Why I keep sending books to prisoners

This week’s spotlight: all things books.


Letters from prisoners requesting books. (Photo via Kristin Stadum.)

I hate Wednesday.

I really hate Wednesday. The day wrecks me. I end up cold, tired and hungry, except in the summer I end up hot, tired and hungry because after work on Wednesday, I spend hours with DC Books to Prisons.

When a couple of friends mentioned the group, I started volunteering and in no time at all, I found myself wrapped in the cogs of this purely-volunteer organization that seemed almost organic in nature, surviving despite itself, because of itself, without rules, without structure, to put books in the hands of prisoners.

Over the years, I have picked and packed books, established a data repository, taken packages to the post office and fought to find a fiscal sponsor. Photography, writing, fundraising – whatever the group needed, I tried to do, but it wasn’t until I spearheaded a holiday fundraiser that I realized how wildly unpopular prison issues could be.

The project doesn’t have a steady source of income. The group survives on meager grants and responses to letters of appeal. The only real costs are the cost of the website, the mailbox, and shipping (media mail), which continues to rise. Even operating with such lean overhead, the organization struggles to survive.

Over the holidays, a local bookstore gave us the opportunity to tie together our skills – books and wrapping – by giftwrapping customers’ purchases for donations. The first year, I worked eight of the nine shifts we had, serving as the public face of DC Books to Prisons.

We don’t have a charming mascot, color or theme. We send books to an underserved and incarcerated population. A lot of people have problems with that. Very few are likely to wear our name on their sleeves and raise funds for prisoners. Many believe that prisoners just ought to be punished.

“Why?” a man asked as I wrapped his books. “Why do you care?”

While I quoted statistics on the current rate of incarceration (higher in terms of both sheer volume and per capita than anywhere else in the world), all I really wanted to say is that I care because somebody has to.

Our system is broken. Our justice system claims rehabilitation as a goal, not punishment, but in a world of diminishing resources, prisoners suffer. Libraries are cut as are educational programs, and recidivism is high. Those who enter prison on minor drug offenses walk out as hardened criminals without skills, resources or hope for the future, with criminal connections, without an education, and literacy helps stop that from happening. Showing basic human decency helps stop that from happening.

“Maybe in a way it’s a form of hope, which is nice considering all this negativity,” a prisoner from California recently wrote, expressing his wonder “to actually know that there are people out there who can do what they want, anytime they want, and still donate and volunteer their time, raise money… now that has an effect on a person to make him stop and think.”

The (mostly) men who write us don’t extoll their innocence. We don’t ask them to. We read their letters, try to find books that match their requests and include a brief note wishing them happy reading.

Even such brief notes reach their readers. Sometimes, I feel more than vaguely uncomfortable with the letters I get in response, the ones calling me an angel, a savior, a princess, the ones asking how many bedrooms I have, the ones offering information about impending parole dates. We don’t sign our full names or give personal addresses but we would not be hard to find, any of us, and I do get a lot of letters.

A lot of letters.

For some reason, though, I keep going on Wednesdays. Wrecked. Uncomfortable. Unsure of my own motivation but for the fact that someone needs to care. Then, something happens to remind me why I volunteer.

The day before Christmas, with a broken water heater at home and plans for one final giftwrapping shift, I found myself engaged in a conversation with the plumber’s assistant. In the July just past, he was exonerated of a crime he did not commit and released after serving 23 years of someone else’s sentence, someone identified through DNA evidence, someone who would never be tried because the statute of limitations had passed.

What do you do after 23 years behind bars? How do you move from 1989 to 2012 without climbing the steps in between? Cameras, music, and communication in pocket-sized computing devices with far too much information about everyone ever met with people checking in, checking out and checking their email all at the same time.

How do you explain a 23-year gap in a resume? How do you develop a relationship after 23 years on the inside? How could you ever go back inside any building ever again with the sun shining and a breeze blowing? I gave the man my attention, some cookies and a book on exoneration from my own shelves at home; then, I went to raise money for the project.

Since 1999, DC Books to Prisons has been answering individual inmates’ requests for reading material –fiction and nonfiction – with requests from all 50 states. Volunteers work with a donated library in borrowed space (from a local church) to pick and pack books. Requests range from dictionaries, drawing books, and westerns (all incredibly popular) to history, psychology, woodworking and electronics. Some of the prisoners are lifers, on death row or “in the hole” (solitary confinement) looking for a mental escape while others hope to learn a marketable trade for after their release.

Most of the prisoners who write us weren’t wrongfully convicted. They very well might deserve the sentences received but the ones who write us have nothing, no family or friends for support, no money, no options. We are their last resort, and whatever they did, they are serving their time. We can afford them basic human kindness and maybe a chance to learn, and so every Wednesday, cold, tired and hungry (except when I am hot), I send books to prisoners.

