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Daily Inspiration: Meet Chris Henrikson

Today we’d like to introduce you to Chris Henrikson.

Hi Chris, we’d love for you to start by introducing yourself.
I began volunteer teaching a weekly poetry writing workshop at Camp Miller, a Los Angeles County Probation facility for boys, back in 1995. I was a 27-year-old screenwriter at the time, and that 2-hour workshop quickly became the highlight of my week. I kept in touch with many of my former students, and after three years, I realized that they needed some safe place to go where they could continue to grow and write after they got released back into the community. At first, that place was the back deck of my home in Santa Monica where we held open-mics and rehearsals, but, because most of my students lived in South LA or even further away, that wasn’t the most practical location for a drop-in center, so we rented our first office space on an industrial rooftop in downtown LA. Around that time, I made the decision to step away from my screenwriting career and devote myself to working full-time with Street Poets.

We operated under the fiscal umbrella of a New York City-based non-profit organization called DreamYard at first but eventually established our own 501c3 status here in California. I’ve had the privilege of serving as the Executive Director of Street Poets Inc. in the 20+ years since that time. To say that the work has changed my life would be a massive understatement. It has been both profoundly inspiring and heartbreaking – sometimes in the same moment. The youth and young adults I’ve had the joy and privilege of mentoring over the years have taught me how to love more courageously, how to listen with an open heart, how to grieve, how to face my own fears and limitations and ultimately how to dream. They’ve taught me the intimate relationship between humility and humor and how accessing one’s own true nature opens us up to the natural world. I’m 54 years old now, and because of the Street Poets in my life (some of whom are in their 40s now), I’m still learning and growing.

We all face challenges, but looking back would you describe it as a relatively smooth road?
I think the biggest challenge I’ve had to face in this work was the murder of a close mentee of mine on his 19th birthday at a bus stop bench near his home in South LA. Eric Henderson was an absolutely beautiful young man – inside and out. He’d made some huge changes in his life and had begun mentoring a group of 13-year-old boys in Street Poets’ after-school program at a nearby middle school. He was killed by Latino gang members at a time of gang-related Brown/Black racial tension in that neighborhood. But Eric was no longer an active gang member, and he was actually bi-racial. His mother was Mexican-American. He probably spoke Spanish better than the gang members who shot him. He was a bridge-builder and a peace-maker and his loss was a devastating one for his family and for our Street Poets community. Eric was the first member of our community we lost to gun violence, and it was the first time in my life I’d ever had to absorb that degree of shock and grief. It broke my heart wide open. It changed me, and it changed Street Poets. It moved us from the deep end of the pool to the ocean. And we had to learn to “swim” again in those rougher, deeper waters.

Another challenge over the years has been how best to adapt our programs as Street Poets has evolved from an organization that served incarcerated and formerly incarcerated males exclusively to one that now serves boys, girls, LGBTQ and non-binary youth and young adults in a much wider range of facilities, schools and community sites. It’s challenging enough to hold healing space for predominantly gang-involved boys of all races who share many of the same wounds and history of wounding others, but it’s even more challenging to hold healing space for all of our youth together, male and female and non-binary, straight and LGBTQ, victims and offenders, teenagers and adults, of all races and cultures and backgrounds. This transition hasn’t always been graceful, but we’ve learned A LOT from our missteps and mistakes along the way. Today, our creative community probably has more female and non-binary youth poets, artists and leaders at its center than males. We’re all continuing to learn from each other.

Thanks for sharing that. So, maybe next you can tell us a bit more about your work?
The creative project I’m most excited about right now is our new STREET POETS PODCAST which is available on Apple Podcast, Spotify, Google Podcasts or wherever you get your inspiration. Each month, we publish a new real-life transformational story from our Street Poets memory bank, highlighted by original music and poetry from our recording studio library. Because we’ve been around for 25 years, we’ve got a lot of deeply soulful and inspiring material to share with the wider world. These are deeply personal transformational stories from our Street Poets alumni – some of whom have been active participants in our community for almost as long as our organization has been around. (We’ve actually welcomed the children of some of our oldest Street Poets into our program in recent years. Some of these kids have even graduated from high school now.)

In terms of your work and the industry, what are some of the changes you are expecting to see over the next five to ten years?
The non-profit world, like the rest of the world, is in a time of profound dynamic change. At Street Poets, we love using metaphor as a way of framing our work, and one of our favorite metaphors is that of a river. Right now, we are entering the rapids of that river, struggling at times to keep our heads above water, but knowing that we are being carried onward toward a more sustainable, balanced, healthy and just future. Our work is to let go of old ways that no longer serve us, to stay in the flow, to surrender to the flow, to devote ourselves to creative practices that support the flow while dreaming a new world into being for us all. In the meantime, it’s important that we remind each other to do our best to enjoy the ride.

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Photo credits: Street Poets Inc.

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