On November 9, 2010, nearly 400 District court judges, prosecutors, court personnel, and community leaders gathered at the Washington Convention Center to examine issues of violence in the city. When the time came to discuss solutions, they turned to five Free Minds poets for advice.

Free Minds panelists

Free Minds Members Speaking on the Panel

Keynote speaker Dr. John Rich, author of Wrong Place, Wrong Time: Trauma and Violence in the Lives of Young Black Men, opened the event with a presentation of his research, which documents the stories of young men who have suffered from the effects of lifetime exposure to violence. At the close of his talk, Dr. Rich advocated the importance of narrative and being able to tell one’s story as a tool for healing and transformation, leaving the microphones open for Free Minds to take the stage.

With the full attention of 400 court personnel, Free Minds members Jermaine, Chris, Terrance, Delonte, and Will stepped up to the podium to perform both their own poetry and poems written by members who are still locked up. Keeping with the theme of the conference, Free Minds then presented a film featuring other Free Minds members discussing their experiences of growing up, being exposed to violence, and the role that reading and writing have played in shaping their futures. Poet Messiah concluded the session by delivering a letter from a senior Free Minds member who had first learned to read in jail. “For all these years I wanted to say to you please forgive me, but with my limited ability to read or write, I could not fully comprehend how to convey what I felt,” “I was ultimately helped learn to how to read by a Free Minds Book Club,” read Messiah, “I developed how to process my words, how to understand how and what caused me to act the way I did as a sixteen year old then, and how to improve myself now.”

As the audience rose to their feet at the conclusion of the presentation, their message to our young members was clear: we hear you.

Free Minds, Dr. John Rich, Messiah

Free Minds Members and Staff with Dr. John Rich (far right) and poet Messiah (center, fourth from left)

The excitement, pride, and confidence were clear in those who participated in the reading. In the short break that followed, the Free Minds participants were approached and congratulated by many audience members. The event was “a chance to give [members of the court] a different view and let them know what’s going on in our lives,” Chris said. “I think they really took heed to what we said,” Terrance continued, saying that the opportunity to speak at such an event will “give the guys who are still in jail a chance to be heard too.”

The conference continued with speakers and panelists from variety of city offices and community organizations, including representatives from the U.S. Attorney General’s office, victims’ rights groups, and the DC Metropolitan Police Department. At the end of the day, the atmosphere of the Convention Center was ripe with feelings of progress and collaboration. The warm reception that Free Minds received as a contributor in this conference was echoed when the Free Minds poets were asked to return and present at several other community events in the coming weeks.

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