20130609_NYC0165Kristin Stadum lives and works in Washington DC, volunteering regularly with DC Books to Prisons as well as The Reading Connection where she reads books to (and encourages a love of reading in) children at a domestic violence shelter. In her free time, she travels, writes, walks, and raises money and awareness for breast cancer research.

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Want to get involved in social change? Love yourself first

Each June, millions gather worldwide in parades, rallies, festivals, and more to celebrate LGBT pride. In honor of this movement, this week we’re shining a spotlight on the LGBT youth community and the myriad of ways you can get involved. Today’s story is about one young man’s coming out journey both to himself and the world of social good.

There comes a point in your life when you have to look in the mirror, and ask,  “Who am I?”

In April this year, while I was lying in bed in the wee hours of the night, I did just this.  I picked up my phone, opened Instagram, and chose a photo that I had taken earlier that night. I typed a short paragraph that forever changed my life:

My name is Hakeem Hicks, I am an African-American college student at Clemson University and I aspire to work in the field of broadcast journalism. I am a Gates Millennium Scholar, an innovator, a leader, and a role model. I am a man of faith who has his own relationship with God. I am a son. I am a brother. I am a best friend. I am a visionary. I am an achiever. I am a conqueror…. and I am a member of the LGBT community!

With the submission of this one post I released a myriad of emotions – fear, anxiety, doubt, worry, stress, even self-hate. I had finally found the courage to share my biggest secret that I had been keeping for 15 years – I am a bisexual male.

That night I laid in bed for over an hour just thinking and contemplating on what I had done the next morning. My mind was in a whirlwind. Will my family disown me? Will my church family shun me? Would my peers treat me differently? No matter how bad the potential answers were to these questions, I was still at peace.

Growing up LGBT in South Carolina


Hakeem showing Clemson pride.

When I was younger, I was deathly afraid to let anyone know about my sexuality. I’d been on the receiving end of taunts about “being gay and a faggot” since I was in the fourth grade and those taunts broke down my confidence and left me vulnerable.

Then as I got older and became affiliated with the church, the desire to be and do exactly what I feel in my heart got stifled even more by sermons that said I was an abomination and unrighteous. I tried to “pray the gay away.” No matter how hard I prayed or how long I fasted, my desires never died down.  So I stopped trying to be what others wanted me to be and began living just as I was created.

My coming out process took three long years. It started my junior year of high school; I came out to my best friend one random day after school. She immediately embraced me. She expressed that she had always known and even began to unsuccessfully try her best to play matchmaker.

The next step was for me to tell my mother. My mother had always raised me to not be judgmental and to walk in love; I had been exposed to members of the LGBT community my entire life and she supported them. My mom was the one person I knew would be there for me and would have no problems with me being a same-gender loving person.

I was wrong. When I came out to her last summer, she told me that I was disgusting and that I would go to hell. We didn’t speak for two whole months. I gave up on my life during the fall semester of that year. I was no longer trying to work, experience, and grow; I was just there. Friends and mentors got me through this time.

Finding purpose again

The last phase to my coming out was to let the world know. I don’t know what happened to me that night in April that pushed me to share with the world my deepest secret, but I’m glad whatever stirred my spirit that night did.  

Now as an openly bisexual male, I feel it’s my purpose to break down barriers between the heterosexual world and the non-heterosexual world. I’m blessed to be a part of two major initiatives – Gates Millennium Scholars and National Youth Pride Services (NYPS). I recently joined NYPS as a way to be a part of a team of individuals who are passionate about gay rights and collectively known as an agent of change.

I don’t know exactly what my role will be in terms of LGBT social movements, but I do know this: I’ll never turn my back on those who have to give up or hide their own individual identity. Because in the end, gay pride isn’t just about loving another man, but about loving yourself.

National Youth Pride Services (NYPS) is an organization that develops and supports black youth leaders in the LGBT community. To apply for membership or get involved, email youthpridecenter@gmail.com.

248576_1904658150504_1608657_nHakeem Hicks is a third-year student at Clemson University majoring in Psychology and minoring in Education. An accomplished student and a recipient of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s Gates Millennium Scholarship, Hakeem aspires to a career in broadcast journalism. He hopes to use his future platform to fight social injustices and be a role model for the young men of tomorrow.

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When the gate swings open: An Idealist’s reflection on love, hip-hop, and Brazil


As a child I played with National Geographic magazines. I cut the photos carefully from their binding and positioned them on my bedroom floor. I stood in the center of each photo and communed with the imagined essence of another world. For as long as I can remember, the power and mystery of place captivated my spirit and shook my bones with a voracious sense of wonder.

In 2005, when I was 22-years-old, I landed in Rio de Janeiro with a large university grant. I carried addresses and phone numbers for various nonprofits where I’d been contracted to teach hip-hop and English to Brazilian youth. In my mind, I had plans to study dance all around the country. As a taxi drove me at a furious pace through Rio’s tangled maze of steep hillside cobblestone, one clear thought rang out.

