Fireside Chat: Akimi Gibson Sesame Learning
As part of the Inaugural Anthem Awards Conference on February 28, 2022, Akimi Gibson and Shaniqua McClendon discussed the impacts of diverse representation, education and avid activism at Sesame Learning
- Akimi Gibson talks about the plans for the future and plays a video to exhibit the diverse, inclusive content that Sesame creates for children
Watch the full discussion:
Read the full transcript below:
Shaniqua McClendon 0:15
All right. Good morning, everyone. Thanks so much for joining us today. We have a really exciting conversation ahead about coming together with an effort by the creators of Sesame Street to combat racial injustice. Here for that conversation we have Akimi Gibson, the Vice President and Education Publicist of Sesame Learning. I should also congratulate for being an Inaugural Anthem Award Assistant for the project we’re here to talk about today. We thank you for joining us today. If you don’t mind, I’m just gonna jump right into our questions today.
Akimi Gibson 0:48
Go fly, Shaniqua! Glad to be here.
Shaniqua McClendon 0:50
Awesome. Um, so you know, Sesame Street obviously has been around for a long time. I’m sure many of the people joining us today remember it from their youth. Something as I got older that I was always really impressed by was how you all were able to tackle difficult issues, and really relevant and current issues in a way that translates for young children. Could you tell us about the coming together initiative and how it builds on Sesame Street’s history of doing this and also how you decided that there was a need for this work?
Akimi Gibson 1:22
Great. I have to start first Shaniqua by thanking you for inviting Sesame Workshop to be here this morning and, to extend congratulation to all of our peers and colleagues who work so dedicatedly on behalf of children and families across the globe. We’re just honored to be counted among you. So let’s see, So now to your question, Shaniqua. While our organization wide initiative coming together as one of our core efforts, our commitment to diversity, equity inclusion is rooted in the groundbreaking series Sesame Street. As you know, and as your audience now, Sesame Street was the first children program to show multi racial cast, because we understand that representation matters. Let’s take a look at that photo now. So, as this historic photo shows, we were diverse from the very beginning. This vision was realized in 1969 by our founder, Mrs. Joan Ganz Cooney and she was a documentary producer at Channel 13 and won an Emmy for her work on poverty. She along with her friend, Dr. Lloyd Morrison, became interested in televisions powerful effects on children, and also in his untapped potential. I’m going to borrow a quote here, I’m gonna have to read it, though, from Anne Harrington, a professor at Harvard University. She writes, what mattered most about Sesame Street was not the Alphabet Songs, or the counting games or funny puppets. What matters most was its vision for an integrated society, where everyone was a friend and, everyone’s treated with more respect. But we had to ask ourselves, the question Shaniqua, what happens when this vision and the depiction of respects breaks down in the real world? What happens when not all streets are like Sesame Streets? So we’ve known through over the years that the Muppets, our beloved Muppets haven’t have enabled us to tackle these hard topics with children and to be nimble when we had to address the immediate issues. No such immediate issues was any more important than what happened over the course of 2020. That’s when the workshop decided to be more explicit about our vision. There was a need to strengthen empathy and create an understanding for children about diversity, inclusion, equity and respect.
Shaniqua McClendon 3:50
Yeah, that’s so important. You know, just looking over what you all put together. I was amazed. So, I really appreciate you all, understanding that it was really a time for that. My next question is around the town hall that you all did. I’ve worked in politics for over a decade now. So I’m really familiar with CNN town halls, but they are usually politicians, people running for president, you know, current elected officials, and targeted toward adults, not children. So, I’d love to hear how Sesame Street CNN Townhall on racism actually came together.
Akimi Gibson 4:26
I’ll take you back just a month or so before we did that Town Hall. So 2020, as I shared earlier, was a crazy year, if not the previous years weren’t all that delightful either. But, our collaboration with CNN began with the ABCs of COVID 19. So, I don’t want to bring back what those first moments felt like for us all being sequestered in our home, seeing beings really staring at the television watching our screens for the latest breaking news across everything. So, we combined our expertise along with those at CNN and our beloved Muppets to create a new format, one that allows us to meet the moment more readily, and to address the tough questions that families were asking, and hearing from their children. So, that was April, about April 2020 when the pandemic was our biggest concern, and then the unthinkable happened, right? So a murder of Mr. George Floyd shook us in the world to our core. Sesame had to continue our efforts in helping parents and families understand and discuss these hard topics with children. So that’s special, which is we can, you can still see we’re still streaming coming together, standing up to racism, exploring how to discuss racism, and protests, as well as how to build empathy and embrace diversity, and equity. The Town Halls provide us with opportunities to talk to and listen to children, and to listen to children and to hear what’s on their minds and in their hearts directly. We want to make sure that the youngest of our audience understands what’s going on in the world around them.
