The seed of Street Poets Inc. was planted back in 1995 when Writers Guild member Chris Henrikson first began volunteer-teaching a poetry workshop at Camp Miller, a Los Angeles County Probation camp for boys. That seed quickly took root and soon there was a waiting list of camp minors eager to get into the class. “The Street Poets workshop was like a breath of fresh air in that place. There was no judgment, no gang drama, no probation officers cussing us out. We could just be ourselves, and we got to see each other for real, even our so-called enemies,” former Camp Miller minor Jason Quezada remembers. “That poetry workshop was my favorite two hours of the week.”
After three years, the alumni network for that one weekly writing circle had grown to over 100 formerly incarcerated youth, six of whom linked up with Chris “on the outs” to form Street Poets United, a poetry performance group that had its first public show in 1998 at the Los Angeles Theater Center, and later went on to light up mics and bullhorns at restorative justice conferences, educational reform rallies, schools and churches throughout California.
During that time, Street Poets aligned itself with DreamYard, a New York City-based arts education organization, to expand our outreach into foster care facilities and public schools. Six years later, Street Poets established its own California non-profit 501(c)3 status. Since then, we’ve traveled to the San Carlos Apache and Navajo Reservations in Arizona, as well as internationally, to share our methodology and creative healing practices with youth and adults worldwide.
Meanwhile, back home, Street Poets deepened our presence in Los Angeles’ middle and high school classrooms, and launched our Poetry in Motion van to bring pop-up music and poetry events directly to the parks and projects of our city. In 2015, we joined forces with five other visionary non-profit organizations to create the Arts for Healing & Justice Network to advocate for arts-based intervention work and system change in Los Angeles County and beyond (AHJN now includes 15+ member organizations).
Today, Camp Miller, the probation facility where Street Poets first began, is closed for good. But the formerly incarcerated alumni of our writing circle there continue working to create an inspiring community-based alternative to that system. The Street Poets Center for Community, Culture & Wellness, scheduled to open in South Los Angeles in 2024, represents the fruit of that labor alongside countless former students, teaching artists, healers and peacemakers who continue to breathe life and poetry into our community.
Veteran Street Poet David Sanchez, who now runs his own organic gardening business, explains: “If a Street Poets Center had been here when I was growing up, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have joined a gang and taken such a hard road to get to where I am today. 15 years ago, I had to get locked up to find Street Poets. With this new community center, we’ll be catching lost kids like I was before they get caught up in the System. I’m just grateful I’ve survived long enough to be a part of the solution, and in the same neighborhood where I used to be a part of the problem.”