonable co-workers and don’t go easy on The Advisory Board folks! It’s always one of the highest rated workshops by our Apprentices. I love how the Advisory Board volunteers share their own personal work challenges from both their past and current experiences. It makes it very real for our Apprentices and makes them realize everyone goes through tough job stress. They hear language and ways to respond that are positive and affirming. It’s one of my favorite parts of the Apprenticeship too. It’s invaluable for our Apprentices to see a professional office and meet folks who really care about their success.
5. What is the single greatest challenge that your organization faces (besides finances) and how are you dealing with this challenge?
Our greatest challenge is helping our members adjust to life in the community post-incarceration. Because our members were so young when they were incarcerated, they really grew up behind bars and were exposed to so much violence and negative behaviors it takes a big toll on them. Also the behaviors they had to learn to survive in prison are often the exact opposite of what you need to thrive in the workforce even something as simple as smiling needs to be practiced and affirmed. They face so many disadvantages because they have a felony record that decreases their chances of being hired, and bars them from public housing and many careers. Add in the psychological effects and stigma of being in prison, and it’s a really big hurdle to overcome. That’s why poetry is such a valuable tool because they can write about their experiences and express all of these difficult emotions instead of bottling them up. They can also share their poetry with others as an important part of the process of reintegration.
At Free Minds we believe the only way we are going to solve the crisis of youth violence and incarceration is to connect all parts of our community so we don’t see each other as “the other.” Poetry has a powerful way of uniting people.
6. What advice do you have for other people in your position?
I actually have the same advice that I give to Free Minds members: ask for help. It’s really important to reach out to the wider community. I’ve found that there’s really an astonishing number of people who want to help and have real practical skills and experiences that can help you in unexpected ways. So reach out to other nonprofits and business leaders that you admire and trust, and try to establish these kinds of community relations where you all can support each other.
7. What’s next/coming up for you?
In May, we’re publishing our second literary journal, The Untold Story of the Real Me: Young Voices from Prison, a follow-up to our hugely successful 2011 journal, They Call Me 299-359: Writings by the Incarcerated Youth of Free Minds Book Club & Writing Workshop. We have such talented writers in our program and I’m really excited to share their poetry with more people. Prison is an isolating, lonely experience. When we can bring the inside to the outside it’s incredibly empowering for everyone involved.
Free Minds members have a vital message we all need to hear to make our community safer and healthier and we’re so proud and excited to be a vehicle to share that message. We’re also developing a teacher’s guide that we’ll be putting out in the fall, which will help teachers replicate our successful violence prevention outreach in conjunction with the new literary journal. We often get requests from people in other states who want to share the Free Minds poetry with their students. Since we can’t be there in person, this teacher’s guide will allow them to replicate our program model and share the message of hope and change through poetry. So be on the lookout and get your copy soon!