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Every month, the Montana Innocence Project highlights the important work of like-minded organizations. This month, we are highlighting Free Verse. Free Verse has the unique mission of empowering incarcerated youth in Montana through art and storytelling. Check out the Q&A with Free Verse Executive Director Nicole Gomez below for more information about their important work.

(Photo courtesy of Nicole Gomez)

What is your organization’s mission?

Free Verse’s mission is to empower youth incarcerated across Montana to gain agency over their own narrative and to discover their capacity for creativity, empathy, and engagement in the classroom through lessons in literature and creative writing. Free Verse also seeks to counter the invisibility and erasure that can come with incarceration by amplifying these voices through the publication and circulation of their artwork, stories, and poetry so that these lesser-heard voices may contribute to and form a part of the state and national conversation.

How does your organization achieve its mission?

Free Verse sends writers, either over Zoom or in-person, to teach hour-long, student-driven workshops in creative writing, songwriting, art and literature in juvenile detention centers, long- and short-term facilities, therapeutic homes, adolescent psychiatric in-patient units and other learning centers in Montana. We send the writing and artwork that the students submit for publication to The Beat Within, a national journal that features work by incarcerated youth, and publish it ourselves in our annual I Am Montana anthology series, the QuaranZine series, and other publications that we make available on Amazon and in bookstores and libraries around Montana. Student work is also featured in exhibits at venues around the state. All of our publications contain a multitude of voices and experiences that reflect on place, home, family, identity, and experiences of incarceration and isolation. Not only do these publications allow our students to publicly reclaim their narratives, get their work circulating in the world and establish themselves as artists–a number of our students have been offered ongoing features in The Beat Within– it also allows for Montanans and beyond to engage with these lesser-heard stories as told by the young people themselves. Through these different avenues, we aim to lift these voices into the Montana narrative and broaden Montana’s literacy legacy to include stories from its most marginalized communities.

Is there anything specific that your organization is working on right now that you would like to highlight?

We are currently gearing up for a winter exhibit at the ZACC which will feature student artwork from the LoLA BIPOC Guest Artist Workshop Series, in addition to other artwork and poetry by our incarcerated students. As is the case with the justice system everywhere, people of color are disproportionately represented in Montana’s jails and prisons and most trauma-informed care guidelines suggest that it’s important for individuals to work with and hear from people who can reflect their experiences back to them. The LoLA BIPOC Guest Artist Workshop Series, funded by the Missoula Community Foundation’s LoLA Grant, allowed us to bring BIPOC artists into the Missoula Juvenile Detention Center and the Pine Hills Youth Correctional Facility to lead virtual workshops on hip-hop songwriting, visual art with pastels, and poetry. The students’ response to these workshops was really great. The beautiful artwork that came out of these workshops will be on display, and the gallery opening event on January 7, 2022 will feature readings and performances by our guest artists of student work. These kids have a lot to say, a lot worth listening to, and it will be a great opportunity for the public to engage with the artwork and poetry created by Montana’s incarcerated youth and to experience and sit with their words and stories. 

A recent Free Verse exhibit (Photo courtesy of Nicole Gomez)

Does your organization have any specific achievements that you would like to highlight?

Free Verse recently held an exhibit called “This Gift I Still Have” which featured student work in the Corr Gallery at the University of Montana Western. This exhibit highlighted student work from the QuaranZine series, which was produced in collaboration with Youth Homes and features poetry and artwork reflecting on life and incarceration in times of a pandemic. The series ran from April 2020 through May 2021 and the zines feature work by youth at Youth Homes and students of Free Verse in the Missoula County Juvenile Detention Center, Billings Juvenile Detention Center, Ted Lechner Youth Services Center, and Pine Hills Youth Correctional Facility. All the QuaranZine publications are available for free download on our website and at the ZACC and bookstores and shops around town, with suggested donation. 

Where can people learn more about your work?

We would love for everyone to follow us on Facebook and Instagram, as well as subscribe to our monthly newsletter that keeps you up to date on what’s happening with Free Verse and the juvenile justice system. Otherwise, head over to freeverseproject.org for more information!

How can people support your work?

The most important way to support our work is by picking up one of our publications or downloading them online and spending time with these young people’s stories. And then pass a publication on to someone else! That is our goal, to get the kids’ words into as many hands as possible. Simply following us on social media and coming to our events is another great way to support us! If you are looking to volunteer, send us an email at freeversewritingproject@gmail.com about yourself and why you want to volunteer. Donations are also always welcome and help us continue to bring creative writing workshops to Montana’s incarcerated young people and to publish their poetry and artwork. 

Is there anything that you would like to add?

If you’re looking to apply to be a teacher, head over to our “Hiring” page for more information. We’d love to hear from you.