From “Young Gangsters’ Special Weapon: Poetry“, LA Times, March 2007:
Use this time to tear up the old contracts, Henrikson told his young writers, who listened to him as if he were a guru. “People die never getting to know who they are,” he went on. He read them a Rumi poem, written in the 13th century, called “Ali, the Fighter,” in which Ali prepares to vanquish a foe who, in a last fit of anger, spits in his face. Ali pauses, sees a younger version of himself in his foe, and helps him up.
Of all the kids in the room, only Mario seemed old enough to be world-weary and wise. He’d already revisited his past — It’s not a life-style, It is a death-style — and wanted to move on. He called his poem “Better Days,” and read it as if he were ready to graduate.
Now I’m looking forward to
The better days
Where I don’t have to steal
For me to buy a meal
Or run around like a menace
Looking for an enemy to kill
“You’re a man now,” Henrikson told him when he was done. “You’re 18, and you’re an old soul.”
And that’s not unusual. “I see a difference in the kids who go through the program,” said Craig Levy, director of Camp Kilpatrick, which is next door to Miller. “It exposes them to things they don’t know well, like reading, writing and expressing themselves in public. They come out of it with a little less slang, and speaking more like young men.”
More of Henrikson and others’ work is detailed on their organization’s website, Street Poets, Inc. They do a lot of violence-prevention themed poetry, sessions with youth in juvenile centers, and performances in public, and they’re based in Los Angeles. There’s a beautiful poem written on the left side of the website, written by a 21 year old boy man.
This is somewhat similar to what two of the faculty members in our Department of Family Medicine (Dr. Puvvula and Dr Granados) do many sunday mornings — talk with kids in LA Juvenile Hall, support them, encourage creative outlets. And Father Greg Boyle created Homeboy Industries in 1992 to help transform the lives of ex-gang members through a variety of personal development and community building programs (that’s also where we — family medicine residents! — are trained to remove tattoos with a yag laser for ex-gang members who are making changes in their lives). All of this is so beautiful, and these methods are much more humane and long-lasting in their ability to make positive change than the negative ways of prison and negative reinforcement.
And thanks to Andy Hilbert for the tip, who blogs about education, the LA Unified School District, teachers, and other related issues.