Free Hearts, founded in 2016, is a Tennessee state-wide organization led by formerly incarcerated women that provides support, education, and advocacy in organizing families impacted by incarceration, with the ultimate goals of reuniting families and keeping families together.
Dawn Harrington, Executive Director, envisioned Free Hearts during her own experience of incarceration when she witnessed firsthand the devastating impact incarceration has on women and their children. After taking time to readjust to life after incarceration, Harrington began seeking out opportunities to connect with others doing work similar to what she had envisioned during her time in jail. She met founding member Alexandra Chambers volunteering at a canvassing event with Ban the Box Nashville, a campaign with the objective of petitioning for a charter referendum to remove the question about criminal conviction history from Metro Nashville government employment applications. Chambers had been volunteering in Tennessee jails and prisons for over a decade and had most recently facilitated a women’s group in the Davidson County Correctional Development Center in Nashville. The two teamed up and brought in Lesley Carter and Aniya Wiley and held subsequent planning sessions throughout 2015, bringing in more women who had direct experience with incarceration. During these beginning stages, we recognized a critical need for building up the leadership of directly impacted women to make central the issues that incarcerated and formerly incarcerated women experience in efforts to end mass incarceration in Tennessee.
In 2016, a small base of primarily formerly incarcerated women officially founded Free Hearts. Our primary goals involve: (1.) building up the leadership of incarcerated and formerly incarcerated women, (2.) reuniting families torn apart by incarceration, and (3.) keeping families together by fighting to end mass incarceration through support, education, advocacy, and grassroots organizing.
Support: We provide support through support groups and wraparound services for women and children impacted by incarceration. We have support groups in schools for children whose parents are incarcerated or deported, in the juvenile facility for girls, and in the jail and prison for women.
Education: We teach evidence-based curriculum to improve outcomes for women and children Our 3 classes currently offered are parenting, anger management, and cognitive behavioral therapy and we teach the classes in the community as well as in correctional facilities.
Advocacy: We advocate with families impacted by incarceration as individuals and through public policy. We are the Nashville Hub of the National Participatory Defense Movement, shifting the power in the court system and making sure our loved ones have “time saved” instead of “time served.” Knoxville, TN also has a Participatory Defense hub, Community Defense of East TN. We advocate for policies that impact ourselves, our families, and our community. In January 2018, we were able to get in person visitation restored at CoreCivic in Nashville, along with No Exceptions Prison Collective. In April and May of 2018, we organized over 9k claimants for a $14M lawsuit won by Civil Rights Corps against PCC, a private probation company that was criminalizing poverty in Rutherford County. In April of 2019, after a 3 year fight, we were able to get community-based alternatives to incarceration for primary caretakers passed, and the Tennessee law went into effect July 1, 2019. We are the 2nd state in the National Council for Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls to pass the law, and it is pending in 11 other states. Already we know of so many families who were kept together across the state in TN as a result of the passage of that law.
Organizing: In 2020, we launched our inaugural Tennessee Regional Organizing Fellowship, focused on investing in the leadership of formerly incarcerated women across the state in the areas of base-building, political education and leadership development. Some of our grassroots organizing initiatives include The Love and Justice Project, which is a survivor-led initiative of Free Hearts, fighting to end the prosecution and incarceration of survivors of domestic and sexual violence in Nashville and throughout Tennessee. The New Economy of TN Fund is our partnership with Southeast Center for Cooperative Development and Seed Commons, is organizing and providing nonextractive loans to worker-owned and real estate cooperative businesses to build alternatives. Tennessee Organizing for Power Statewide was envisioned when Free Hearts went to train in Memphis on Participatory Defense and had a discussion with Erica Perry on the importance of statewide organizing to build power. Officially started in February of 2019, that powerful vision of a broad statewide coalition is now a reality with organizations and representation from over half the counties in the state, and Free Hearts is a proud member.
Our campaigns are:
Love & Justice Project
Free The Vote
Restore The Vote
Storytelling for Public Policy
We look forward to continuing to fight with our community to make our state more equitable and just for all people, and to bring our loved ones home.
We believe all women can embrace who they are,
can define their future, and can change the world.
Free Hearts is an organization led by formerly incarcerated women that provides support, education, and advocacy in organizing families impacted by incarceration, with the ultimate goals of reuniting families and keeping families together.