interview: Chris Henrikson
Founder and Co-Executive Director, Street Poets Inc. / United States
Chris Henrikson is a writer who, after leading a poetry writing workshop in a juvenile detention camp in 1995, was inspired to start a nonprofit organization that helps at-risk youth channel their feelings and creative energy into performance poetry.
Street Poets is a non-profit poetry-based violence intervention and community-building organization. Our mission is threefold:
- TO INSPIRE at-risk youth in the juvenile detention facilities, schools and streets of Los Angeles to discover and develop their voices as writers, artists and human beings.
- TO EMPOWER these young people to use the skills and increased self-awareness engendered through the arts to transcend self-destructive lifestyles.
- TO CREATE a healing community that unites different racial, ethnic and socioeconomic segments of our city around the transformational power of the creative process.
I started facilitating a poetry writing workshop in a Los Angeles juvenile detention camp for boys back in 1995 as a volunteer through the Writers Guild of America. What I witnessed and experienced in that workshop radically altered my life. I saw boys, gang kids mostly, facing fears, shedding tears and giving voice to deep childhood wounds. It was as if they had been waiting for someone to come sit and listen to their stories with an open heart. So that’s what I did for the first couple of years. I listened deeply to the rage, the fear, the confusion and the sadness as it surfaced through all those layers of protection they’d built up over the years. In the process, I learned how to ask good questions – the kind that open doors in people. I gave my students pencils and empty notebooks, and encouraged them to write from their hearts. I challenged them to be as real as they could be — and they just kept rising to that challenge. So I, in turn, felt challenged to create some kind of healing community beyond the barbed wire fence to which they could stay connected when they got released. In the early years (starting in 1997), we partnered with a great New York City-based arts education organization called DreamYard. Then, as we evolved, it made more sense for us to separate and establish our own independent non-profit out here in California.
No, I’ve always been a writer. After college, I worked as an arts journalist in New York and I was in the midst of a career crisis as a screenwriter when I first started volunteering in the detention camp. I’d sold an original screenplay I’d written to a Hollywood producer and then got paid very well to destroy it. That experience completely screwed up my creative process. I’d sold out my own voice – and my voice wasn’t happy about it. Suddenly, when I sat down to write, nothing came through. It was like someone had shut off the water to my pipes. The joy of writing was the one thing I’d always taken for granted in my life, so that feeling really scared the hell out of me. I felt like I’d betrayed myself — which as it turned out, was a feeling that most kids in juvenile detention camp also carry on some level. Ultimately, helping them to reconnect to their authentic voices helped me to do the same. In the process, this creative mentoring work became a calling for me. I left the screenwriting behind and leapt into the non-profit universe full-time after a couple of years.
It helps restore balance to a consumer culture and economic system that is, by nature, designed to throw us off-balance. Without the work of those in the non-profit sector, our society, our world, would careen into chaos.
Our annual operating budget is approximately $375,000. With more funds, we would be able to share more of what we’ve learned over the past 13 years with other organizations and communities beyond Los Angeles. We know what works and we know how to bring inspiration and a certain creative healing spirit into play in support of violence intervention and community-building efforts. I’m interested in helping to reform the system and to empower other non-profits to reach more of those kids some mistakenly believe are unreachable. Our greatest strength as an organization is our ability to engage our society’s most wounded and wounding young people and to create the kind of community that is capable of recognizing their gifts and welcoming them home. We can’t be everywhere at once, but we can find creative ways to share what we know.
The modern “gang epidemic” originated in Los Angeles -- and I believe ultimately that the antidote is going to come from here as well. Right now, we’re trying to find new ways to amplify and disseminate the medicine we’ve discovered – while encouraging the entertainment industry and media to stop amplifying and disseminating the disease.
Sometimes it can be challenging to explain the nature and depth of the work that we do. People tend to latch onto our poetry writing workshops and assume we’re a literacy program providing “arts enrichment” to juvenile detention camps and underserved schools – and we are, on one level. But we don’t do what we do just so juvenile offenders, gang kids and pregnant teens can write better poetry. We use poetry as a means of helping young people to tell their own stories, to give voice to their wounds, to heal and transform their lives. And we do this work not just for them, but for us, for all of us — because our culture desperately needs the gifts and medicine these young people carry. Their poems, in turn, can help remind us of our own wounds, both personal and cultural, that may not be as close to the surface but are equally in need of attention. This is how our society’s “problem children” can become the solution to its problems, and how cultural transformation begins. I teach poetry to our most wounded and wounding young people because they are carrying the kind of big medicine that can change the world.
