Whether rapping in a recording studio or singing in a sweat lodge, participants of Street Poets embrace the truth that, buried in our bones, there are ancient solutions to our most intractable modern problems.
Here in our feature “Grateful Changemakers,” we celebrate programs and projects that serve as beacons of gratefulness. These efforts elevate the values of grateful living and illuminate their potential to transform both individuals and communities. Join us in appreciating the inspiring and catalyzing contribution these Changemakers offer to shaping a more grateful world.
Street Poets Inc. harnesses the healing power of poetry and music to build community and inspire youth to write, rap and dream a new world into being – one rhyme at a time. Over the past 20+ years, Street Poets’ outreach has extended from prison cells to public school classrooms, from inner-city projects to Indian reservations, from L.A. street corners to countries like Belize, Sweden, Northern Ireland, Finland, Kenya and South Africa.
Whether rapping in a recording studio or singing in a sweat lodge, participants of Street Poets embrace the truth that, buried in our bones, there are ancient solutions to our most intractable modern problems. Our ultimate mission is to liberate those solutions, that medicine, our gifts – so that we all can experience together what it feels like to be free.
What sparked the founding/creation of Street Poets?
In 1995, our founder Chris Henrikson, then a 27-year-old screenwriter who had just sold his screenplay/soul to the Hollywood studio system, began volunteer-teaching a weekly poetry writing workshop in a Los Angeles County juvenile probation camp for boys. That experience helped him remember the healing power of writing, while, ironically, providing him with his first real sense of home here in Los Angeles.
He kept in touch with many of his students after they were released back into the community, but soon realized that they needed some place to go to continue the creative healing work they’d begun beyond the gangs and streets that once tried to claim them as their own.
In 1997, six formerly incarcerated alumni of that first writing workshop formed a poetry performance group called Street Poets under Chris’ direction, and began touring schools, Churches, and community centers throughout LA. Soon thereafter, Chris stepped away from his screenwriting career to dedicate himself full-time to the launch of Street Poets Inc. as a non-profit organization serving youth and young adults transitioning out of the juvenile justice system.
How does the organization address a shared need (for a certain population, society, etc.)? How is the project responding to the shared moment at hand (given the global pandemic, the reckoning with racism in the US, the climate crisis, etc.)?
While Street Poets initially was created to address the immediate needs for safety, wellness, creative space, community, and employment opportunities shared by gang-involved youth re-entering society from juvenile halls and probation camps, it has evolved today into a highly collaborative poetry and music-based healing and community-building organization serving youth from elementary school through young adulthood, and communities from South LA to the San Carlos Apache Reservation in Arizona.
While our direct access to youth in our school, probation, and community programs have been impacted by the COVID-19 and social distancing protocols, we’ve been able to pivot our core writing and music production workshops, as well as our Seeking Peace poetry and meditation onto virtual platforms with surprisingly powerful results.
On the justice front, in some ways it feels like we’ve been preparing for this moment in history for years. We’ve always recognized that our personal wounds connect us to broader and deeper familial, community, and cultural wounds with ancestral dimensions. We also operate with the knowledge that our wounds can be seen as gateways to our gifts, to the healing medicine we were born to bring into the world, and to a deeper sense of purpose. This hard-won wisdom informs the depth of the creative spaces into which we invite our youth, and it has inspired many other organizations to reach out to us for guidance, collaboration, and workshop facilitation services in these challenging times.
How do you see the organization as being related to grateful living – a way of life that invites us to take nothing for granted, cultivating awareness of and appreciation for the fullness of our lives?
Street Poets wouldn’t be here if not for the courageous youth that helped to inspire its creation, and who breathe new life into our community every day through their poetry and music, their laughter and their tears. We have a deep practice of thanking those who’ve shed tears in our circle because we recognize that those tears are a blessing, watering the soil of the community garden we share, or as one of our old Street Poets likes to say, “We see tears as holy water at Street Poets.”
We also understand, as one of our ancestor poets Kahlil Gibran said, “The deeper that sorrow carves into our being, the more joy it can contain.” We are deeply grateful for the many traditional elders from West Africa, Peru, and Native-American communities who have shared their wisdom with our staff and youth and alumni over the years. We’ve taken what we’ve learned from them and applied it to our creative practices and community-building work. Our roots have been well-watered, as a result.
We understand the intimate relationship between our own true nature and the natural world, and we use the practices of poetry writing and music making to open those channels wider. Our collaborative partnership with Wolf Connection, a wolf sanctuary one hour from downtown LA, is a manifestation of our shared reverence and gratitude for nature.
How does Street Poets inspire an ethic of humanity?
Everything we do is infused with the values of love, kindness, and compassion. At the core of our work and methodology is the practice of listening from the heart, to each other and to even the most timid voices within ourselves. We know from experience that it is the depth and quality of the presence we offer our youth that creates the space for healing and courageous acts of creativity and self-expression. We do our best to lead by example, to show rather than just tell what it means to act from a place of love, kindness, and compassion.