“I’m too sensitive for a city like this.“

I was right, but I’d soon learn I didn’t care. I cared about discovering how my sensitivity interacted with this new world. I wanted to see where the path of contradiction would lead me.

It first led me to a brown-eyed man who stalled my heart when his smile carved two dimples beside the corner of his mouth. The enchantment I felt on the nights I walked arm and arm beside him wasn’t simply the magic of being young and falling in love in a foreign country. It was the sensation of being in the presence of a gatekeeper. The one who stands on the threshold of where you’ve been and where you are going. The one who beckons you in such an alluring way you have no choice but to cross over, regardless of whether or not they follow behind you.

At 22-years-old, travel shattered my compass and my direction became suddenly, terrifyingly fluid. That transformative year, finding love and discovering my calling happened in tandem.

On one typically sweltering Rio afternoon, my Brazilian boyfriend invited me to meet him at a beach side park where his dance company rehearsed every day. The company consisted of a dedicated crew of teenagers with a shocking well of talent and a profound enthusiasm for hip-hop dance.

For the first month I sat mesmerized and watched them rehearse. They trained and created movement, yelled out to keep going when they were exhausted, and celebrated each other’s growth. For the second month I stood in the back row of their concrete stage, dancing alongside them. The third month my Brazilian boyfriend broke my heart. I debated ever returning to that park where I had spent the last 60 days humming with a familiar sense of wonder shaking in my bones.

“I’m too sensitive to handle this,” I thought.

Yet I found myself back at their concrete stage, terrified and uncertain. The community of dancers I’d been spending everyday with didn’t care where I’d been or who I’d dated. They only cared that when we danced we sought entry into the same unspeakable passion. Echoing every day around the park was the soundtrack of their excitement and it created a new compass within me. My brown-eyed ex ignored me, but one day it finally stopped mattering.

On the other side of the threshold the view was different. The narrative had changed. It was no longer about falling in love with a man. It was about falling in love with the story of a group of people. I began coming to practice with a camcorder in my hand. The first time I pressed record my breath stalled and my heartbeat quickened. The earth pressed into my feet. I felt certain I was exactly where I needed to be.

Since that initial discovery I’ve been growing into the craft of filmmaking, following this community of dancers around Brazil and other parts of the world as their story widens. I’ve made a hundred amateur mistakes and another hundred skillful, intuitive choices. I’ve kept myself in the center of my sensitivity even when the pressure mounted because that sensitivity is ultimately what makes me an alert storyteller. I have cherished every moment with the community I’ve filmed. I’ve fallen in love over and over and over again.

My editor and I recently put the finishing touches on Believe The Beat, the feature length documentary that began eight years ago, when a sweet boy asked me my name after a dance class on a clear night in a loud city. There is sometimes a voice inside me that yearns to omit this piece of the story.

“I went to Brazil to make a film,” I hear myself think. “I researched and I planned my strategy. I was intentional and grounded and focused from the start.”

Then the rest of me rushes in. I am reminded of the little girl who stood on photos of foreign lands with the unknown looming. Who closed her eyes and said yes to a million possible truths.

This is what the world asks us to do. Follow the winding, complicated path toward voracious wonder. Say yes to the moments that enchant and challenge and surprise us. Walk across the threshold when the gate swings open and keep moving forward as it shuts.

DSCF0706Jocelyn Edelstein is a Portland filmmaker, writer, choreographer, and founder of the Urban Body Project, a multimedia collective that explores the relationship between dance, culture, and community. Her writing has been previously published in Best Women’s Travel Writing 2011, Volume 8, and will be upcoming in Volume 9. When she is not making films or writing stories she is performing and teaching dance at Polaris Contemporary Dance Center.

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Fighting, failure, and forgiveness: One Pakistani activist’s story

Inspired by the honor killing of her good friend when she was 16 years old, Pakistani activist Khalida Brohi set out to challenge this practice in her village through several campaigns over the years. Yet she was faced with death threats, both to her and her family. Torn between wanting to change her culture while embracing it, Khalida had to create a whole new way of working. Here’s how she tapped into her culture’s strengths to create the Sughar Women Program in 2009, which empowers 800 women in 23 learning centers across rural provinces. As told to Celeste Hamilton Dennis.


Khalida (top right with glasses) with women from the program.


How it all began

I’ve never been able to say how much I adore the place where I come from. I’m from a village in the mountains of Balochistan. I was the first person in my family who went to Karachi and got her education. I got to see two very extreme worlds.

Honor killings are a tradition in Pakistan, and they come from a really, really old custom in Saudi Arabia. Women, money, and land: these three things are the property of man, and they can do anything they want with them. They can kill a woman for doing anything they judge brings dishonor to her family.

