Free Minds Wins Renewal Award

In 2017, Free Minds was honored to receive the Renewal Award for Ingenuity from the Atlantic and Allstate. Free Minds was one of five winners selected from approximately 500 organizations across the country. Free Minds attended the Renewal Summit in Washington, DC, to receive the award. Poet Ambassador Nick spoke at the Renewal Summit. After the event, he said, “I want to thank the Atlantic and Allstate for allowing me to share my story, because I know it will help bring about a change. I hope people will treat someone from my experience with more dignity. That alone will give people from my background hope.” 

Thank you to the Renewal Project, the Atlantic, and Allstate Foundation. Read on to learn more about the Renewal Award, and Free Minds’s role in the Renewal Summit.

Free Minds at the Renewal Summit
By Aubry Ellison, Free Minds Intern
The five winners of the Renewal Awards

Free Minds Executive Director Tara Libert with the directors of the other winning organizations (Photo Credit: AtlanticLIVE)

Closing gaps. This phrase has often been used as cliché applaud line, but at the Atlantic Annual Renewal Summit the phrase regains its evocative power as effective programs are showcased. The Atlantic Renewal conference is part of the Atlantic’s two-year project to locate entrepreneurs and local leaders that don’t wait for Washington to address the issues facing their community. This year, five organizations were recognized and awarded a $20,000 grant:

  • Community Action Award: New Alternatives for LGBT Homeless Youth: Assists homeless LGBT youth transition into adulthood and provides and familial supports for a population often rejected from their own family.
  • Ingenuity Award: Free Minds Book Club & Writing Workshop: Transforms lives of incarcerated youth through reading, writing and re-entry support.
  • Self Starter: Lost Boyz Inc.: Uses baseball and competitive sports as a mentoring program for underserviced youth in Chicago.
  • Neighborhood Revitalization Award: Kounkuey Design Initiative: Partners communities with architects, engineers, and urban planners to redesign their communities into productive space.
  • Allstate Youth Empowerment Award: Hour Children, Inc.: Recognized for its work with incarcerated mothers and their children.
Free Minds Poet Ambassadors and Executive Director Tara Libert at the Renewal Summit

Free Minds Poet Ambassadors and Executive Director Tara Libert celebrate at the Renewal Summit (Photo Credit: AtlanticLIVE)

Free Minds Co-Founder and Executive Director, Tara Libert, was honored to speak on a panel with Sister Tesa Fitzgerald, Founder and Executive Director of Hour Children; LaVonte Stewart, Executive Director of Lost Boyz Inc.; Chelina Odbert, Co-Founder and Executive Director of Kounkuey Design Initiative; and Kate Barnhart, Executive Director of New Alternatives for LGBT Homeless Youth. Each panel member was pursuing other goals when they stumbled upon a gap, and instead of waiting for an expert to come along, got to work.

When asked about the creation of New Alternatives for LGBT Homeless, Barnhart responds, “There just seemed to be this big gap and we needed to fill it. As to why me, I think I’ve always had a tendency to throw myself into gaps.”

Libert remembers finding a gap while pursuing her career as a journalist. “You just felt this unbelievable urgency because you saw the devastation first hand and it was like, we got to try something. Why not?” Rather than wait for the new headline, she decided to make one.

The panelists offer a new model for what it means to be a witness to human suffering. For them it was not enough to empathize, they had to try something. They started small: 5 grad students, weekly book club, Sunday dinner, little league and clothing drives. These small efforts grew into sophisticated programs as they empowered their communities to inform the growth of the organization. Odbert initially wondered if design services could even be helpful to underserved populations. “We thought, well maybe they could, but only if the people that are living with these challenges on a day to day basis are guiding us because they’re the real experts.”

Odbert’s language of respect when talking about the communities she serves is another common strain among the panelist. The population is not the problem; they are the solution. Odbert suggests changing the model of approach. Instead of going into communities with ideas, ask the communities what they need. “It’s just about reorienting the conversation” she explains, “saying what needs to happen here. The ideas are usually already there and what’s missing is access to resources, maybe some technical assistance and that’s where groups like our can make the catalytic change.”

In a surplus of data, studies, and government initiatives, the answer sounds too simplistic to be true. Go to the populations and ask what they need? But, as Libert recalls from the beginnings of Free Minds, why not?

Poet Ambassador Nick speaking into a microphone

Poet Ambassador Nick speaking to the crowd at the Renewal Summit (Photo Credit: AtlanticLIVE)

As the programs grow, the organizations face challenges, learn new skills and adapt, but they all agreed that these organizational strategies are not the reason their programs are successful. What really makes these programs effective is their commitment to the human. Keela Hailes at Free Minds calls it our secret sauce: “They see the best in themselves because they have a whole team of people that believe in them.”

Sister Fitzgerald agrees that their secret is “the community base, the friendship that develops, the relational piece. And that the issue is not about incarceration or whatever, it’s about them as women, and women who are empowered to really be role models for their child.”

The secret: it’s about the people. Another cliché, but as the members of the panel returned to this idea over and over again, it was evident that the secret to change is really that simple.


Read more:

Building Social Change From the Bottom Up (The Atlantic)
Books Behind Bars (The Atlantic)
Giving a much-needed voice to prisoners through literature (The Renewal Project)


  1. Reid Baron says:

    Congrats on getting the grant. Great to hear about these other programs too. You guys are the entrepreneurs of the soul ! Let me know if you come across more gaps.

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