Recently, I attended an event for Free Minds Book Club. Each month, Free Minds hosts a night where volunteers review and respond to poetry written by incarcerated youth. The volunteers’ comments are then sent back to the young people, showing them that their voice continues to matter. Returned members have spoken often about the importance of getting these comments – they serve as a lifeline during extraordinarily dark times.
At these events, volunteers always hear from Poet Ambassadors – young people who have returned home after serving time. These returned members now teach workshops and speak in the community to lift up poetry as a tool for peacemaking and community building. At the last Write Night, Charlie spoke:
“When I got home from lock up, I did the same thing I was doing before. I spent the first month sitting on the stoop until one day I noticed I was surrounded by crack heads and khakis (kids that had been sent home from school that day). I realized I needed to do something different, so I called [Free Minds Executive Director] Tara.
Tara told me to meet her at Ballou the next day. They were doing an On The Same Page event (when returned members speak to students). I did that one, and I’ve been doing them ever since.”
That day at Ballou, Charlie spoke to Reach’s tutors. He and other Free Minds members spoke of their experiences and shared poetry. Tara had warned me that Charlie was new – she didn’t know what would happen when his turn came. But he stood confident, read some poetry, and – in that moment – started creating a new life for himself.
Charlie is doing very well, despite the obstacles faced by those with felonies. He’s now a proud father and a supportive uncle. He’s helping other young men as they transition back to the community. I couldn’t help but feel proud of him.
After he finished speaking, I approached him to tell him that the event he spoke about was an event with my kids. I told him how excited I was that his experience speaking to our tutors impacted him so positively. He said something more simple, elegant, and profound than I could have ever written:
Well, then thank you for being there so I could be there.
There’s a dignity that comes from giving, a recognition of humanity that comes from mattering to another person. In the end, that’s what we want every one of our young people to experience. We just want to be there so they can be there.