On Wednesday, April 27th, Shout Mouse Press was thrilled to announce an exciting new partnership with two local literary justice organizations: Free Minds Book Club and Writing Workshop and PEN/Faulkner Writers-in-Schools.
Free Minds Book Club and Writing Workshop uses books, creative writing, and peer support to awaken DC youth incarcerated as adults to their own potential. We are honored and excited to join forces with this mission-aligned partner and to serve as the publisher for their latest book, The Untold Story of the Real Me: Young Voices From Prison.
PEN/Faulkner Writers in Schools works to foster an active and thoughtful next generation of readers by bringing writers and their works directly into DC classrooms for discussions on literature and life.
As a testament to the power of their work, the authors of Ballou High School (Our Lives Matter, How To Grow Up Like Me) and Free Minds (The Untold Story of the Real Me) have been invited to join Writers in Schools, making their books available to all DC educators and creating opportunities for these authors to serve as speakers and leaders in classrooms across the city. Again, we are honored and proud.
All three organizations came together on April 27th at the Hill Center in Capitol Hill for a reading and community dialogue called “We Can Be the Change: Writing Solutions to Violence.” A packed house listened as Free Minds members--all returned citizens and current “poet ambassadors”--shared their poetry and stories of reaching youth through the violence prevention initiative, “On the Same Page.” Afterwards, in a panel discussion including a Free Minds member, an educator, and two authors from the Ballou Story Project series, speakers discussed the ways that writing and sharing their stories with others created positive impacts both for themselves and for their readers/audience.
Felicia Jordan, an English teacher at Eastern High School, brings Free Minds members into her classroom through the Writers-in-Schools program and says the poet ambassadors inspire her own students to write. “You have stories within you,” she tells her students, and seeing lives like theirs represented on the page affirms for them that their stories are worth telling.
M.H. Jordan, one author of Our Lives Matter, described her personal experience of sharing her story in print, saying that when other people know what you are going through “they’re going to be more open.” Ayonna Williams, also an author from the Ballou Story Project, added that sharing her personal experiences in writing created “no judgement, just connection” with those who read it, many of whom had gone through similar experiences. Juan, a Poet Ambassador for Free Minds, echoed the idea, saying that in his work with Free Mind’s violence prevention initiative, he had been able to share his own poetry, and had seen how people reacted. “They didn’t care where I came from,” Juan said. “They could relate.”
This was one theme of the night--how sharing personal stories can build connections with readers who have faced similar experiences. But the audience also affirmed that it can build empathy and understanding for those who have lived very different lives as well. In this way, books were acting both as mirrors for those who needed to see themselves reflected on the page and as windows for others into another world.
The night was a powerful reminder of why writing and sharing stories matters, including as a means of dealing with violence. As Andre, a Free Minds poet, wrote:
“A poem is a better weapon/ Than a knife/ Because a poem will lead you/ To a better future/ To succeed/ A poem will set your mind free.”