Friday, June 14, 2013

Sesame Street Goes to Prison

By Zerline Hughes

“Who are the people in your neighborhood?” and “Lady Bug Picnic” are songs that I know from only one place: Sesame Street.  They are songs my children, 8 and 10, know as well – more than 30 years later.

To most of us 40-somethings and below, Sesame Street is synonymous with childhood memories, friendships, sweet dreams and excitement. The show and its creators have been great at delving into issues that help kids fit in, feel comfortable and understand differences like physical challenges, differences in family structure.
This week, Sesame Street unveils yet another project to help us understand life through our varied lenses: a 30-minute documentary on incarcerated parents highlighted on CBS’ “Sunday Morning.” Wow! Using puppets, youth, and personal stories, Sesame Workshop understood the lacking resources for children of incarcerated parents and developed a film to help children cope and families maintain a healthy environment.
“We were really struck by the lack of resources,” said Sesame Workshop spokesperson on the need to create  such a project. 

Mixing fiction with real life, the show will be distributed to therapists, schools, prisons and service providers. It will not air on the actual show.
In addition to the film, Sesame Workshop has created a webpage, and a Sesame Street Incarceration App that features a toolkit for parents, caregivers, providers and families. Resources, tips and kid-centered activities are highlighted to help talk and draw out emotions and feelings are provided.

Some tips on the website state:

Phone calls are a great way to reach out. Help your child to think of something she'd like to tell her incarcerated parent, and give her a photo of her parent to hold during the call.
Before you visit your incarcerated loved one, let your child know some of the things she can expect to happen. For instance, "We won't be able to sit in the same room with Mommy, but we can see her through a window and read a story together."

Because I’ve been working in the field of criminal justice reform for seven years now, my children were exposed at an early age to what mommy does and why. They’ve experienced lessons about the law and consequences firsthand through family members and a visit to a prison in West Virginia. They learned about juries because of my work (and with a little help from
Spongebob) and explanations regarding sitting in on my very first Supreme Court hearing in 2007. They have a very honest view of racial disparity (unfortunately) and know that they – and people like them – are being targeted.

Maybe now, though a less harsh lens, children like mine can understand criminal justice and its effects on families and society as a whole. In fact, maybe it provides laymen’s terms and such emotion, that some grown ups can better understand the effects of incarceration.
They have even helped to explain disparities in drug policy to a wide audience in a YouTube video put out by the Crack the Disparity Coalition.

Also this week, t
he White House hosted a “Champions of Change” event honoring 12 individuals who have dedicated themselves to supporting children of incarcerated parents and their caregivers. On the heels of Father’s Day, where many families honor the father figures in their lives – whether they be involved or unable to interact – these two events give hope and strength to the many that are in need of resources and kudos.

Zerline is Director of Communications for the Justice Policy Institute.

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