What inspires people to participate in Street Poets? How do you establish meaningful relationships with participants and partners?
Youth and young adults are drawn to Street Poets from many different directions and angles, through our middle and high school writing programs, our probation programs, our recording studio program (and the 10+ albums it has birthed over the years), our community open-mic events, and our Poetry in Motion van offering pop-up Street Poets performances and open-mics in parks and projects throughout the city. We also draw youth and young adults to and from many of our collaborating partner organizations including but not limited to: Youth Mentoring Connection, Wolf Connection, the Anti-Recidivism Coalition, Rhythm Arts Alliance and the Arts for Healing & Justice Network.
The beating heart of our community-building efforts is our Seeking Peace Poetry & Meditation Circle that serves our youth, alumni, associates, staff, and others from LA (and now that we’re operating on a virtual Zoom platform, from beyond as well). For example, one of the original six members of our Street Poets performance group in the late 90s recently reconnected with that circle from Mexico (he was deported 17 years ago). He and occasionally his two young daughters have been regulars in that circle for the past 3 months. Thanks to this new format, we’ve been able to reconnect with former students and others with whom we’ve worked nationally (San Carlos Apache and Navajo Reservations in AZ) and internationally (Belize, Sweden, Kenya) over the years.
What are the ripple effects, the lasting impacts? How does the healing power of poetry and music ultimately save lives, create community, and transform culture?
The most tangible and dramatic ripple effect of our work is the fact that we’ve been blessed to witness many of our former students, including some former gang members, raise healthy children of their own within and around our community over the past 25 years. One of our original six Street Poets now serves on the board of Street Poets. Two other veteran Street Poets, both of whom were undocumented, one of whom was an incarcerated gang member as a youth, have become American citizens over the past four months. Another formerly incarcerated individual in our community now runs our recording studio program at Street Poets and has a 2-year-old daughter with a female mc/poet he met in our community. The fabric of our community is woven with stories like these, and the poems that reflect those stories.
What are some of the obstacles that arise as part of the organization’s programming? How are they addressed?
Most of our youth and their families struggle daily with the systemic effects of poverty and injustice in their lives. Our work is to hold the tension between creating deep healing spaces for youth to find their voices, to share their stories and to heal themselves, while also firing the Movement to make change in systems that desperately need to be changed. There are moments when those intentions can feel at odds with each other, but we’ve come to understand that grief and anger are often intimately connected to each other.
Through our creative healing practices, we work to awaken and inspire a new generation of young visionaries capable of engaging in the kind of sustained activism and wild imagining that will be necessary to both de-construct and re-imagine our world. It’s a big job with both creative and destructive elements to it. Lately we’ve been finding ourselves calling on mythology to find archetypes and examples, like the Hindu deity Shiva for example, that symbolize the intimate relationship between creative and destructive forces.
How does gratefulness inspire you to make change in the world?
In addition to countless inspiring, transcendent moments, we’ve also experienced tragedies in our community over the years. We’ve lost youth we love to gang violence, to a police shooting, and to suicide. We don’t take anything for granted at Street Poets because we know how precious and fragile life can be. Gratitude for the gift of life is at the heart of our work and our community. As poets, writers, and rappers, we talk a lot about flow, the creative flow into which we tap when inspiration happens and words move through us. There is something miraculous about experiencing the creative process in action that has a sacred otherworldly quality that often elicits a sense of awe in our workshops and circles. In our community, we try not to name the source of that flow, but we are eternally grateful for it.
How does Street Poets plan to grow?
We are focused on broadening our reach beyond LA and amplifying our work, our creative community practices out into the world. We have an expansive vision for a program we’re calling the “Purple Mountain Initiative” designed to link youth in urban areas with youth in rural communities in a creative cultural exchange, as a way of re-connecting our increasingly polarized nation, and re-weaving a sense of common identity and shared values. This vision has emerged from the work we’ve been privileged to do with youth on the Navajo and San Carlos Apache Reservation as well as in the economically depressed (predominantly white) mining town of Miami, Arizona. We envision the future of this program as a hybrid of live in-person and virtual outreach that links Los Angeles with these and other remote communities.
If you could encapsulate one message for people who participate in Street Poets’ projects and programming, what would that be?
The world needs your voice, your story, your medicine, now more than ever. Write now!
If you could share one message about gratefulness, what would it be?
No healing, no creative practice, no authentic community, no truly transformational social change movement is sustainable without a pervasive spirit of gratefulness. Gratitude is the life-blood of community.
To learn more about Street Poets, visit the website: streetpoetsinc.com
To learn about other Grateful Changemakers, visit: Grateful Changemakers
Do you know of a project/program that elevates the values of grateful living? If so, we invite you to nominate them for our Grateful Changemaker article series.