Shaniqua McClendon 6:15
Yeah, yeah You know, just just watching it, I was thinking, I think this might actually be what some adults need to hear just kind of broken down really simply. Straight to the point. You know, you mentioned last summer, or sorry, not last summer, it’s 2022 now. So Summer of 2020 and George Floyd’s murder, just really kind of thrusting this in front of everyone. For a lot of people that summer, we started having people who maybe weren’t having conversations about racism before started having conversations about it. Nonetheless, you know, this racism just continues to be a really difficult conversation, especially, you know, even for adults, as they navigate it and talk about it with each other. So with that in mind, could you share with us how you decided what content would be included in coming together and what it would look like in a show?
Akimi Gibson 7:08
Yeah. So, the one of the first things that we have to understand is that Sesame needed to frame our own position towards these issues. So and in doing that, we began as we always do. We have to go back to the research, we have to understand how children come to see themselves, understand themselves, we can think of that as identity development. We have to think about what the needs are, and what’s the content, the immediate context. The other thing that happened, which I’m not going to talk about today, but this is an important story that I hope we do talk about some point, we also had to put forth our own internal DE&I efforts to support the workshop team members who are not who are struggling with the same news, we were all witnessing, as they were building out this new initiative. So, that’s an important piece. But today, I’m going to focus on our child facing efforts. So, we employed our model. It’s proven we integrate research and research is the academics, formative research, summative research, what we understand of children, the curriculum, the content and powerful storytelling. In doing this model, we went back to really understand a few of the key ideas that children have about themselves, and about others. So, the gift I’m going to give the audience today is something we call our editorial guidelines. We needed to unite as a workshop around how we’re going to talk about this work, as well as implement and develop against this work. You’ll see that the very top of these guidelines include ideas such as it’s broken down very simplistically so excuse us for just reducing it here to what it is and what it isn’t. And it’s not that thing, the side that outlines what it isn’t, is it appropriate or wrong. It’s just not far enough. So at the core of what we’re talking about was our need to be more explicit. So, the line I’ll pull forward here is this one where we said we need to understand how to be local, meaningful and relevant to children. We created a content taskforce of educators, child development specialists, DE&I experts, team of sesame team members from diverse lived experiences, we held advisories, expanded those advisories, we brought audience members in and talked directly to create our proprietary framework beyond what you see on the screen. That educational framework is based on a deep understanding about how children develop their personal and social identities. We purposely put an S on that idea And we also include this notion of how to do so in healthy ways. How to do so in ways that respect everyone, racial, cultural and ethnic personas and identities and to do so in deepening their sense of belonging. So, this concept of diverse identities, understanding that we all belong and learning how to stand up for ourselves, and others is what fuels our child focus endeavors.
Shaniqua McClendon 10:30
Yeah, yeah. That’s amazing. You know, thinking about my next question. So often we hear people say that racism is too complex of an issue for children. I think some might even say, you know, making them think about who they are is too much, you know, just like children go play, and let them remain innocent little beings. Especially, again, because adults struggle so much to talk about racism. So why do you think it’s important to actually start discussions around race with young children? You know, why is it so important to start early?
Akimi Gibson 11:05
So as a parent, and as well as a former classroom educator, we all know that children of color are, this is a part of who they are, and what they have to address from the very beginning. Right, they have to understand the world in which they live and how others are viewing themselves. So, with that deep understanding of mind, then we started to think about and explore this concept of when does racism take hold? What? Why do you really counter the effects of racism? We know that children are not born racist, so we have to not only look at it from the affected group, and simplistically, again, we’ll think of that as the BIPOC, or Black Indigenous People of Color and a non BIPOC audience. We don’t think of those children as white only, they just don’t identify as being a part of the BIPOC community. So, when we think and research deeply about this, there’s a lot of commonalities. We know that all children are aware of race. They may not have, in some communities, an identity of their race beyond their culture, whether they’re Italian American or, universally identify as being white. It’s a part of their makeup. They want to understand that makeup we at Sesame referred to as race, ethnicity, and culture. We understand that when they explore their REC identities, they do benefit socially, as we know, but they also benefit psychologically and academically, when they feel positive about their own REC identity, as well as that of others. That starts from the very beginning. While the science is clear, we also know that the families are sorry, just on a rant because I’m passionate about this point. Then I’ll pause. Their families are also clear as we listen to all families. We went everywhere. One of the sad benefits of the pandemic was that we could reach right into families homes and do our formative research directly with them. We can go everywhere from what might be politically known as red states, or purple states or blue states or conservative, and alike even though we’re not political about this is just about child development. As we listen to all families, we know that they want their children to grow up in a world that is kinder, not just for their child, but for all other children. That’s why we decided we have to begin and we have to begin early because these curious, creative human beings who may not be any taller than three feet tall, and asking the hard questions, and we have to be there for them
Shaniqua McClendon 13:56
Yeah, no, that is so true. I have a three and a half year old nephew and I spent a week yeah, he was just full of questions. You know, you know, because there’s not a good enough answer. They want to actually understand why things are the way they are. Um, yeah. So thank you for that. I just have one more question for you. You know, what’s next? You’ve started coming together. But, where do you go from here? How is this work developing towards the future?
