Olivia Joy Stinson is the founder of PEN Pals Book Club for Children of Incarcerated Parents. Growing up in Charlotte, North Carolina, Olivia Joy Stinson saw a high number of children of incarcerated parents around her and recognized a need to engage with them. Combining her love of reading and passion for service, Olivia founded the organization at 14 years old. It’s an organization that gets kids not only excited about reading, but also gets them to discuss issues that affect them by reading books that engage with topics like domestic violence and drinking and driving. It’s important work and Olivia is dedicated to showing PEN pals members that nothing is prescribed in their lives. Despite the hardships and difficulties these children face at home, Olivia provides a space for them to thrive and a community to lean on.
Did I mention Olivia is only 19 years old?
Because of the leadership she’s taken, AOL and PBS deemed her a Next MAKER. It’s the extension of their digital documentary series, MAKERS, which includes women like Hillary Clinton, Diane Nash, Alice Walker, and past Feministing editor, Courtney E. Martin.
It was interesting to find out how her organization, an organization focused on youth literacy, empowers women and what feminist issues rile her up.
And now, without further ado, the Feministing Five, with Olivia Joy Stinson.
Anna Sterling: How will the Next MAKERS $10K grant from Simple facial skincare help you empower women?
Olivia Joy Stinson: While the organization’s main goal is to support children, I think that we do empower women because most of the heads of household for these families are usually women. I believe that these women, mothers, are empowered when they know that they have someone that is behind them and supporting them. This past Christmas we adopted four families by purchasing food, clothing, toys and other gifts for the families. Most of those households are headed or have been maintained by females who continue to operate the households while the fathers are in prison.
AS: What are some of the biggest issues you’ve seen facing children of incarcerated parents? Conversely, what are some of the positive results you’ve seen come out of PEN Pals?
OJS: Some of the biggest issues I’ve seen facing children of incarcerated parents is that they often times act out in school which in turn causes their grades in school to suffer. They sometimes end up living with another family member or in foster care when their parent(s) are incarcerated. To me I find those to be major issues facing children of incarcerated parents because those are things that we usually take for granted. I don’t think that people of my generation realize how blessed they are to just be living at home with at least one parent let alone maybe two. Sometimes it becomes a hardship when they live with family members because the family has difficulty adding the additional people to income that is already stretched too thin.
Some of the positive results I’ve seen come out of PEN Pals is the children have become more outgoing. When we first began, many of these youth were timid and didn’t talk much. But now they talk more and when they come to the meeting and different outings I can see the excitement on their faces and for me that is more than enough to let me know that PEN Pals making a difference. We have seen literacy skills increase with novel readings. Report card grades and behavior have improved. Our youth are also learning real life skills such as completing job applications and interviewing skills. They are also learning how to handle real life situations such as teen domestic violence and bullying.
AS: What recent news story made you want to scream?
OJS: The most recent news story that made me want to scream is the tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut at Sandy Hook Elementary School. I was completely heartbroken and saddened for the families of those children and faculty at that school. My little sister is six years old in kindergarten and I could not imagine receiving a phone call or watching on the news that something of that magnitude had happened at her school and especially not to her. I think guns are too easily attained and we need to quickly put plans in place to limit this. There are too many incidents of people with guns and they are killing innocent people. It saddens me that someone can just look at a small child and just take their life. Some many of these children had their lives cut short too young. May God bless them all.
AS: What, in your opinion, is the greatest challenge facing feminism today?
OJS: Presently, I think one of the greatest challenges facing feminism today is that women are working more and unfortunately while they are working more and with the same degrees as our male counterparts, they are not receiving the equal pay that they deserve.
Even with the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act in place, I feel they have just changed the names of various positions in the company so they can justify paying the males more. It also seems that we are not promoted to the upper level positions as quickly which would lead one to believe women could not handle management as well as males.
AS: Who is your favorite fictional heroine, and who are your heroines in real life?
OJS: My favorite fictional heroine is Clair Huxtable from The Cosby Show, which is my all-time favorite show. Mrs. Huxtable, was an attorney, a wife, a mother and a daughter that managed to do it all. She had five children that she divided her time equally among and still found time to serve as a senior partner at her law firm. I consider her to be a feminist and a heroine because she had a son-in-law and her youngest daughter’s best friend who had very male chauvinistic views but she managed to always overcome their views by proving to them that a woman, in fact, can do it all!
My heroines in real life are my mother and my grandmother and together, I consider them to be a “Dream Team.” I know that if I ever need anything they will always be there for me. But more importantly, they aren’t only there for me but for my family as well. They keep our family going. As a child I grew up watching them give back to the community and helping others in any way that they could. Both of them have had illnesses that have affected their lives tremendously. As a child I even watched as my mom underwent a surgery to remove a massive brain tumor that she had and then have about six major surgeries following that. My grandmother was right there not only taking care of her household but of my mom and me as well. Even after that they both continue to give of themselves selflessly and that for me is just motivation to keep going and help anyone in any way that I can. So I consider them to be not only my heroines but my role models as well.
AS: You’re going to a desert island and get to take one food, one drink and one feminist. What do you pick?
OJS: If I was going to a desert island and I could only take one food, one drink and one feminist, I would take some Jasmine rice (with a little butter for flavor), Simply Lemonade’s Raspberry Lemonade and Oprah. She is a wonderful example of how a woman can overcome her situation and prove to the world that women are powerful and amazing. She has defied many odds and it is very clear that she is a hard-working woman that strives to support, empower, and inspire women of all backgrounds. I’m sure I could learn a lot from her while on that island!