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D.C. Jail€s Free Minds Young Poets Hold Sixth Annual Poetry Reading

Edith Billups | 10/14/2009, 7:52 p.m.

Hear Us Out, founded by Kelli Taylor and Tara Liebert, journalists who were motivated to make an impact on young inmates€ lives, hosted their sixth annual Free Minds Poetry Reading at the 6th and I Historic Synagogue in Northwest on Tue., Oct. 6. The event featured former inmates of the D.C. Jail reciting poetry with topics ranging from the reality of becoming fathers to taking responsibility for choices that were not always positive.

For 22-year-old Brandon, a Northeast native who committed several armed robberies before getting turned onto Sister Souljah€s €The Coldest Winter Ever,€ the evening was an opportunity to express a creative side that once was obscured by a lack of interest in books and school.

€When I was in the D.C. Jail, I didn€t have an interest in reading books, but going to the book club started by Kelli and Tara was a way to get out of my cell,€ said Brandon, presently a counselor with at-risk youth. €After I read €The Coldest Winter Ever€ I realized how much fun reading was.€

With a mission of introducing juvenile inmates to the transformative power of books and creative writing, the Free Minds Book Club and Writing Workshop was founded by Taylor and Liebert in 2002. The execution of a 17-year-old Texas teen, that Taylor had corresponded with and mentored, would cause Taylor to rethink her career as a television producer.

€I had gotten a letter from Glen McGinnis, a young man on death row, and we began corresponding back and forth. We could not have been more different, but the area where we overlapped was reading,€ said Taylor, an Arlington, Va. resident.

Taylor would do a documentary on the teen, €but his execution in 2000 changed my life and I started volunteering at the Arlington County Jail,€ she said. With Liebert, the two started a book club in the D.C. Jail that has since impacted the lives of more than 300 inmates.

€I€ve been out for three years, and I still like to participate in this program,€ Terrence, 20, said. €Before going to jail, I had an interest in books, but I was more interested in being out in the street. This program has changed my life because this time I want to give myself a chance. I am able to express myself, and a lot of the reason why many go to jail is because people are not listening to them.€

For Dale, 18, being in the program provides a motivation to do the right thing.

€Before joining the book club, I had no interest in school. After spending time around people who show me love and not try to hurt me, I decided to go back to school on my own,€ he said.

The reading brought out mothers, girlfriends and others who enthusiastically applauded every poem as the young males read their own poems and the poems of others still incarcerated. Dr. Dorothy Blake Fardan, a Bowie State University professor and founder of the Sojourner Truth Farm School and Center for Human Growth in Poolesville, Md., said that programs like the Free Minds Book Club are needed.

€The school system has failed in keeping young people€s interest off the streets. This program helps young men to express themselves through music and writing and they know that there are people who care,€ Fardan said.

For Christopher, 19, Taylor and Liebert€s program changed his life, and he commended them for their dedication and commitment.

€Not only did they encourage me to write, but once I was out, they helped me to get a job.€

He read a poem encouraging other inmates to turn their lives around. Titled €Stepping into the Light,€ the D.C. native read: €Think about all of the wrong things you have done in the past and ask God for forgiveness; and slow down your life if it€s moving too fast. Step into the light before it€s too late.€

For more information on the book club, visit www.freemindsbookclub.org.