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How Two Social Innovation Interns Made Their Mark at Freedom Reads, a Startup Nonprofit

two female student hugging

Earlier this year, Meara Brown (YC ’25) saw a link in the Class of ’25 group chat that caught her attention: a social innovation internship focused on literature in prisons. She says, “My father is incarcerated, and I've had other family members spend time in prison. I also really enjoy books.” She eagerly filled out the application.

Meanwhile, her classmate, Ana Paula Padilla Castellanos (YC ’25), heard about the internship through the Yale Undergraduate Prison Project’s newsletter. Castellanos is a comparative literature major who had been looking for a way to support justice-impacted people. In both cases, the undergrads’ passion caught the organizers’ attention.

The social innovation internships began in 2016 and are organized by Tsai CITY and funded by the Yale Club of New Haven. Christina Coffin (YC ’74), the Yale Club of New Haven’s Vice President, has been involved since the beginning. She says, “Our history and mission had always been to support the social services and nonprofits, and this combined that with innovation, not so much just pure entrepreneurial startups, but recognizing innovation in the social services space.”

That aligns with Tsai CITY’s mission to provide practice-based opportunities for students to think innovatively about solving real-world problems that are important to them. People sometimes assume this refers only to building and launching for-profit startups, but Tsai CITY also encourages students to use innovative thinking to make an impact in the social sphere.

Each year, the Yale Club and Tsai CITY select a nonprofit in the community that is doing innovative work. This year, they collaborated with Freedom Reads, a New Haven-based nonprofit that opens 500-book libraries in prison housing units. The organization was founded in 2020 by Reginald Dwayne Betts (YLS '16), a poet, lawyer and ‘21 MacArthur Fellow.

Zino Adjroud, Innovation Fellow at Tsai CITY, helped to coordinate this year’s social innovation internships. He had seen Betts’ solo show, Felon: An American Washi Tale, about discovering poetry while in solitary confinement — and he knew that Yale students were interested in justice system reform.

When Adjroud looked into Freedom Reads, he discovered the organization’s work is especially relevant to the local community. Out of all the Connecticut counties, New Haven County has the highest rate of residents incarcerated in Connecticut state prisons. He says, “This is an organization that is trying to change the system itself from within and is approaching it from a really unique vantage point.”

To Coffin, the organization felt like the right choice as the Yale Club and Tsai CITY’s partner for this year’s internship. She says, “In a lot of ways, Freedom Reads is the perfect example of what we would want to be doing in the community. It's a national organization that is having a lot of impact both in New Haven County and also the state of Connecticut.”

Clare Leinweber, Executive Director, Tsai CITY, agrees. “Freedom Reads, which is a nonprofit and also a local startup founded by a Yale alum, provided the perfect opportunity for two Yale College interns to explore a Tsai CITY pathway we call ‘civic innovator.’” Students who follow this pathway take their entrepreneurial mindsets into new and existing organizations that advocate for and provide solutions to improve the lives of people and the planet. Tsai CITY’s civic innovators make an impact at nonprofits, governmental and non-governmental organizations, public health initiatives, social and racial justice organizations, and through community activism.

Bringing a Vision to Life in New Haven

Betts, Freedom Reads’ founder, is passionate about education. After spending his early years in prison, he pursued a law degree because “so many people are incarcerated, and the law degree becomes a pathway to freedom.” While at Yale, he says, “I was challenged in ways that I didn't expect to be challenged.” He was able to explore what it meant to be a student, a father, and a member of the community.

From the beginning, New Haven felt like the right place to start the organization. “The dream is a Freedom Library in every housing unit in America, a Freedom Library everywhere that is needed, and to make the concept of a Freedom Library as well known as the understanding of the kind of depravity and ruin that happens in prisons.”

Internships with an Impact

While working with Freedom Reads, the students learned not only about the organization’s vision and mission but also about the leadership and operations of a nonprofit startup.

One of the interns, Padilla Castellanos, grew up in New Haven. She was pleased to discover that such important work was being done so close to where she lives. She says, “It was very exciting to get to stay near home, but still do work that was so far reaching.”

