Things That Matter

If You Grew Up With A Family Member In Prison, This Retro ‘Sesame Street’ Episode Will Pull On Your Heartstrings

In a video that may tug on a few heartstrings for some of us who grew up with both “Sesame Street” in our lives and an incarcerated family member (or two), the video from 2013 introducing viewers to Alex, a muppet that revealed his dad was in prison, was trending this week. His story was part of Sesame Street’s tool kit, a series of online educational videos designed to help address issues that don’t normally get talked about in children’s programming.

Like so many of us who experienced this, Alex tries to get out of talking about his dad.

Credit: Sesame Street / PBS

A common issue among children with family members who are incarcerated is feeling shame whenever anyone even remotely mentions them. Doesn’t matter who the family member is. If it’s an uncle, cousin, sibling, the moment someone brings them up, it’s like “My uncle? Sure, yeah. Hey, some weather we’re having, huh?”

Sofia, the non-muppet, played by actress Jasmine Romero, recounts her own family incarceration story.

Credit: Sesame Street / PBS

Sofia goes through the motions of what it looks like for kids growing up in this situation. Writing letters, lots of tears with family and drawings being sent back and forth. For those who experienced this: isn’t it amazing how the drawings coming back from those incarcerated look like actual works of art?

This part of the video series is on the “Sesame Street” site in Spanish.

Credit: Sesame Street / PBS

This is great for bilingual households dealing with this as well, especially since these issues are seldom spoken about openly in Latino households. You know, how like maybe your tío wasn’t in prison, he was just “upstate.”

Heartbreakingly, Alex asks “what If I do grow up to be like him?”

Credit: Sesame Street / PBS

Alex ponders if it’s all his fault as Sofia talks to him about her experiences with her dad being in prison. His question is triggered by Sofia’s reveal that she thought her dad’s fate was somehow her fault, too. This one hits home for anyone who grew up around this, as kids are always affected by these issues the most.

Of the character and “Incarceration” theme, Jeanette Betancourt, VP of Outreach and Educational Practices at Sesame Workshop said in a 2013 interview with USA Today:

“We are looking not at the cause of the incarceration of the parent, but at the impact of the incarceration on the lives of children and their caregivers… We’re tackling this very difficult topic, but also acknowledging this very invisible community… We’ve heard quite a bit from adults who experienced this as children and who never talked about it out of guilt or shame.”

Aside from Alex, Sesame Street has been in the news a lot lately, most notably because PBS’ funding is being jeopardized by government budget cuts.

Fortunately, Sesame Street is on HBO and its future is probably safe for now.

In addition to the virality of Alex’s story, the show recently introduced Julia, a muppet who has autism.

credit: Sesame Street / Washington Post

Based on a character previously introduced in a Sesame Street book, Julia will introduce a topic never explored on the show before.

Also, a “best of” video released this week featuring digs at “Donald Grump.” Sesame Street has dished out some pretty sweet jabs at Trump over the years.

credit:  Sesame Street / Washington Post

Pretty astute commentary for a kid’s show.

All in all, it was a pretty big week for the muppets of Sesame Street. Can’t wait to see what HBO has in store for Rosita and the gang.

READ: Sesame Street’s New Resident Speaks About Being Latina, Bilingual, And Proud

What do you think about Sesame Street addressing these issues? Share with someone who grew up on the show with the links below!

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There’s A New Character On Plaza Sesamo And She Happens To Be HIV-Positive

Things That Matter

There’s A New Character On Plaza Sesamo And She Happens To Be HIV-Positive

Takalani Sesame / Facebook

Sesame Street has long been known for its inclusive agenda, not only in its United States iteration but also in the many versions of the show worldwide. The show was originally released in the 1969-1970 season in the United States, and uses puppets, live action actors and celebrities to convey educational and inclusive messages through songs, dance, laughter, some mild cheekiness and a lot of love. Characters such as Cookie Monster and Elmo have inspired generations of little children and their parents to be kinder, more resilient and overall awesome.

