TWPDC Partner Success Story: Free Minds
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Working Together to Make DC Work
Michael Kemp is in love with learning and knowledge, and yet he never attended a high school prom, studied for final exams or had to learn a locker combination. Michael spent nearly the entirety of his teenage years behind bars. Since being released in the summer of 2011, he has worked to help other incarcerated teens chart a positive new course in life when they come home from prison.
Michael was born in Washington, DC to a young crack addicted mother in 1990. He spent his early childhood with an aunt whom he believed to be his biological mother, since nobody told him otherwise. When he was nine years old, he met his father for the first time after he was released from prison, and Michael moved in with him. A year later, his father died of AIDS and Michael was sent to live with his grandmother. He was arrested for the first time when he was just 12 years old for stealing a bicycle.
“The way my life was, I lived only for the moment. I looked to the streets for love and a family,” Michael says, stealing things not because he needed them, but because it made him feel like he finally belonged someplace. At 16, he was arrested and charged as an adult for armed robbery. It was in the DC Jail that Michael read a book for the first time. “I was on solitary confinement when the people from Free Minds came and asked me if I wanted a book. I knew how to read—enough to read stop signs anyway. But I never read a book before. It just didn’t seem like those books were for me. At the same time, teachers just kept promoting me to the next grade,” he says. The sense of accomplishment that Michael felt when he finished that first book encouraged him to join Free Minds’ weekly book club. One book led to another and he became a voracious reader, requesting titles on everything from how to break into real estate, to biographies and a rhyming dictionary to use in his song writing. Michael said the difference was that Free Minds gave him books that meant something to him.
“Books like Nathan McCall’s, Makes Me Wanna Holler and Dwayne Betts’ A Question of Freedom—those are people just like me who changed their lives and reading their words showed me a whole new way to express myself. Free Minds changed me. They helped me believe that I could make it through, and made me realize that my mind wasn’t in jail. Instead my mind could be on all of the possibilities!”
After serving more than three years in adult prison Michael was released in August 2011. He immediately began helping Free Minds as a Reentry Coach while also working as a dishwasher full-time at the Howard Theatre. Michael also became a spokesperson and blog contributor for the Campaign for Youth Justice, a nonprofit organization dedicated to ending the practice of trying, sentencing, and incarcerating youth under 18 in the adult criminal justice system. Michael won the Washington Peace Center Activist Award in December 2012 for his efforts to end the school to prison pipeline. In May 2012, Michael was part of a coalition that met with Attorney General Eric Holder urging him to issue new regulations protecting children in adult jails and prisons from sexual abuse. Currently Michael is the lead Poet Ambassador facilitating Free Minds violence prevention initiative “On The Same Page” which uses poetry as a tool for healing, understanding and empathy at DC middle schools, high schools and colleges. His message is a powerful one, “I tell them, forget what the naysayers are telling you.