By Lauren Gonzalves
This past June, Sesame Street introduced a new character named “Alex”, whose father is in jail. Alex is not likely destined for an appearance on the PBS, but a lot of work and partnership went into making Alex the center of a targeted campaign to families involved in the justice system.
Following is the story of how Alex came to be, and how Sesame Workshop, which produces Sesame Street, plans to use him.
According to a 2010 report from the Pew Charitable Trusts, more than 2.7 million children have a parent behind bars, and more than one in 10 of the nation’s children have a parent in jail or prison, on probation, or on parole.
The report also revealed that more than half of the incarcerated population were parents of children under 18.
Those details grabbed the attention of producers at Sesame Workshop, who have rolled out a number of special-issue Sesame Street media in recent years, a series it has dubbed “resilience initiatives.”
In 2011, they approached Centerforce Executive Director Carol Burton, whose Fresno, Calif.-based organization works with individuals in prison and their families, about the idea of developing a program about children with incarcerated parents.
Recognized as a “Champion of Change” this year by the Obama administration for her commitment to supporting children of incarcerated parents, Burton served as an expert advisor for Sesame Street on the incarceration project.
“We came up with a list of three things children [of incarcerated parents] need and they went somewhere with it and started to develop materials,” she said. “Really what I appreciated about it was that it was a healthy tension…[Sesame Street] was the expert in putting material together to educate kids and we were the experts in the content.”
The two years of planning and design “went by fast,” she said. Before long, a toolkit called “Little Children, Big Challenges: Incarceration” was ready for dissemination. It includes a DVD, colorful storybook, and “guide for parents and caregivers.”
“It’s going to be really good for service providers who are going into homes and for social service providers, child welfare workers, early daycare providers, and all the correctional facilities,” said Burton.
The first page of the brightly illustrated guidebook has a blue puppet holding a sign
which reads, “You Are Strong.” Above, two young girls are kissing their mother, presumably the spouse of their incarcerated father.
The DVD features one episode where Nylo, a young boy, talks to Murray the Muppet about missing his mother, who is in prison. In another episode, Alex doesn’t want to play because he’s upset about his absent father, until a friend lets Alex know she went through the same thing.
The goal is to disseminate the materials in ten states, including California, New York, and Texas, which were selected based on the number of individuals in each state currently incarcerated and the existing connections with fellow service providers.
“Any sort of mainstream entity that tries to address that issue and educate the families that we work with and also the public I think is really important,” said Kelli Finley, program manager of One Family, a San Francisco-based nonprofit that provides supportive services for incarcerated parents and their families, and has received the materials from Sesame Workshop.
“If it only gave the providers, and the adults and the systems tools to be able to talk to kids about it, that would have been fine. But it just goes so farther beyond that,” Burton said. To her, the goal is to “normalize a situation that is very common that still isn’t talked about.”
Lauren Gonzalves is a graduate student at UC Berkeley’s School of Social Welfare. She wrote this story as part of Fostering Media Connections’ Journalism for Social Change program.