Sesame street just turned 50 and its cultural saliency cannot be underestimated. Among its many celebrity guests we have seen Muhammad Ali, Burt Lancaster, David Beckham, Beyoncé, BB King, Robin Williams, David Bowie, Ed Sheeran and Taylor Swift, among many others. 

So it came as no surprise when the South African version of the program announced the launch of their new character, a girl named Kami (we just love her name yo!). 

Kami loves to dance, dress with cool streetwear and, by the way, she is HIV-positive.

Credit: @LoveTakalani / Twitter

The show is called Takalani Sesame in South Africa and its producers describe it as a show: “Promoting literacy, numeracy and basic life skills. A distinctly South African television, radio and community outreach program.”

This type of advocacy is key in a country like South Africa, where Apartheid is a not-so-distant memory and racial conflict is sadly still an important challenge for social cohesion. HIV levels in the country are also high, and some children are born with the virus as there is perinatal transmission from mother to child which is not always prevented due to limited access to the proper health services. 

Kami is five-years-old and lives a happy and giving existence.

Credit: @LoveTakalani / Twitter

The HIV virus is part of Kami’s family life and the show tried to educate young audiences on the facts and myths about HIV-positive people. Her name is derived from the Setwani word kamogelo, which means acceptance. She is a healthy carrier of the virus but knows well how it can affect lives, as her mom died from it. Her mission in life is to inform others about what an HIV-positive status means, but also how to be accepting towards others, particularly if they are different. 

Kami was revealed to the world in 2002, but her message is more relevant today than ever before.

Credit: Takalani Sesame / YouTube

Kami is a real celebrity and has been named a “champion for children worldwide” by UNICEF. the UN agency in charge of promoting children’s wellbeing. It is amazing to see how directly they deal with the issue, without sugarcoating reality, while at the same time keeping the show child friendly. For example, in this episode Kami is sad because other kids don’t want to play with her, so her friends clearly explain that touching an HIV-positive person would get you sick. It is heartwarming and poignant at the same time. 

Sesame Street uses puppets to teach kids about harsh realities worldwide.

Kami is not the only Sesame Street character that has taught kids about concepts that are hard to grasp because they belong to the realm of death, war and disease. As Hank Stuever reminded us in a 2019 article in The Washington Post, producers have dealt with social issues for years, which is one of the reasons why the show is so endearing.

He writes: “‘Sesame’ has helped its viewers cope with divorce, the incarceration of a parent and the deployment of family members in the military. Julia, a Muppet with autism, made her 2017 debut on the TV show to wide acclaim and gratitude from parents. The Workshop reaches children affected by war or hurricanes and other disasters. In Afghanistan, it showed that girls can and should go to school”. The show is good in measuring the cultural temperature of the times and dealing with issues that affect kids and kids care about. 

Besides Julia, a character with autism, the show made an important inclusion in the United States, as reported by Vancouver Province: “Sesame Workshop, the non-profit behind the show, has welcomed Karli, a Muppet in foster care, as well as her “for-now” parents, Dalia and Clem. All three Muppets appear in videos posted online as part of an initiative to provide free resources to caregivers navigating difficult issues, such as family homelessness, foster care and trauma.”

This is what children’s programming should be all about: issues that are complex to understand and explain, and finding ways to make things approachable for the little ones. Last year the show introduced the first muppet to be experiencing homelessness, a growing problem among struggling families in the United States and elsewhere. 

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Here’s How You Can Support Your Incarcerated Family Members If You Don’t Know How

Things That Matter

Here’s How You Can Support Your Incarcerated Family Members If You Don’t Know How

Hédi Benyounes / Unsplash

Talking about our primos in prison is taboo. If you ever had a family member in prison, you may avoid talking about it outside your family circle. The incarcerated family member then becomes a ghost, a cautionary tale, or a source of shame. We forget how they arrived in this situation and hesitate to offer support. Looking closely at issues that contribute to mass incarceration in this country can offer insights into the matter. It’s time we take a new approach to incarcerated family, and offer help in ways the correctional system refuses. It’s time to humanize our imprisoned primos and primas, showing love and empathy that we would want to see if we were behind bars.

