August 2, 2017

An unconventional kinship is creating a path to healing for formerly incarcerated youth

Volunteers at a D.C. nonprofit who have been victims of crime work with young men to help stop the cycle of violence

Free Minds poet ambassador Anthony participates in one of the nonprofit’s "On the Same Page" community outreach events at a retirement home in McLean, Virginia. Photo courtesy of Free Minds Book Club

For the past 15 years as the executive director of Free Minds Book Club & Writing Workshop, a D.C.-based nonprofit that provides educational, reentry, and community support to youth in the adult criminal justice system, I’ve had the privilege of witnessing firsthand the incredible resilience of the human spirit and its capacity for change regardless of the circumstances.

Free Minds members, boys who were abandoned, betrayed, and abused by their families, go on to become nurturing, loving parents to their own children; teens who were isolated in solitary confinement for years have survived and thrived when released despite the mental torture they’ve endured; Youth who, at the time, viewed guns as their only option to stay alive, now prize books and learning, and spread a message of nonviolence through our classroom outreach program.

These stories of profound transformation are not talked about enough, and we at Free Minds are driven to bring the voices of incarcerated and formerly incarcerated youth directly to the wider public. I’m here this week at the National Criminal Justice Association forum learning about innovative ways other cities are reducing crime and restoring communities. (Free Minds has been recognized as a leader in the field with the Outstanding Criminal Justice Program Award for the Northeast Region from NCJA.) It has reminded me of a very special volunteer corps we have at Free Minds: crime victims.

Dionne Wilson was the keynote speaker at the conference. Her husband was shot and killed by a 23-year-old man in San Leandro, California. Dionne is now a tireless advocate for increased rehabilitation and therapeutic programming for inmates to prevent the tragedy that happened to her family from happening to others. She spoke passionately for sentencing reform and restorative justice, and against our current punitive criminal justice system. She is not alone in her belief that we must heal the trauma of those in the justice system to bring about safety and wholeness.

Volunteers are a vital part of our success. Some of them, I have come to discover, are also survivors of crime themselves, who quietly and humbly volunteer for Free Minds. In some cases, I learn only when it slips out unexpectedly in conversation after working together for years. The majority have been victims of armed robberies by young boys with life experiences similar to Free Minds members. For example, our volunteer photographer who had a gun thrust in her face the day she and her husband found out she was pregnant with their first child. She told me she felt the young boy was frightened and must have been acting under desperate circumstances, or another longtime volunteer who works in the legal field helping the very same boys that pinned her on a D.C. side street displaying guns and demanding her wallet. A volunteer who regularly provides feedback on our members’ poetry at our monthly Write Night events was out showing visiting friends the city when three young men surrounded them and placed guns at their temples.

These volunteers understand that hurt people hurt people, and the way to prevent crime is to get involved with organizations like ours that work to improve public safety.

I can list many more who were direct targets of crime, who responded not with fear and anger, rather with compassion and a desire to find out why this was happening and contribute to the solution. I am happy to know people like this exist in our world. Their ability to empathize and see beyond their own panic and fear is exceptional. They innately knew their robber most likely experienced trauma and suffering as a child. Like 16-year-old SJ.

SJ is the newest member of our weekly book club discussion group at the D.C. jail. While growing up, both his parents sold and abused crack. When he was 5 years old, his mother took him and his older brother to the corner store. On their way, a car pulled up to them and the men inside jumped out, attempting to grab his mom. When she argued with them and fought back, they pulled out a gun and shot her three times in the head. He and his little brother were left there alone on the street to watch their mother die. A year later, his father died of a heart attack. He dropped out of school after the eighth grade, and ended up on the streets—thrown into a chaotic world of violence and neglect.

After being charged as an adult for armed robbery, SJ read the book “Writing My Wrongs” by Shaka Senghor, a memoir of transformation and healing through reading and creative writing, while Senghor was serving a life sentence for murder. After he finished it, SJ cried and began to write letters to his extended family, apologizing and asking for their help in changing his ways.

Our Free Minds volunteers who experienced the trauma of being robbed at gunpoint innately understand their perpetrators, boys like SJ who come already loaded with so much pain that we as a society must find a way for them to release and heal from it other than turning back to violence. Their commitment to being a part of the solution is a beacon of hope for all of us. As one volunteer shared after her robbery, “I was upset. Upset because we are all victims, in a way, of a failed system that doesn’t offer alternatives for these kids before they commit a crime and doesn’t give them support after jail to prevent them from going back to old habits.”

These volunteers understand that hurt people hurt people, and the way to prevent crime is to get involved with organizations like ours that work to improve public safety.

These volunteers inspire me. Stories like these are not told enough, but they remind us of what is possible with compassion and commitment so we can all heal together.

Visit our website to find out how you can get involved, at

Tara Libert

Free Minds Book Club

Tara Libert is the co-Founder and executive director of Free Minds Book Club & Writing Workshop, a 2016 Renewal Awards recipient. Before co-founding the nonprofit in 2002, Tara worked as a radio and television news and documentary producer, overseeing many features on the U.S. criminal justice system. Tara began volunteering with Georgetown University’s Family Literacy Program, tutoring incarcerated parents at the District of Columbia jail. She is trained as a tutor with the Literacy Volunteers of America and a mediator with The Conflict Resolution Center of Montgomery County, Maryland. Tara trained at the Freedom Writer’s Institute and her writing has been included in "Teaching Hope: Stories from the Freedom Writer Teachers." She is also a certified Kundalini Y.O.G.A. for Youth Teacher. She has won the Linowes Award for “unsung community heroes” and the D.C. Department of Corrections George Strawn Volunteer Award.
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