The Free Minds “We Can Be the Change: Working to End Violence in Our City” event was a tremendous success, and was featured on ABC7/WJLA-TV’s “Harris’s Heroes” segment!

Free Minds Co-founder and Executive Director Tara Libert introduced the evening’s host, Leon Harris from ABC7/WJLA-TV, who spoke about his involvement with Free Minds and what the program meant to him. He introduced three Free Minds Poet Ambassadors, young men who are home from prison and doing community outreach to raise awareness and the causes and consequences of youth incarceration.

The three Poet Ambassadors—Kalef, Doug, and Alvin—each read two poems from the Free Minds literary journal, The Untold Story of the Real Me: Young Voices from Prison. They read some of their own poetry as well as poems by Free Minds members who are currently incarcerated. The literary journal is available for purchase through our publisher, Shout Mouse Press.

Alvin stunned the audience with his reading of “What’s Your Number,” a prose-poem by Free Minds member MC about witnessing his friend’s death and asking the question of the reader, how many people do you know who have been affected by gun violence?

After the poetry reading, Leon Harris introduced the first of two panels, featuring Free Minds Poet Ambassadors Juan and Will, and formerly incarcerated mentor and business leader Anthony Belton (Perspectives Premier Contractors, Flikshop School of Business, Free Minds Apprenticeship Job Site Supervisor). They discussed the situations in their homes and neighborhoods that led them to the street life, and how they changed both their internal mindsets and external circumstances. Juan works full-time at a hospital, and is starting college in the fall. Will runs his own company, Clean Decisions, and just launched a nonprofit organization called Changing Perceptions to help young men returning from prison find housing and other support services.

Anthony Belton, who supervises Free Minds Job Readiness Apprentices doing on-the-job training at Perspectives Premier Contractors, said, “Sometimes, we can be in prison in our own communities… If this is all they know, the violence and the justice system beating them up, this is all they know. If you change their mindset inwardly, it reflects outwardly…I tell the guys all the time, this is not the end of your life. This is just the beginning.”

After the first panel, Leon Harris introduced the second panel: crime reporter Jennifer Donelan (ABC7/WJLA-TV), attorney and motivational speaker James King (Public Defender Service), author and activist Tony Lewis, Jr. (Slugg: A Boy’s Life in the Age of Mass Incarceration), and author and TV writer/producer George Pelecanos (The Martini Shot, HBO’s The Wire).

Tony Lewis, Jr., whose memoir Slugg: A Boy’s Life in the Age of Mass Incarceration describes what it was like to grow up as the child of a drug kingpin who has been incarcerated since he was very young, spoke about the collateral consequences of incarceration and the effect on the family. James King shared his story of being wrongfully accused of a crime and serving jail time due to poor legal defense. This experience inspired him to go to law school and become a public defender. George Pelecanos shared his story of teaching writing workshops to juveniles in detention, and the impact reading and writing can have on an individual and a community. Finally, Jennifer Donelan spoke about the fractured nature of DC, referring to it as “a tale of two cities,” and urging people to break down the barriers between the different neighborhoods in DC and “embrace the whole city.”

The panelists took questions from the audience, then ceded the floor to Leon Harris who introduced the #IVow campaign and urged each attendee to consider what they could do to work towards peace and healing in our city. Attendees wrote their vows on index cards and attached them to a board, alongside vows from Free Minds members, staff, families, and friends.

Free Minds Executive Director Tara Libert said, “This event grew out of our Free Minds members’ desire to honor their loved ones lost to gun violence, and to ensure that all of the children in this city can grow up in a safe, healthy environment. We see ourselves as a bridge between the two Washingtons—one with resources, access, and opportunity, and one without—and we believe that the only way to create change is to unite this city and get everyone on the same page.”

Will, one of the panelists and a formerly incarcerated Free Minds member who now owns his own company, said: “The only way we can stop violence is by listening to each other. When I was growing up, I felt like I had no support and like I didn’t belong anywhere. Now I’m happy to be able to share my story and support young people who are going through what I went through. This city is changing so quickly, and I’m afraid that we’re getting further apart from each other. ‘We Can Be the Change’ is a chance for us to communicate and learn from different perspectives, and make our city safer for everyone.”

This event was featured in the Harris’s Heroes segment on ABC7/WJLA-TV.

The conversation will continue on April 27th, when we come together again for another poetry reading and panel discussion to raise awareness about youth incarceration and work towards solutions. The event is free and open to the public; however, space is limited so RSVP is required.

We Can Be the Change: Voices of Incarcerated Youth
A Poetry Reading and Community Dialogue
Wednesday, April 27th, 7:00-8:30 PM
The Hill Center at the Old Naval Hospital
921 Pennsylvania Ave SE
Washington, DC 20003
*Closest metro station: Eastern Market

Thank you to our host, Leon Harris, to our sponsors, TJFACT and Booz Allen Hamilton, our wonderful poets and panelists, and of course everyone who attended to make the sold-out, standing-room-only event a highlight of the year so far.

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