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Street Poets: A Transformative Approach To Healing L.A.’s Youth

Christine Ann Walsvick |
February 13, 2014 | 9:11 p.m. PST


Community members at Seeking Peace meditation workshop 2/11
Community members at Seeking Peace meditation workshop 2/11

Chris Henrikson's poetry performance group of six at-risk young adults has expanded to include a recording studio, weekly healing workshops and themed monthly open mic nights. 

Street Poets is a non-profit organization that works with youth and adults who are confronting deep trauma—including drug addiction, gang violence, crime, bullying, loss of loved ones, domestic violence, poverty and sexual abuse.  

Located in Mid City, Los Angeles, the Street Poets office functions as a safe space for community members. It is here that participants delve into a dark space of repressed thought and rediscover the sound of their true voices.   

Henrikson founded the organization as a writer's blocked Hollywood screenwriter in 1995 when he volunteered as a teacher for poetry writing workshops at Camp Fred Miller, a Los Angeles juvenile probation camp. It was here in 1996 that Henrikson met sixteen-year-old Taylor Maxie. In this time Maxie was drug addicted, involved in a gang, and on probation. Fast-forward nineteen years, and Maxie is Street Poets’ Outreach Coordinator. He co-facilitates poetry workshops at youth probation camps, performs for youth, and works with internal data. 

READ MORE: Maya Angelou At USC:Listen To The Poetry

“There was a part of me yearning to drop the mask and be human,” said Maxie, reimagining his original involvement with Henrikson’s workshops. Maxie spoke of his own deep trauma, including the struggle of non-acceptance and being bullied. His early lyrics glorified a gangster lifestyle similar to other popular music. Over time, however, Maxie was able to tap into deeper consciousness. 

 “I was still writing the street stuff, but every once in a while something a little more deep would come out,” he explained. 

Henrikson works with kids like Maxie as a mentor within a culture that has forgotten how to communicate with its youth.

“That kid might not be able to cry yet,” Henrikson said. “Allowing yourself to let the tears roll is like mirroring for them… allowing yourself to be touched is everything.” 

With time, Maxie was able to finally put his trauma on paper. “I felt lighter - physically!" beamed Maxie. "That process allowed memories from my childhood that actually weren’t so bad to come up.” 

Up until that point, Maxie had carried around a lot of shame. “I realized I didn’t want somebody else to tell me I was good person. I wanted myself to tell me I was a good person.”

READ MORE: Get Lit: Inspiring Youth Through Poetry

Street Poets was founded around the belief that an improved society would be a natural result of more people being true to themselves and what they feel. 

“When you go through life holding in a lot of pain, you’re stunting an important part of your emotional growth; you’re out of balance," said Maxie. "Be who you are. Don’t keep it in. Express yourself."

Street Poets' weekly meditation workshop Seeking Peace encourages just that. At this ritualistic gathering, group members welcome one another, engage in deep breathing, actively work on being present, free write and share their writing in a circle. No subject is barred. 

 “If something deeper needs to happen, it can. If people go there, we acknowledge it, and we speak to it in ways that feel natural," said Maxie. "We make a point of thanking people for allowing themselves to feel.” 

The Seeking Peace workshop encourages people to share what is on their minds in an environment of mutual respect and support. These workshops are open to the public every Tuesday from 4-6 PM and are attended by approximately 15-25 people each week—new members welcome.

“If you don’t try anything new, you’re destined to repeat the past,” said Maxi. 

Ideas for the continued development of Street Poets' collective vision include a theatre space built into an office, attaining land as a home for their work, performances based out of their brand new Poetry Emotion Van, consulting work on the Apache and Navajo reservations and continued collaboration with drumming groups. 

The organization's highly welcoming atmosphere allows participants to feel secure as they practice laughing, crying, sharing their story, and listening to the experiences of others. Informed by indigenous American and African tradition, Street Poets' creative approach to healing enriches Los Angeles's culture. 

Contact Contributor Christine Walsvick here



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