Akimi Gibson 14:25
So we can imagine that once you see something, it’s hard to unsee it. So this work has changed our perspective and the way in which we approach everything that we do. So it’s not just a one and done initiative. We don’t think of it as, for a moment, we really think of it as a movement and that movement is to better understand children, their families, the context in which they live. We think of that as a Circle of Care, all of those amazing adults around children when it goes well. So, rooted in sesame is this real commitment to being in it to be in the present. So we are always imagining the current lives and context of children. So, with that, we put forth a vision statement. We hold a vision of a world where children can reach their full potential, and their humanity and do so in celebration of their REC identities. In doing and in celebrating their identities, we have to embrace and celebrate their communities. There’s no more or less land, there’s some concepts we just have to work to eradicate. So, our goal is to reach each and every child and in order to have support that child becomes smarter, stronger, and kinder. We will reach children and their families through every means necessary, which is why it’s a national organization-wide initiative. We are looking to take this globally as well. In doing so we have everything available to watch from our mass media, to our direct services, such as Sesame Street and communities, which offers a whole set of bilingual free resources for families, children and providers, as well as supporting educators in their pursuit of equity for their classrooms and for their children. We have an example though, of how we do this joyfully with children. What we don’t do though, is we don’t burden children with the horrors of the world. we mean to feed their joyfulness and natural curiosity and we also mean to ensure that they have a strong attachment to all the wonderful beings around them so shall we peek up the video
Video Captioning 16:45
My eyes are brown and your eyes are blue. But there is no difference—I’m still the same as you. I am proud—and you should be too. There is no difference. Elmo has feelings like you! I am, you are, we are somebody! (2x) Like a giant. I’m tall, standing taller. I’m strong, I’m stronger—I’m beautiful you know! I am somebody, and I will stand up. Elmo will speak up—I’m beautiful you know! I can be, I can be anything, be anything, yeah. I can do, I can do anything, do anything, yeah. I am strong, I am strong in my skin, strong in my skin, yeah. And together we will always win, always win, yeah! If something’s wrong, I will stand up. If something’s unfair, Elmo will speak up. In this great big world, it’s not okay to feel hurt. We’re one big family, so let’s care for each other! Oh, I am, you are, we are somebody! (2x) Like a giant, I’m tall, standing taller. I’m strong, I’m stronger—I’m beautiful you know. I am somebody, and I will stand up. Elmo will speak up—I’m beautiful you know! I can be, I can be anything, be anything, yeah. I can do, I can do anything, do anything, yeah. I am strong, I am strong in my skin, strong in my skin, yeah. And together we will always win, always win, yeah! I should be defended—Defended! And respected—Respected! I should be accepted—Accepted! I’m beautiful you know! Like a giant…I’m tall, standing taller. I’m strong, I’m stronger—I’m beautiful you know! I am somebody, and I will stand up. I’m beautiful you know—I’m beautiful you know!
Shaniqua McClendon 18:15
Thank you so much for sharing that with us. You know, just from a personal standpoint, me and my twin sister had Burt & Ernie dolls growing up. I mean, I don’t know where they are now, unfortunately, but they stayed with us for a fair amount of our childhood.
Akimi Gibson 18:34
Well, I could get that replaced for you.
Shaniqua McClendon 18:36
I mean, that would be wonderful. We just literally love those dolls, they probably got thrown out because they were filthy. We really love them. But thank you again, Akimi for joining us for this wonderful conversation. Everyone who joined us today, we really appreciate you participating. I hope everyone enjoys the rest of the conference. Congratulations again to all of the Anthem Award Winners!
Akimi Gibson 18:59
Thank you, I enjoyed myself. Thank you Shaniqua, thank you everybody. Have a good day.
Transcribed by https://otter.ai