Considering the U.S. census shows Hispanics make up 18.3 percent of the population, it is bewildering how they come to make up 32 percent of the Federal inmate population.

However, looking at social issues that plague the Latinx community, it is no surprise that low levels of education, poverty, and structural discrimination lead to incarceration. With the latest instances of aggression toward the Latinx community at the presidential level, it will be no surprise if acts of discrimination and targeting of Latinos continues to rise.

What other factors contribute to the incarceration of Latinos?

Credit: Bill Oxford / Unsplash

The Pew Research Center reports that in 1991, 60 percent of Latinos were sentenced in federal court for drug-related offenses, and 20 percent for immigration crimes. Yet, these figures changed dramatically, with 48 percent of sentences for immigration crimes, and 37 percent of sentences for drug-related crimes in 2007.

The incarceration of Latinos is feeding into the conversation around the school to prison pipeline.

Credit: @LatinoPPF / Twitter

What is the prison experience really like? Netflix series like Ava DuVernay’s “When They See Us,” and “Orange is the New Black” help pull back the curtain on the harsh realities of prison life. More than just TV shows, these depictions exposed micro and macro ways the U.S., home to the largest prison population in the world, focuses not on prisoner rehabilitation, but recidivism instead.

When we think about our family members in prison, we need to remember that they could be facing sexual violence, lack of access to mental health services, solitary confinement, and denial of their reproductive rights.

Credit: Mitch Lensink / Unsplash

It may be the case that an incarcerated family member’s situation is shrouded in mystery and whispers, but this need not be the case. It is not only time to confront these matters at the family level, but to address them at the social level as well. The first step may begin with actually accepting that inmate call. Ask what your family member is going through and share that with the family if he or she permits. You may feel a sense of hopelessness, but there is so much you can do to help not only your own family members but the greater incarcerated Latino community too.

Moving beyond thoughts and prayers—although they’re good too—here are substantive ways you can help incarcerated family members.

Credit: @Art4JusticeFund / Twitter
  • Visit if you can. Even if it is only a few times a year, the impact of human contact cannot be overstated. Ensure you are on the approved visitor’s list before you go. Bring identification and arrive early. Be a good listener and most importantly, show that family love.
  • The experience of visiting prison can be inconvenient or even traumatic, so if you feel you cannot commit this fully then try a virtual visit. Apps like JPay offer inmate services like email, video visitation, and secure payment transfers. Send pictures of the family or a video of a holiday gathering.
  • If apps prove to be intimidating, try sending a letter. Have picture printed out—old school style—and include them in your letters. Families are full of births, marriages, and so many other beautiful life events. Share them with your primos and primas who can’t be there with you. If you feel like you simply don’t want to communicate with your incarcerated family member, but you still want to contribute to the cause in some way, join a prison pen pal organization and bring a sense of human connection to others.
  • Another way to help the family behind bars is to send books. The organization, NYC books through bars, understands how much books can help with the rehabilitation and the education process in prison.
  • With vulnerable peoples such as the trans community,  women in prison, those with mental health needs, simply raising awareness on their behalf can be a radical act of kindness.
  • Another act of solidarity with your incarcerated family member is to donate to the ACLU Prisons Project. “Through litigation, advocacy, and public education, we work to ensure that conditions of confinement are consistent with health, safety, and human dignity and that prisoners retain all rights of free persons that are not inconsistent with incarceration.”

If you have a family member in prison, it is important to their own recovery and reformation to know they have people who love and support them.

Credit: aclu_nationwide / Instagram

With an array of opportunities to help our family members in prison, it is important to note that reintroduction to society can pose a major challenge for former inmates. These are areas where you can help too. Our imprisoned family members may have been victims of the system, they may have survived the only way they know how, or maybe they just made a mistake. Whatever the circumstance, the key is to remember they are human, and most importantly, they are familia. So ask yourself, for their sake and the sake of our community, what can you do to help?

READ: Cyntoia Brown Was Finally Released From Prison After 15 Years– This Is What Resistance Looks Like

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