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Freethought Books to Prisoners Drive

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This article originally appeared in the SSA eMpirical No. 16 - Student Voice Part II.

The author of this article, Leslie A. Zukor, is a Reed College student who founded the recently renamed Reed Secular Alliance. Formerly known as the Freethinkers, the club has endeavored to collect Freethought books for prisoners, beginning in October of 2005. Zukor currently serves as the club Signator, which is Reed College's equivalent of President.

Reedbook

Reed College's Freethought Books to Prisoners drive, signator Leslie Zukor pictured.


One year ago, I hadn't the slightest clue how to put together a service project. What started off as an earnest desire to inspire inmates soon transformed itself into something that exceeded all expectations. Since freethought literature has matured my worldview, I desired to serve the community through my commitment to free inquiry and humanist principles. Why doesn't our group collect Freethought books for prisoners? I thought to myself, only too aware that the Bush administration was preaching fundamentalism to inmates in the guise of "faith-based" addiction recovery programs.

Before beginning the drive, I emailed prison-donating organizations and received a handful of interested responses. Now that we knew there was support for getting free inquiry books into prison libraries, we began our drive. As club leader, my original goal was to collect 30 books and distribute them evenly among the organizations. While we were initially met with skepticism at Reed College, a handful of club members contributed money or books to our efforts.

As time went by, I decided to market my project on the Internet Infidels Discussion Board (www.IIDB.org, an affiliate of the Secular Web at www.infidels.org). Several users made positive comments, and a handful even sent books our way, including the Secular Web itself, which gave us a boxful of freethinking titles. But even after all of the donations from IIDB, the turning point in our project was a private message from David Mills, author of Atheist Universe. He made a contribution to our project, and our club will forever be grateful for a recommendation of his. "Why don't you email a few authors I know?" Mills asked, and I took him up on the suggestion. The response far exceeded expectations. I would have been happy to have received even a couple of books; however, all of the authors wrote back and contributed multiple copies.

Leslie Invigorated by the response, I took Mills's message a step further. On behalf of our club, I wrote to noted authors in the Freethought Movement. The volume of replies was equally astounding: I had about a 90% success rate. We soon received donations from Paul Kurtz, Richard Carrier, Dan Barker, Michael Shermer, Chris Mooney, Freeman Dyson, and Annie Laurie Gaylor, to name but a few. Among the highlights of our collection are American Infidel: Robert G. Ingersoll, Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism, and Losing Faith in Faith: From Preacher to Atheist. By April of 2006, we were able to collect over 650 items to send to eight prison-donating organizations which span the U.S.

While it would have been sufficient to conduct a Freethought Books to Prisoners Drive for one year, we decided to continue because of the responses from prison-donating organizations. Chicago Books to Women in Prison thanked us for providing addiction-recovery literature without the god element: "Thank you so much for your donation of books," a thank you card began. "In a time when religious (Christian) education is becoming synonymous with rehabilitation, these books provide an alternative perspective and voice for people in prison." Seattle Books to Prisoners was equally thrilled. "Thanks for the great selection of books," a postcard from them read. And "great" was underlined three times.


In the end, our club won the Secular Student Alliance's Best Service Project award for 2006. Greater than that, though, was the satisfaction of promoting critical thinking, science, and compassion among the prison population. As a result of our efforts, prisoners from Seattle, Washington to Boston, Massachusetts are receiving a secular humanist perspective on issues from the existence of god to the morality of capital punishment.

LeslieIn addition to the positive response, we have greatly expanded our efforts. As the drive has progressed, we have continued to expand our definition of what a "freethought book" is. In addition to collecting books specifically related to the Freethought Movement, we have now expanded our drive to include all materials that inspire critical thinking. Since last April, we have acquired over 1,000 new books with secular, progressive and/or educational themes. In short, the Reed Secular Alliance is thrilled to touch the lives of inmates all across America.

To donate to the Freethought Books to Prisoners Drive, please send your materials to Reed Secular Alliance c/o Leslie A. Zukor, Reed College #1170, 3203 SE Woodstock Blvd., Portland, OR 97202. Inquiries about the project can be directed to the Reed Secular Alliance at [email protected].

This article originally appeared in the SSA eMpirical No. 16 - Student Voice Part II.

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