On July 17, Free Minds staff, Poet Ambassadors, and friends gathered at Pepco Edison Place Gallery to celebrate the new Free Minds Congressman John Lewis Fellowship, a one-year paid position for a formerly incarcerated young adult to use poetry and storytelling to promote nonviolence and racial equity. The Fellow serves as the lead Poet Ambassador, facilitating the Free Minds nonviolence program, “On the Same Page: Free Minds Poetry in the Classroom and Community.” 

This fellowship is inspired by the work of Congressman John Lewis, one of the leaders of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s and a current Representative for the state of Georgia.

John Lewis is also the author of the graphic novel trilogy March, depicting his important work to end legalized racial segregation. Lewis and his March co-author Andrew Aydin visited the Free Minds Book Club at the DC Jail in 2016 to share his remarkable story with 16- and 17-year-old boys incarcerated as adults at the DC Jail.

One teenager in the book club at the DC Jail described the visit as “life-changing” and said that Congressman Lewis inspired him and shows him “that any black man can be who we want to be and that we shouldn’t give up.”

This visit to the DC Jail was covered by WJLA.

Although Congressman Lewis was not able to attend the event on July 17, his staff was in attendance and shared a letter written by the Congressman.

The Free Minds Poet Ambassadors (formerly incarcerated youths and adults who facilitate On the Same Page sessions) told us that they were awe-struck, inspired, and humbled to hear Congressman John Lewis’s letter, read by his staff.

He wrote, “I am proud to witness a new generation of bold leaders, like the Free Minds Poet Ambassadors and the first Congressman John Lewis Fellow. You are all courageous and you are leading the fight for what is fair and just.”

A group of people holding a poster about Congressman John Lewis

The Free Minds team with staff from Congressman Lewis’s office and DC Councilmember Grosso’s office, holding a poster by an incarcerated Free Minds member, Shawndell (inspired by the March trilogy)

Guests at the event heard from Clint Smith, the newest Free Minds Book Club Facilitator at the DC Jail, who spoke about the need for restorative healing for those enduring poverty, racial injustice, and incarceration. He read powerful poetry from his book, Counting Descent.

Andrew Aydin, who co-wrote the March graphic novel trilogy with Congressman Lewis, spoke passionately about the role reading can play in racial justice. “Reading is a liberation, an art, and a skill that can open up the heart.”

James Allen, our Congressman John Lewis Fellow, shared how his own heart was opened by reading the memoir. “Reading the March series opened my eyes to the powers of positivity. I take my role as a positive, nonviolent influencer very seriously.”

Jan Smart, the original donor who supported the fellowship, shared Congressman Lewis’s stirring words with James: “You are a light. You are the light. Never let anyone–any person or any force–dampen, dim or diminish your light.”

Guests at the event had the opportunity to bid on silent auction items, including a poster by incarcerated Free Minds member Shawndell (inspired by the March trilogy), and five multimedia pieces by local artist Carol Svoboda, illustrating poetry by Free Minds members.

Click here to see photos from the event! Photo credit: Hugh Broadus.

Thank you to everyone who helped make this event and the fellowship possible. To support the Congressman John Lewis Fellowship, give today.

Special thanks as well to Carol Svoboda, Hugh Broadus, ARTdrenaline Catering, Pepco Edison Place Gallery, and everyone else who contributed to this event.

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