When I was 16, a friend of mine was killed for wanting to marry a boy she liked. As soon as I learned about her death, I went into a crazy state and decided I was going to stop this. I did the WAKE UP Campaign. [An online media campaign that set out to raise awareness about the issue through sharing women’s stories.] It became really big. But the more I worked, the more I realized I was trying to fight the entire system in Pakistan, and that’s difficult because different tribal communities have their own laws. Every time I went back to my village, nothing had changed.

I started getting many death threats from men who were angry I was going against the traditions. I went back to Karachi, and into hiding for six months. 2008 was a really bad time.

In hiding I started thinking about what led me to this failure. Why did I get these death threats?

Then I realized that I never said there were good things in the rural, tribal traditions. I never involved the village women in the campaign; we only had urban activists involved. So I decided to take a new approach.

The birth of the centers

After the failure and all the problems I had in the Wake Up Campaign I thought nobody would support me. But we had these 13 urban youngsters who said they would do anything to come back and help me.

We went to villages in the Balochistan province, where I grew up, and found the tribal leaders were who were against us. We said we were very sorry about protesting openly against you, we’re here to make it up to you, and we have some funds which we are going to use to promote your traditions. We said we were going to focus on three: language, music, and embroidery.

Turns out tribal leaders are always looking for ways for traditions to be promoted. Elders are dying without telling their old stories, and they’re afraid for that. Embroidery is something women have been doing for centuries. Every day, all the women from the local havelis get together and sit and make embroidery while singing. My own aunties do that.

When we did the embroidery part, we established a center and selected the women. One woman from every house would come to the center every day for two hours. The men were like, Wow, that’s great, women wouldn’t have to go anywhere else.

So now, here’s the trick. Instead of embroidery, the women in the center go through life training, and also learn little bit of embroidery so we can show what’s going on in the center. We start with really small things like: women cannot speak loudly, women cannot say their names, women cannot laugh. We start by changing this week by week, day by day.

In two weeks the husbands find out because they’re acting so differently. Their first reaction is, My wife is not going to that center ever again!

We knew that when the men found out it was going to to be a disaster, so we had do to something to keep them happy. We launched Pakistan’s first ever tribal fashion brand. We did a fashion show. The top models wore clothing made by the village women. It became a hit, a cool thing, because nobody had seen anything like it before. Our product went from very cheap to very expensive in Pakistan. The fashion brand took off and so did the prices and income for the women.

The men were like, Oh my God, she is actually bringing in a lot of money which I really need. I can’t stop her from going. For six months, these women end up learning so many life skills and bringing in much needed income.

Women writing

Photo via Khalida Brohi.

Why respect and forgiveness are key

We have to show the men that without them we cannot do anything at all. We have separate people on our team who mobilize: one is a man, another is a woman. They are accountable to go in, talk to the tribal leaders about promoting their traditions, and get them on our side. Sometimes it takes three or four months because you have to learn their values, respect them.

Respecting others is key. I mean, I had to forgive those people who I knew had killed their daughters. I was sitting in front of the tribal leaders who were involved with honor killings. The day I learned how to forgive them, and give them respect and let them work for me, was like a key in my hand.

It’s so hard. Forgiving them for who they are is one of the most emotional things for me. The main inspiration I got about how to forgive was when I learned that the mothers who cannot say “Don’t kill my daughter” because it’s a custom, live inside the house with the person who has killed their daughter.

The hate they would feel all their life I think is very difficult. And to know them and to see that everyday has been a struggle for me in the forgiveness process. But I have to keep going.

The fight continues

For me it’s compulsion. I still live in two worlds. I have my home in the mountains, and I have my home in Karachi. When you live inside mountains and places where women are suffering domestic violence and inequality, anyone would’ve done what I’ve done. I still go and sit with my cousins who are making embroidery and I know about their lives and the women’s lives in my community. I still feel there’s a long way to go.

Remembering the person who I started this whole thing for, my friend when I was 16, I feel like if we reach one million women then maybe I’ll feel like I did something for her. Because my limited ability, the helplessness I felt at the time makes me feel so guilty. It’s something I will never get rid of.

Recently I went to visit one of the centers. Someone was like you have to meet Zeena, she’s amazing. When I went to meet Zeena, she said come sit beside me. I sat beside her. She took my pen and the paper I’d had in my hand, and she started writing her name on it, pronouncing it with her whole heart and spirit. Zeeeee Naaaa. She had this beautiful smile on her face and I couldn’t stop crying.

That’s the reason I’m working. I go on and on because I know how proud she felt, seeing her name emerge on that page.

To learn more or get involved, follow Sughar Women Program on Facebook and Twitter

Khalida is graduate of The Unreasonable Institute, an accelerator program that strives to get entrepreneurs who are solving social and environmental problems the resources they need to scale their businesses and impact.



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