I see a Poetry Dome, a cultural center and performance venue in the heart of LA dedicated to poetry and the transformational power of the creative process. It would be a place where old ways (ancient wisdom and ritual including poetry and the spoken-word) and new technology (recording studio, video streaming & webcasts) merge in service to personal and cultural change. A green building — with a roof garden!
Orbiting around this center, I see a fleet of tricked-out Peace-maker vans — mobile poetry units with the capacity to broadcast live poetry performances from outside a school or from a street corner where someone was killed — in order to bring poetic medicine directly to the streets, to the corners and blocks where healing is needed. I’m imagining Street Poets road trips too, where we take these vans on the road throughout California and the US.
I also see a retreat center/satellite site up in the mountains outside the city — a space where urban youth and young adults can re-connect with the elements, with the natural world. This is essential for the restoration of balance within a person, and within our culture as a whole.
II’d say creating an organizational culture that inspires, supports and celebrates personal growth in everyone who comes in contact with it. The metaphor that comes to mind is that of a river … I like to think of our organization as a channel through which people, young and old, can choose to shoot the rapids of their own lives and come out the other side in a different place, more grounded in their own gifts, power and purpose. Street Poets is a community in which that kind of deep personal work can be done. There are a number of our workshop alumni who have said over the years that they don’t think they would still be alive if it weren’t for Street Poets. If that is true for even one of those young people, I’d say that’s our biggest accomplishment.
Is this a trick question? The media feeds off of fear and stories that inspire fear in others — because, as they will be quick to tell you, that’s what sells. They glorify the disease we’re working to cure. They stoke the flames we’re working to cool. But we can’t wait for significant cultural change to happen on the level of the media, or for that matter, on the political level. Media people and politicians are, by nature, reactionaries. They respond to their audience and constituents. They reflect us. In my opinion, real change is going to come from the ground up, from people grounded in their power who have access to ways of knowing that transcend televisions and computers. That said, I think the internet and new media technologies ultimately will play an important role in connecting our world’s authentic leaders and true agents of change with those who may still be struggling to find themselves in the face of all this media-fed fear.
- Street Poets was hired recently by School Specialty Inc. to design the original content for a new breed of student planner scheduled to be distributed to schools throughout North America in the fall of 2010. The “UGO Planner” features original poetry, ancient wisdom and pieces of our Street Poets methodology informed by our many years spent reaching L.A.’s most “unreachable” kids.
- Street Poets first two hip-hop/spoken-word CDs, “Witness” and “Smoke Signals,” can be purchased for $10 each at cdbaby.com and they’re now available on iTunes as well!!! Definitely worth checking out …
- We use the ritual of poetry to help our youth and young adults tell their stories, and then when they’re ready, we use community rituals to help them shed those stories and clear the way for continued growth.
We’re often looking for internships and job opportunities for our youth and young adults – so leads on that front are always welcome. And of course, we are looking for fundraisers and people who are interested in helping keep our doors open and our workshops working. As with many non-profits, it is a challenging time for us on that front. We are actively looking to broaden and diversify our base of support, and to welcome those supporters into our creative community. If you’re interested in learning more about Street Poets, visit our website or, even better, drop in for our Seeking Peace poetry & meditation workshop on Tuesdays 4-6pm, or check out our next community open-mic event.
Ultimately, we hope people will get inspired by what we’re doing locally in LA and apply some of what we’ve learned to their own organizations, cities and communities. The intimate nature of the creative healing work we do demands that we maintain our organization at a manageable size. We still have room to grow, but we’re not looking to become the next United Way. We want to inspire people to create and nurture their own healing communities in their own backyards.
We’ve been blessed to receive very generous general operating support from the Annenberg Foundation from the beginning — it has helped to fund everything from our recording studio, to our juvenile detention camp poetry workshops, to our after-school poetry workshops, to our Street Poets violence intervention-themed outreach performances, to our community-wide open-mic events to the hot tub in my backyard (just kidding). In fact, it was the Annenberg Foundation that encouraged us to separate from our original non-profit partner, DreamYard, and establish our own independent California non-profit. They supported both of our organizations, but recognized that we were evolving in different ways, and encouraged us to embrace that evolution.
The Annenberg Foundation has had a huge impact on our organization. They were the first foundation to give us a multi-year grant — which helped legitimize us in the eyes of other foundations and supporters. It takes years of experience to develop true expertise in any field. In some ways, I feel like we’ve just recently accessed a whole other level of doing this work — and I’m not sure we could have gotten there without the support we’ve received from the Annenberg Foundation. We are extremely grateful for their faith in us and our work.
