Though I never thought I would become interested in the politics or pet cause of a winner of the Miss America Pageant, the newest beauty queen to take that prize has won my admiration. Laura Kaeppeler, the former Miss Wisconsin, has decided to spend her year as Miss America helping the children of the incarcerated. Her father served eighteen months in prison, and Kaeppeler speaks movingly about wanting to prove to kids throughout the U.S. that you can still have a positive and strong relationship with your incarcerated parent. She also focuses her comments on her father’s incarceration on her admiration for him and on the strength of their family’s bonds with one another rather than on his crime. She speaks of building a future for the children of prisoners and of wanting to be a role model for kids who might not realize that they can break the cycles of incarceration seen in so many families.
In a nation where we currently incarcerate over 2.3 million people, the children of prisoners must necessarily become a visible population. We are cropping up in unexpected places, and Laura Kaeppeler and her family are being very brave to make themselves vulnerable to the types of criticism that are likely to be leveled at them because of Kaeppeler’s new level of fame and her openness about being a prisoner’s daughter. Kaeppeler has an opportunity this year to start difficult conversations and to raise awareness–and perhaps funds–to help prisoners’ children. Perhaps the most powerful contribution she could make would be that of helping to diminish the stigma of criminality surrounding these children who are often funneled away from educational and professional resources because of expectations that they will follow in their parents’ footsteps. Kaeppeler is a new symbol of what it means to be American, and far more of us are prisoners’ children than beauty queens.