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Sesame Workshop Helps Military Families Talk About Racial Diversity, Discrimination

Children play along with Sesame Street cast members in the Reel Time Theater on Minot Air Force Base, North Dakota, March 25, 2019. Parents took their kids to a live performance of the Sesame Street show.
Airman Jesse Jenny
/
U.S. Air Force
Children play along with Sesame Street cast members in the Reel Time Theater on Minot Air Force Base, North Dakota, March 25, 2019. Parents took their kids to a live performance of the Sesame Street show.

Oscar the Grouch, Big Bird and the rest of the Sesame Street muppets have been teaching kids their ABC’s and how to share their toys since 1969. But they also tackle difficult issues — like addition, same-sex marriage and the coronavirus pandemic — in a kid-friendly way.

Their newest project targets military families and how to talk about racism.

“Can I tell you a story?” asked Rosita, the feisty, teal-colored muppet with a shock of yellow hair and a Spanish accent. She spoke at Sesame Workshop in New York City, a modern office space decorated with giant chalk drawings of Cookie Monster and Grover.

The walls inside Sesame Workshop’s offices in New York City are decorated with chalk drawings of the muppets.
Credit Desiree D'Iorio / WSHU Public Radio
The walls inside Sesame Workshop’s offices in New York City are decorated with chalk drawings of the muppets.

Rosita’s story is about the time she went to the supermarket with her mom, and a customer told her to speak English instead of Spanish. The encounter left the 5-year-old furry monster with “big feelings.” She was sad and scared.

“What I told my mommy was I thought that speaking Spanish was a superpower!” Rosita said. “And she said, ‘well of course it’s a superpower.’ And then I told her that I don’t want that to happen to other people when they go to the supermarket.”

So they got the manager to hang a sign that said “All languages welcome.”

“I felt so proud of myself,” Rosita said about standing up for herself and for other Spanish-speakers.

That lesson is one of the themes in Sesame Workshop’s new initiative, a collection of racial justice resources developed for military families. The videos, games and activities explain racial diversity to children and help them develop a sense of self-worth.

“We do the videos for the kids, but we also do the videos for the parents to be able to communicate with the kids,” explained Carmen Osbahr, Rosita’s puppeteer. She’s been working on Sesame Street’s Military Families series for 15 years. They don’t shy away from sensitive topics.

“The parents were being deployed over and over and over so we did one for deployment, dealing with changes, not just physically but the invisible injuries,” Osbahr said. “And they [Sesame Workshop] decided that Rosita and her family were going to go through that with military families.”

But while the show's cast has always been diverse, Sesame Workshop's Rocio Galarza said only now have they started to tackle the subject of race head-on.

“We weren't explicit about race or racism, and we are being explicit now,” said Galarza, vice president for education content on Sesame Workshop’s U.S. Social Impact Team. “And that's something new — not only for the general public, but also for military families.”

So Galarza gathered up Wes and Elijah, two Black muppets who joined the cast earlier this year, along with Rosita and Elmo, who come from military families. Together, they created a music video called “Great Things,” about how to handle the emotions that can occur after experiencing bias.

Screengrab from “Great Things,” a music video about how to process the emotions that can occur after experiencing bias featuring Rosita, Elmo and Wes.
Credit Sesame Workshop. Sesame Street® and associated characters, trademarks and design elements are owned and licensed by Sesame Workshop. © 2020 Sesame Workshop. All rights reserved.
Screengrab from “Great Things,” a music video about how to process the emotions that can occur after experiencing bias featuring Rosita, Elmo and Wes.

“You can be dancing, you can be going for a walk, you can be doing things that are fun for you, that are also taking care of ourselves,” Galarza said. “So that's why they're ‘great things.’”

Galarza said the inspiration for the project came from military parents who said they need help.

“Military families have been living in a diverse community, they have been trying to address some of these issues before, this is not new for a lot of them,” Galarza said. “And so what they wanted was support.”

But how do you explain something as complex as discrimination to a 4-year-old?

“When it comes to young kids, it actually starts simply with the idea of who I am,” Galarza said. “And then once I understand myself, once I understand that I can be strong in my skin, once I understand that there's a lot of good in me, inside and out — then we start understanding the differences in others.”

That’s why Rosita has such strong feelings about her identity.

“I’m very proud that my daddy’s a veteran, proud that we’re from Mexico and we speak two languages, and I’m proud that we’re a very loving, caring and nice monster family,” Rosita said.

Galarza said the feedback from military families so far has been positive, and she hopes the project will make tough conversations about race a little easier.

The Sesame Workshop racial justice resources for military families are available in English and Spanish.

This story was produced by the American Homefront Project, a public media collaboration that reports on American military life and veterans. Funding comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.