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Inside Sesame Street’s racism initiative for kids

The death of George Floyd and spate of hate crimes against Asian Americans have elevated conversations around race, racial identity and police brutality. To talk about these complex and sensitive issues with children, Sesame Street is developing new resources and even adding two Muppets. Jeanette Betancourt and Kay Wilson Stallings from the Sesame workshop join to discuss.

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  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    The deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and others at the hands of police have elevated conversations about race and policing throughout the country. And when it comes to children, initiating and navigating how to talk about race can be complicated.

    To help with those conversations, Sesame Street is developing new resources adding new Muppets, to help teach children racial literacy and and understanding.

    I recently spoke with Jeanette Betancourt and Kay Wilson Stallings from sesame workshop on their approach to tackling difficult topics and about the two newest members of the Muppet family.

    Kay, this has been a tough year for parents on so many different levels, but one of them has been how to have conversations about race, about justice with children. When you were working on coming up with how these conversations could take place, what was going through your mind?

  • Kay Wilson Stallings:

    You know, at Sesame Street, we've often tackled really tough topics and have always been a model for parents and caregivers on how to have those conversations. And when the events that happened last summer, culminating in the murder of George Floyd, we decided that we needed to have this tough topic, this tough conversation about race and racial justice. And as a company, we made that our goal and initiative to help parents and caregivers talk to children about racial justice.

    And we know that children from a very early age see differences. They see color differences in skin. They see eye shapes. They hear language differences. And so to ignore it and to think that that's not something that kids are aware of is really wrong. And at Sesame Street, we've always modeled multiculturalism and inclusiveness and diversity, but we decided that we needed to do more than that and that we really needed to lean in and be explicit and bold in talking to children about racial justice.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Jeanette, part of this includes two new Muppets. Tell us a little bit about them.

  • Jeanette Betancourt:

    A little bit is that we wanted to model those conversations and we also heard in our process of learning from both parents and caregivers, as well as advisers, that how do you present a safe space to do that? And we know the immediate connection with our wonderful Muppets. But we also felt in that deep commitment that Kay describes that we need to represent it in a realistic way.

    So we developed a wonderful Muppet who's Elijah, who's a dad, and he's a meteorologist and his son Wesley, who's curious and he enjoys the outdoors and is always asking again, being a five year old, the kinds of questions that we know children ask of their parents. So by modeling it through the eyes of the dad and his son, we feel that we're then modeling for parents and caregivers.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Where should a parent lead that child in conversation?

  • Kay Wilson Stallings:

    Well, the first thing that a parent shouldn't do is ignore the question. And what happens often is that children see things and they question and parents sometimes have a tendency to shush them and say, look this way, don't look there and don't ask that question. You shouldn't say you shouldn't ask that question. And so then children develop this idea that there's something wrong with the observations that they have. It's something wrong with questions that they have.

    And then what can tend to happen is kids then can come up with their own conclusions. If they're not having these conversations about why someone's skin is a different color than their own, then they will make up their own reason for that, right. I mean, many of us have had experiences where we've had, I remember when my son was very young and he was on the playground with the child who was a white child, and they were holding hands and they were playing together. They just met. And I saw this white child take my son's hand and rub his skin because he thought that would come off because he didn't have that understanding.

    And so it's really incumbent on parents and caregivers to have those conversations as challenging as they might be. As Jeanette said, it's really important because otherwise kids are going to come up with their own conclusions.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Jeanette, so how do the markets deal with this? How should we expect a police shooting or a tragedy of some sort to make it through into Sesame Street in a way that a five-year-old understands and isn't intimidated by?

  • Jeanette Betancourt:

    So we decided to begin with the basics of conversation. So our first explanation of race is actually the physicality of race. How does the melanin, a physical piece of all of our bodies explain the differences in skin color? And in so doing, we have Elijah, we have Wesley and we have Elmo asking a question based on something that happens. He picks up a leaf and is wondering why is that such a different color? And it leads to this wonderful introduction about the physicality of race.

    Elmo has a question!

    What is it, Elmo?

    Elmo wants to know why Wesley's skin is brown.

    Oh, I know why, Elmo, my mom and dad told me. It's because of melanin, right, Dad?

    That's right!

  • Jeanette Betancourt:

    And again, two things on that is the child's perspective. That moment of curiosity and as Kay just explained in that very, very personal story. It's taking advantage of those everyday moments. From there, though, we are and will be as we're going through our content launching, dealing more specifically with visual encounters and how to then look at what that impact has when there is something that is stated unfairly or it's unkind or disrespectful. What is the impact on the child, on the adults? And so, again, we model that from a child's perspective, keeping in mind that these are young children and we want to make sure those conversations reflect realities, but also provide a level of comfort and way to talk about them.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Jeanette Betancourt and Kay Wilson Stallings from the Sesame Workshop. Thank you both.

  • Kay Wilson Stallings:

    Thank you.

  • Jeanette Betancourt:

    Thank you.

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