Chris Henrikson is the founder of Street Poets, Inc., a non-profit poetry-based violence intervention program for high-risk youth in the juvenile detention camps, continuation schools and streets of Los Angeles County. Henrikson also calls it “a poetry-based peace-making organization,” which uses the creative process as a vehicle for individual and community transformation.
I first learned of Street Poets at a Malidoma Somé ancestor ceremony in Ojai, California, which two young Street Poets also attended. The young people—a heavily tattooed Latino male and a shy, curly-haired female—silenced us all with the power and vulnerability of the original spoken-word poetry they shared.
Henrikson founded Street Poets in 1996. What started out as a writing workshop in a juvenile detention camp grew into a small group of writers and performers; then infiltrated Los Angeles high school classrooms with transformational results. Today, Street Poets sponsors community open mics, operates a recording studio that produces CDs of its performers’ work, publishes compilations of their poetry, and engages young men and women through workshops, drum circles, nature retreats and indigenous ceremonies, outreach to youths on Indian reservations and, most recently, a mobile recording and performance studio called “Poetry in Motion,” created from a converted van.
Street Poets has been featured in Steve Lopez’s column in the Los Angeles Times and on radio stations KPFK and KIIS, and is the recipient of the 2003 John Anson Ford Human Relations Award from the Los Angeles County Commission on Human Relations. The award acknowledges Street Poets as “an exemplary program for youth…that instills inter-group understanding and awareness through artistic expression by exploring their own values, assets and obstacles in order to become agents of change in their communities.” — Leslee Goodman
The MOON: What inspired you to create Street Poets?
Henrikson: Self-preservation, actually. I had come to Los Angeles in the early 1990s to go to film school. I’d sold my first screenplay and for the next few years was paid very well to turn something dear to me into something unrecognizable.
I’d sold out.
As a result, I lost access to the creative side of myself. It was as if someone had turned off the spigot, and I had no flow left. I was unmoored, adrift. I was pretty freaked out by it.
I was living in Los Angeles in the period following the Rodney King unrest. One day I saw a classified ad in the Writers’ Guild magazine for someone to teach creative writing to incarcerated youth. I knew immediately it was what I needed to do. It was as if my soul said, “OK, buddy, here’s a lifeline.”
So I started going out to this juvenile detention camp once a week for two hours at a time. The director had hand-picked six young men who were waiting for me that first day as I walked in. They were so ready for this opportunity some of them even had poetry in hand. They reminded me of myself—of how important writing had been to me as a youth. One of them said, “Where have you been, man?” and I heard his question as the voice of Spirit asking me: Where had I been? It was a damn good question.
I’d been disconnected from myself.
Those two hours every Wednesday became the only portion of the week that I felt truly at home inside myself. The kids demanded a presence from me that nothing else in my life then required. We shared our pain, our tears, our histories, our fears. There was nothing else in my life at that time that involved this profound level of sharing. I began to look for ways that I could expand this quality into more areas of my life.
At the same time, some of the young men in our group were being released—right back into the fire from which they came. I felt a responsibility to keep in touch with them—and pretty soon we had a group of really good writers meeting together “on the outs.” Then the group started performing, and that bonded us together so powerfully that we wanted to keep doing it.
That was how Street Poets started—as six formerly incarcerated youth, and me, their road manager. [Laughs]