The Healing Power of Poetry: Empowering Disenfranchised Youth through Self-Expression

April 8, 2015 / By: Kathleen Hiniker, MSW ’02
Program organizers Mary Tinucci (School of Social Work) and Geri Chavis (English Department)
Program organizers Geri Chavis, PhD, Professor of English, and Mary Tinucci, MSW ’97, DSW Class of 2017, Adjunct Faculty, Social Work


One aspect of my work as an adolescent policy specialist at the Minnesota Department of Human Services (DHS) is to administer the Healthy Transitions and Homeless Prevention grant. This grant contracts with nonprofit agencies to provide transition services to youth ages 16-21 currently in foster care or who have left foster care. The grantees are trained in trauma-informed practice, which is crucial since the youth they work with have often experienced or witnessed violence and abuse, often multiple times. I attended an event at St. Catherine University that immediately informed and positively affected my work at DHS.

On April 8 the St. Kate’s – St. Thomas School of Social Work and the Department of English at St. Catherine University, co-sponsored a presentation by Richard Gold, author of “Writing with At-risk Youth: The Pongo Teen Writing Method.”

Gold, a former managing editor of Microsoft Press, founded the nonprofit Pongo Teen Writing Project, which works with Seattle teens who are leading difficult lives. Trained volunteers help youth express themselves through writing poetry about childhood trauma such as abuse, neglect, abandonment and a parent’s addiction. Gold described Pongo’s work, methods and outcomes; and offered resources to guide others who want to use poetry as a way to work with disenfranchised youth.

Among the outcomes Pongo teen writers have experienced are:

  • 75% reported they wrote about things they didn’t normally talk about and felt they learned something about themselves
  • 82% reported that writing about things that bothered them helped them feel better
  • 91% felt they might write during times when life was difficult
  • 98% reported enjoying this writing experience
  • 100% were proud of their Pongo writing

Program organizers Mary Tinucci (School of Social Work) and Geri Chavis (English Department) moderated a panel discussion. Joining Gold on the panel was Glo Martin, program coordinator for New Lens Urban Mentoring in St. Paul and former Creative Arts Specialist at The LAB in St. Paul Public Schools, and Janna Krawscyk – writing teacher at the LOFT and The Art of Life and Writing. The panel discussed how they have used creative writing, poetry and journaling as a way of supporting self-expression and healthy coping strategies for disenfranchised youth.

Pongo publishes anthologies of youth’s work. To read youth’s poetry, to find free writing activities, and to learn more about the Pongo Teen Writing Method visit