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By Ainsley Buck ’22

Sesame Street photo credit above: Ryan Donnell 

Ainsley Buck photo
Ainsley Buck

Everyone knows Sesame Street. Sesame Workshop, the nonprofit behind the children’s television show, has harnessed this ubiquity to create powerful social change through an accessible platform. On Jan. 18, the Sanford School of Public Policy welcomed Jeanette Betancourt, who delivered the 2022 Crown Lecture in Ethics, “Equity and Inclusion on Sesame Street.”

Betancourt serves as the Senior Vice President for U.S. Social Impact at Sesame Workshop, where she leads both the design and implementation of Sesame Workshop’s community engagement initiatives.

The 1960s was a decade characterized by tumult, passion and change. This historical context provided important momentum for the birth of Sesame Workshop in 1968, which boasted an ethos of equity and inclusion.

Sesame Workshop was one of the first programs to use television and entertainment as a means of education, particularly through outreach to marginalized communities. One of Sesame Workshop’s first partnerships was with Head Start, where they would physically bring TVs into Head Start centers so that enrolled children could access the program.

Sesame Workshop’s initiatives look slightly different now, but the overarching goal is the same: “to help all children grow smarter, stronger, and kinder.”

Today, the U.S. Social Impact division has three primary pillars of work: Sesame Street and Autism, Sesame Street for Military Families, and Sesame Street in Communities (SSIC).

Betancourt provided attendees with a closer look at SSIC, which uses national and local partnerships to reach children, families and providers throughout the country. She describes the model as “parent and provider facing” but “through a child lens”, meaning that they deliver complicated concepts that caregivers need to know with simple, child-friendly messaging.

Coming Together, a recent racial justice initiative, aptly exemplifies this approach. This initiative is driven by “a vision of a world where all children can reach their full potential and humanity, and do so in celebration of their race, ethnicity, and culture and within the communities in which they live,” Betancourt described.

To ensure that this message transferred from the TV screen to the children’s lives outside of programming, Betancourt and her division implemented the ABCs of racial literacy:

  • A shared language: accurate, accessible vocabulary for identity
  • Being an upstander: understanding of how to respond to unkind, unjust behavior
  • Conversations and conflict resolution: learning how to navigate complicated concepts 

Sesame Street has introduced multiple new Muppets from diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds to help in this initiative, including Elijah (Eli) and Wesley (Wes) Walker, a Black-identifying father and son. A conversation between Elmo, Eli and Wes explicitly addresses race, teaches scientifically accurate vocabulary, like melanin, and uses a metaphor of different colored leaves to make the concept of race more digestible to young children.

Very cute father and son muppet
Elijah (Eli) and Wesley (Wes) Walker, a Black-identifying father and son - Zach Hyman/Sesame Workshop

Their full conversation, titled “Explaining Race,” can be found here.

Critically, while the programming makes it clear that the Walkers’ race is an important part of their identity, it is not their whole identity. Through other media, we learn that Wes is a pre-K student who loves pretend play, movies, Halloween and architecture.

Elijah, fondly known as Eli the Weather Guy, is a meteorologist who loves exercising, movies and trying new vegan recipes. Creating these personalities helps children understand that, while race is visible and important, identity includes other aspects as well.

SSIC also places a large emphasis on addressing and coping with traumatic experiences. This is especially important today, as the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the effects of these experiences by interfering with and decreasing buffers, like preschool enrollment and school readiness.

Our oversized, yellow-feathered friend, Big Bird, models the “Big Feelings” that children might feel when experiencing trauma and teaches providers and caregivers strategies to respond and help children cope. SSIC develops and enlists the help of other Muppets to tackle more specific, potentially traumatic experiences, like foster care and addiction.

Currently, approximately 160,000 children under 6 years old are in foster care, and 5.7 million children in the U.S. under age 11 live with a parent who struggles with addiction.

In 2019, Sesame Street introduced Muppet Karli in areas with high addiction rates to help reduce stigma, shame and isolation that children and families may feel. These, and like programs, are built on public awareness, rather than public policy. This is because, as Betancourt expresses, “Policy is built from adult perspective, and we often lose the focus on young children.” SSIC’s programming strives to give children a voice in these complex issues.

Finally, in addition to its broader initiatives, Sesame Workshop rapidly creates programs in response to current circumstances. Caring for Each Other was launched with the onset of the pandemic and has a three-phased approach: the “new normal” (during the pandemic), transitioning back to typical life and long-term effects. These programs include prevention at the physical and social-emotional levels, with tools on handwashing, disease education and support for coping with worry, missing friends and more. The last stage, long-term effects, is still in progress and will address the national emergency in children’s mental health, which pediatric health experts declared in October of 2021.

I was struck by Sesame Workshop’s ability to weave initiatives seamlessly into their programming. While the policy world tends to be adult centric, this approach to policy through public awareness better includes children. While they may not be able to directly contribute, Sesame Workshop’s education and intervention methods allow children’s emotions, experiences and knowledge to be incorporated into policy development. As a Child Policy Research student, this aligns with my beliefs that children should be a priority in the policy sector.

Ainsley Buck is a senior undergraduate student studying Neuroscience (B.S.) and Child Policy Research. She intends to pursue a PhD in Child Clinical Psychology and is excited to integrate research, practice and policy in her future work.  

Featured Video

Crown Lecture with Dr. Jeanette Betancourt, Sesame Workshop