Poetry becomes way for incarcerated youth to explore wounds
By Cynthia E. Griffin
OW Staff Writer
Eleven years ago, after living and working a few years in Los Angeles in almost isolation as a New York-transplanted screenwriter Chris Henrikson found himself needing a life-line. So he volunteered for an informal program that the Writer’s Guild of America set up where someone went weekly to Los Angeles County Detention camps and taught a poetry workshop.
It was the first time he felt connected to Los Angeles.
“I looked at these young guys, I and saw myself at that age. I remembered how important it was for me to find my voice as a writer. It gave me a sense of identity and kept me centered in the turbulent teen years,” explained Henrikson, whose first weekly poetry workshop included six young men ages 15 to 18— two African Americans, two Hispanics, one Cambodian youth and one young man he described as a third generation, hard-core Aryan Brotherhood member.
“I was a little nervous and expected to have to do much more of a sales job,” remembers the writer of that first journey. But selling the young men on the idea was not necessary, and in fact he said three already had poems written and ready to share. “One of guys in the first group said to me ‘where’ve you been, I’ve been waiting here six months.’ He was getting out in three weeks,” remembered Henrikson.
From that first informal effort, Henrikson connected with a New York arts-in-the-schools organization to create DreamYard/LA, and after being affiliated with them for nine years, in June will spin-off a separate non-profit organization called Street Poets Inc.
Since its inception, the program, which consist of at least once weekly poetry classes in three different boy’s probation camps and one girl’s continuation school for pregnant and parenting teens in Inglewood called La Vida North, has worked with about 3,000 youth. Now there is a waiting list to get into the poetry groups.
“Basically, we establish in our workshops in an intimate environment where it’s safe to talk about their wounds; what they’ve been through and to give voice to some of the things in the normal run of life, they don’t feel safe giving voice to.”
But he and his teachers do not limit their work with the youth to the time they are incarcerated. “It’s a promise we make. We’ll stay connected to them as long as they want.”
Some of them stay connected through a performance group DreamYard/LA has created called Street Poets, and others participate in various in-school programs the organization operates at John Muir Middle School and the Sheriff’s Leadership Academy in Watts.
A few even go back to the camps as poet/mentors themselves and some participate in the free open mic events the organization hosts. (The next one will be held May 21 at 4 p.m. at the Nate Holden Performing Arts Center). A number of others have also been employed by DreamYard/LA.
But Henrikson is hoping to do much more, and that is one of the reasons he said DreamYard/LA is separating from its New York parent and changing its name.
“We’re talking about opening a cafe/bookstore and are currently looking for a site,” said Henrikson, adding that the non-profit cafe will serve as a employment training ground, a location for their open mic events, and as a place where inspirational, transformational books and similar items will be sold.
They are also going to create a fleet of peacekeeper vans that are stylized and customized and can roll up to schools and areas where there are trouble spots and do open mic/ drum circle type sessions.
The goal, of course, is in keeping with the entire DreamYard mission—giving voice to the voiceless.
For more information about DreamYard, call (323) 737-8545 or visit the Web site www.dreamyardla.org.http://www.ourweekly.com/