The musician thinks this parent-and-child communication should include everyone — including those whose parents are currently incarcerated. Legend’s campaign FREEAMERICA, which has been working to transform America’s criminal justice system since 2015, partnered with Sesame Street to help kids “communicate with their parents who are away,” Legend, 38, tells PEOPLE.
“We incarcerate so many people, and a lot of times we forget about their kids that are left behind and how it feels for them to be without parents,” says Legend. “The emotional effect that it has on them, the financial effect it has on their families as well — I think a lot of times we forget about that toll of incarcerating so many people.
“[We’re] trying to bridge that gap so there’s stronger communication between the kids and their parents.”
In November, with help from The Osborne Association, five children (ages 4 to 12) visited the Sesame Street set and spoke to Muppets like Abby Cadabby. The conversations allowed the children to open up about their experience missing their parents, or even prepare them for what it might be like to visit them.
Many children who will be visiting their incarcerated parents over the holidays might not expect changes in their appearances — like having a new haircut or wearing a special uniform — and Sesame Street in Communities helps them deal with these realities. Legend visited the set to meet with the kids himself.
Videos of the kids’ visits will also be sent to their parents this winter, in order to help the families connect during the holidays.
Legend says that he cared about the issue before, but feels more connected to it recently now that he and wife Chrissy Teigen are parents to their 18-month-old daughter Luna (with another baby on the way).
“I think it’s just even more emotionally resonate now that I have a daughter, in thinking about what the impact of just me going on tour has on her, and how she misses me when I’m gone for a few weeks,” says Legend. “For kids that would have to deal with that for multiple years and not be able to contact their parents in the way that we can — you just can’t imagine how hard it is.”
Legend adds that Elmo is his daughter Luna’s “favorite character in life:” not just on Sesame Street. He says the show preaches a “beautiful message” to young people about loving and respecting one another.
“They really try to make the world better. They try to connect with kids who might be forgotten about or left behind, and they want to make us a more loving society, more connected to each other, more tolerant of each other’s differences,” he says. “I think it’s a beautiful mission.”
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Legend also acknowledges that issues surrounding incarcerated individuals can be controversial, but says it is important for people to think of the impact that incarceration has on children.
“It’s not one of the more obvious causes I think a lot of celebrities would get involved with because it’s a bit controversial in a lot of ways,” he says.
“As much as people could instinctively think, ‘Well someone commits a crime then they should be punished,’ we should always remember that whenever we punish an individual we’re not just punishing them,” says Legend. “We need to think about the impact that it has on the families and the communities that are left behind.”