Home News Center YJLI Fellow Cindy Similien Empowers Children of Incarcerated Parents Through Creative Writing

YJLI Fellow Cindy Similien Empowers Children of Incarcerated Parents Through Creative Writing

May 31, 2022
Courtney M. McSwain

Cindy Similien
Author and Community Advocate, YJLI Fellow 2021-2022

What got you into youth justice reform?  

About three years ago, in March of 2019, I came across members of my church at a restaurant. We decided to have lunch together in downtown Brooklyn while they talked about their ministry work, praying for individuals inside a Brooklyn detention center. As they spoke about doing prison outreach, I became interested in volunteering for them.  
They directed me to volunteer at a local organization called Children of Promise that offers therapeutic empowerment services and youth development programs to children who are affected by parental incarceration. During the weekend, I volunteered at their Saturday Resource Center and helped the children with their academic work and played group activities. While I was volunteering, I learned about some of the adverse experiences they had gone through - I was shocked to hear about some of them. But at Children of Promise, I saw that these children found a source of comfort and a place of safety. I enjoyed contributing to their positive experience at the Center. 

 As a children’s book author, I meet many children and families from different backgrounds. I noticed that those with parents in prison experience shame and are afraid to talk about their feelings. At the countless book readings, I’ve done in the community, I learned that one of the ways that you can get a child to open up and talk about their experiences is by reading a book about characters that look like them. So, I took it upon myself to write a book about a young child who visits her father for the first time in prison. I called it, “The Day We Visit Daddy in Prison.” Alongside Prison Fellowship’s “Second Chance Month,” I conducted book readings and panelist discussions, connecting with many organizations across the USA, including New York, Mississippi, New Hampshire, Vermont, Georgia, Idaho and Florida. I also worked with youth organizations in the Dominican Republic and Haiti. The number of children with incarcerated parents overseas is high as well. I worked alongside these organizations to help children bridge their relationships with their incarcerated parents by providing my books as a way to connect. I have a great passion for community advocacy, especially when it comes to the children affected by the carceral system.   

Can you tell us more about how you use books to connect incarcerated parents and their children?  

In 2020, I decided to start a foundation where I use the proceeds of my book sales to donate my books to organizations, create/renovate libraries in marginalized communities, and provide school supplies. For instance, I donated my books to an organization called Children’s Literacy Foundation based in Vermont and New Hampshire. They have this great literacy initiative called “Children of Prison Inmates” where they donate books to be used in prison storybook programs, giving incarcerated parents the opportunity to send a children’s book – and a recording of themselves reading the book – home to their children. 

Can you tell us about your advocacy project?   

I am grateful for the support I received from the Brooklyn Arts Council to provide ten children (between the ages of 12-17) with the opportunity to learn about creative writing skills and self-publish a book on a topic that is meaningful to them. (I tested the idea with a young person, and he wrote a book about the issue of cyberbullying. He is now an advocate in his community in California!) The project will allow the youth to cultivate their voices and creative writing skills; and learn how to recognize and develop their leadership and advocacy skills. At the end of the project, the children will showcase their work at a local community. 

What motivates you?  

My faith in God motivates me to take action in my community. I was born with a purpose and given skills and talents to bring positive changes in the world. A man by the name of Bishop Barbosa once said, “What you do for self will die with you, but what you do for God and others will last for eternity.” When I see a need in my community, I'm motivated to take action. There's a saying by a social activist: "When you make an observation, you have an obligation," so when I make an observation, I have an obligation to address an issue to the best of my abilities. 
What is your dream youth justice vision?  

I pray that new justice involves resources and money redirected to programming to prevent our young people from entering the school-to-prison pipeline. Justice for me is using my platform to highlight the stories of our young people, to show that they are highly talented and very motivated.    
If we channel money away from building prisons, we could help support amazing individuals who will contribute to society. Give them opportunities to overcome the challenges that they are facing on a day-to-day basis.

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