How quickly they grasped the depth of our work and the spirit of our organization and how easy it was to have their cameras around. Especially given the intimate nature of the work we do, we were somewhat apprehensive about inviting a camera into the mix, but ultimately I think it turned out to be an empowering experience for everyone.
The individual who comes to mind first is the playwright Sam Shepard. I have no idea what he is like as a person, but his plays had a profound impact on me as a young writer. They cleared the way for my own voice to emerge. Actually, upon reflection, it was my high school writing teacher Rick Hardy (who introduced me to Shepard’s plays) who was my real inspirational figure. He was a powerfully affirming presence at a pivotal time in my life. He saw me — really saw me — and let me know that I’d been seen. Ultimately, I think this is what every young person is looking for … somebody to recognize their gifts, their uniqueness. It’s a simple thing, really.
Let’s see. I have great love and respect for diviner/elder/author Malidoma Some (one of my mentors), mythologist/storyteller Michael Meade, poet/author/activist Luis J. Rodriguez, Orland Bishop of ShadeTree Mentoring, and Tony LoRe of Youth Mentoring Connection here in LA, to name a few. I am grateful to Alberto Villoldo for his vision to build a bridge between the medicine people of the high Andes and the West, and, thanks to that bridge, I’ve been blessed to meet and learn from Q’ero elders Don Humberto, Don Francisco, Dona Bernadina … all of whom exude a powerfully expansive love that the Q’ero call “munay.” I admire people with big powerful hearts, and men who can cry easily.
I wouldn’t say I’m a “selfless person.” Every big decision I’ve made over the past 15 years hasn’t really felt like a decision at all. I didn’t feel like I had a choice. I just followed my gut. I did what felt right to me and for me — on a gut level. The great benefit of that approach is that I now truly feel like I am in the process of doing what I was put on this earth to do. I know that my work will continue to evolve, but I also know that I’m on the right path. There is a strange combination of peace and urgency that comes with that realization. I think there is some truth to the idea that when you heal yourself, you heal the world — so maybe one can be selfless and selfish at the same time. In any case, I think it is important to figure out what it is you were born to do, to remember what medicine you were born to deliver to this world … and then to act on that knowledge. When a person does that, we all benefit.
I would eliminate guns and all weapons of mass destruction.
I’d say our biggest challenge is overcoming our fears in order to heal our selves and the world. Fear lies at the root of all of our biggest problems. Our violence, terrorism, militarism, fundamentalism, addictions, and mindless consumerism are all fueled by fear. Fear of our own wounds. Our personal wounds. Our cultural wounds. In a sense, America is very similar to the gang kids with whom we work on a daily basis. When we’re afraid to face our own wounds, we tend to project them out onto the world around us. The gaping cultural wounds around slavery and the persecution of Native Americans in our country are two biggies that have not been addressed in any meaningful way. I’m not talking about reparations per say. I’m talking about real honest soul-searching cultural dialogue. It’s not just the black, red, yellow and brown people who need healing, it’s the white people too. When we ignore those wounds, we are more likely to find ourselves shooting at enemies and dropping bombs on faraway places.
Environmental change, dwindling natural resources and the migration that those changes inspire.
I look forward to spending some quality time in the high Andes of Peru, and in Burkina Faso. For the past few years I’ve been engaged in the intensive study and practice of the indigenous healing traditions of both Peru and West Africa — and I anticipate continuing to deepen that exploration and work. It has radically expanded my conception of what is possible, and rapidly accelerated my own growth.
Commitment to change. Moving boldly in the direction of one’s fears. Ritual. Sitting together in front of a fire instead of watching TV. Sharing love and a passion for life with others...
- Charles Annenberg Weingarten
- Mark Marble
- Kaliko Amona
- Juliano Mer Khamis
- Ken Balcomb
- Sangeeta J.K.
- Craig Sholley
- Prabhavati Dwabha
- Pujya Swami Chidanand Saraswati
- Dr. Chinny Krishna
- Jo-Anne Dixon
- Wen Bo
- Mrs. Triveni Balkrishna Acharya
- Dr. Richard Taylor
- Tom Iselin
- Denise Herzing
- Emilia Casella
- Oren Yakobovich
- Dr. Suniti Solomon
- Blake McElheny
- Honoré Gatera
- Madeline Bernstein
- Rabbi Yehoshua Engelman
- Art Smith
- Chris Henrikson