For Brown, staying in New Haven for the summer was an opportunity to see outside the “Yale bubble” and get a deeper understanding of the city.

On their second day at Freedom Reads, they were tasked with opening letters from inmates, and they saw how much the organization’s work means to people in prison. Padilla Castellanos says, “It set the tone for so much of the internship.”

It’s Freedom Reads’ policy that every letter gets a response, and everyone who works with the organization is asked to answer a letter from a person in prison. Steven Parkhurst, Program Coordinator, encouraged the interns to participate, and says, “It was very exciting to watch them very mindfully, thoughtfully handle a letter from somebody incarcerated — open that letter, read that letter, and respond to that letter.”

When Padilla Castellanos saw her letter printed out on Freedom Reads’ letterhead, she says, “It was this moment of knowing that this is something that's going to go into a prison into the hands of someone. That was really impactful.”

Throughout the summer, Padilla Castellanos and Brown conducted independent research into Department of Corrections policies in Freedom Reads’ partner states and states they hope to partner with soon. They completed a massive amount of work involving data collection, data synthesis, geographic mapping, and project documentation, with the overarching goal of expanding the organization’s impact.

Brown says, “Essentially, we researched prisons, or the carceral system, in our choice of states.” Much of the data came from reports mandated by the Prison Rape Elimination Act. Because there was no comprehensive data available online, they compiled information on prison history, geography, and architecture from multiple sources to create graphs, interactive maps, and a narrative report.

The interns’ efforts had immediate value to the organization’s staff. Claire Elliman (YC ’20), Freedom Reads’ Program Manager and intern supervisor, says, “They were combing through reports on different prisons to find information that's not easily provable, and then we'd be on calls with the same prison and be able to have some really necessary context to get the work done.”

At the conclusion of the internship, Brown and Padilla Castellanos held a presentation to share their findings. “I was both impressed and moved by Ana and Meara’s presentation of their work at the end of the internship. It revealed the depth of their understanding of the Freedom Reads mission to ‘use literature to empower people to confront what prison does to the spirit,’” says Leinweber.  

In addition to discussing the data, the students reflected on how the research had shifted their understanding of things like humanity and empathy. For example, they began their internships under the impression that prisons “dehumanize” people. Through conversations with Betts, they came to understand that nobody can be “dehumanized” — even people in prison are fully human, and they benefit from access to literature. That made an impact on Brown, who says, “You cannot strip someone of their humanity, but because you think that you've accomplished that, what does that say about you?”

Handling Sensitive Subject Matter

The social innovation interns tackled tough topics on a daily basis. Adjroud, who has a background in policy research, says, “I understand what it's like to be immersed in a challenging issue and how that can impact one’s mental health, so I wanted to make sure that the students were provided with the resources that they needed throughout.” He arranged regular check-ins with them to create space for reflection.

The Freedom Reads’ staff had similar concerns. “They came in excited, with no hesitation to dive into things that you’re not really sure if people want to dive into,” recalls Parkhurst. He and Elliman encouraged Brown and Padilla Castellanos to speak up if they had anything they wanted help processing. Elliman says, “One of the things that I so admired about both of them is that they really took us up on that. They didn't hesitate to ask questions and mention when they wanted to talk things through.”

The interns’ willingness to face heavy issues and work closely with the Freedom Reads’ team was mutually beneficial. Parkhurst explains, “They got the best of Claire's life experience at Yale and also my experience with being formerly incarcerated and being able to ask both of us questions in line with their internship and their personal experiences at Yale.”  At the same time, he says, “They brought this enthusiasm that got me excited every day to come to work.”

Everyone involved — from Tsai CITY, the Yale Club of New Haven, and Freedom Reads — considers the social innovation internships a resounding success. And the interns themselves? Well, Brown calls her internship “life-changing,” and Padilla Castellanos says she’s “insanely grateful” for the experience. 

The social innovation internships are open to Yale College students and occur every summer. Stay connected to Tsai CITY’s newsletter to learn when the 2024 applications have opened. 

To learn more about Freedom Reads, click here

To learn more about the Yale Club of New Haven, click here