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Street Poets: How Creativity Is Healing Wounds in Modern America



New Math senior producer Jake Falby and Street Poets founder Chris Henrikson reflect on how the LA-based nonprofit is transforming lives through creativity - and what the country more widely can learn from their process

Street Poets: How Creativity Is Healing Wounds in Modern America

Can creativity save lives? Looking through the work and history of Street Poets, there’s no doubt it can transform them. 

Roughly 25 years ago, Chris Henrikson was at something of a crossroads. On the plus side, the young writer’s first screenplay - written while he was still in college - had been purchased by a Hollywood studio. On the other hand, said screenplay had been languishing for years in what Chris himself describes as ‘development hell’. The result was a deeply unpleasant experience which, at least initially, steered Chris away from the industry.

“The truth is that I felt like I had sold my soul, and I was totally unmoored”, he recalls. “It was a feeling of being totally disconnected from my own voice”. 

Fortunately, fate was on-hand to provide Chris with a new and profound purpose. “I saw an ad in the writers guild journal looking for writers to teach and mentor young people in LA’s county probation system”, he explains. “If there’s one thing I knew I had to offer it was a good pair of listening ears, an open heart, and experience facilitating writing workshops”. 

One Poetry workshop later, the group which is today known as Street Poets was born. Today, some quarter of a century on, Chris’ workshop can look back on life-affirming work through the power of spoken word, creativity, and music. The young people working with the group over the years have been offered the help they need to find their authentic voice, and express their creative gifts. 

And, most excitingly of all, Street Poets is only just getting started. 

Adding New Math

Without question, there has been plenty of help along the way. Perhaps none more so than the music and sound company New Math, who for the past year have given up their LA studio for use by Street Poets. 

“I think the catalyst for our involvement, without a doubt, came in the Spring of 2020”, says New Math’s senior producer Jake Falby. “There was an outpouring of emotion, sparked by police brutality, which manifested into the Black Lives Matter protests in which so many layers of systemic injustice in America were brought out into the light. Our feeling around that time was to ask what we could do to be a part of the healing and reconciliation process America desperately needed. Ray [Loewy, co-founder of New Math] mentioned his old friend Chris, and from there it didn’t take long to get our collaboration under way”. 

The outcome of New Math’s relationship with Street Poets so far has been an eight-track EP featuring outstanding work from the program’s members, as well as an ongoing podcast which looks into the stories of past participants in the program, and how their lives have been impacted. 

Above: The Street Poets podcast, featuring real life stories and interviews, is available on Spotify 

All considered, it’s not a bad return for just one year’s work. “One of the more remarkable things about our collaboration that I’ve noticed”, says Jake, “has simply been how seamless and professional these recording sessions have felt. That’s in large part because of the natural talent these kids have - talent that would be unseen and unheard without the work of groups like Street Poets”.

Above: A Street Poets recording session at New Math’s studio 

With the group having been formed in the 90s, the political backdrop for Chris and the initial Street Poets team had been challenging to say the least. “The story we were all being told at the time was one of the next generation kind of turning into monsters, and a justice system that skewed towards punishment over rehabilitation - including for minors”, recalls Chris. “You then couple that with the glamorisation of gang culture that was happening in entertainment, and it’s an extremely dangerous cocktail for a generation of young people”. 

Fortunately, the wider climate is more encouraging of groups such as Street Poets today. “There’s no doubt our funding is in a better place than when we started, and there’s more of a cultural understanding that the work we do is important”, says Chris. 

And yet, American culture in 2021 is no less fractious or fragmented than it was in the 90s. Street Poets specialise in healing through words, creativity, and music. Is there any hope that, on a grander scale, it could be exactly the kind of process that modern America can begin? 

The Authentic Voice of America

“One of the most important lessons I’ve learned in my time with Street Poets is that our gifts are often adjacent to our wounds”, says Chris. “In fact, they’re more often than not linked together”.

Taking a wider view, that’s not the only way in which Street Poets’ work and America’s process of healing share similarities. “I think, if you zoom out, America is kind of the same age as a lot of the kids we work with”, Chris notes. “America has a lot of teenage qualities in the vibrancy of its culture, its passion and, yes, a level of frustration which we’re still working out how best to channel”.

To hear about the work of Street Poets is to renew one’s faith in change - certainly on an individual level. For a creative industry which apparently places a high value on authenticity, there’s a lot to be said for the process the charity has established by which young people can find and refine their authentic voice. 

But can that process of healing and change realistically be applied on a grander scale? For Chris and Jake, the sustained success of Street Poets serves as evidence that it can. After all, societal change begins with individuals. “There’s a conversation happening in America that we all need to be a part of”, says Jake. “And we’ll help that conversation along most effectively by being true to our authentic voice. That’s what Street Poets are helping us to find”.

“Like the young people we work with, America’s gifts are entwined with its wounds”, notes Chris. “It’s through bravery that we can untangle the two. You simply can’t do that without creativity - it’s our superpower, and I do believe it can save us”. 

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New Math Music, Tue, 14 Sep 2021 13:27:53 GMT