By Dan Lewis
Last week, we presented Ambassador Samantha Power with the Joan Ganz Cooney Award for her work as a champion of women and girls around the world. She spoke about how Sesame Street impacted her life – as a child, as a parent, and as the U.S. Permanent Representative to the United Nation. Her complete remarks are available below.
Thank you Joan for that very generous – overly generous introduction – and much more importantly, for having the smarts, the drive, and the imagination to help create Sesame Street nearly five decades ago. I’m hugely honored and very humbled to be up here and will just say a few words about what Sesame Street meant to me and what it means in the world.
I was born in 1970, the year after Sesame Street was founded. I spent the first nine years of my life in Ireland, was born to Irish parents. And we didn’t have many American imports to Ireland back then. We had Chevon gas, we had Coca Cola, and we had Sesame Street. We had three channels on our TV and two of them showed programming that was in Irish, in Gaelic, much of the time. While that was a worthy effort on the part of the government not everybody was super fluent in Gaelic. And so it has to be said that Sesame Street which was on the third channel, was something of a salvation. And so I want to say a personal thanks to Joan because Sesame Street was my first introduction really to America.
And now I get to represent the United States at the United Nations and I just think it’s an extraordinary life journey to have been exposed to the diversity and wonderment in a way of this country and then to be here even for 30 seconds sharing the stage with Joan is extraordinary, as you can imagine.
As many of you in the audience know Sesame Workshop’s philosophy is founded on the idea that what kids see from a very young age has an outsized impact or imprint as we heard on the rest of their lives. And that is not only true for literacy and numeracy, but also for values.
And I see this with my own two small kids. I have a daughter who’s two named Rian and a six year old named Declan. And I make a point with my two kids of talking with them of about what I am doing in my day job. I do this in part because I myself saw through Sesame Street and through the way my mother, who is a physician, talked to me about her values and about her patients treating me early on as if I was kind of up for kind of hearing about what was going on during the day with her. In my case, it can have some slightly problematic consequences. I’ll give just one example here tonight. Which is when President Obama negotiated the beginnings of the Cuba normalization process, we were, of course, all sworn to secrecy, but I was bursting with this information and with this potential breakthrough.
So I decided to engage my then five year old Declan, as a Sesame Street adult would do, treating him with respect and seeing his dignity and his ability to take on new information. And he asked all the right questions. Where is Cuba? What’s an embargo? What did they ever do to us?
And all of it went very well. I felt I got to share this news. He seemed to get it and seemed very excited himself in his own way. But about 7 hours later I was at the office and I got a call from the school nurse and he been involved in some rough play on the playground and been kicked in the nose and had a bloody nose and the school nurse was calling of course to tell me that; and he grabbed the phone from her the boy he was playing with his name was Sawyer, and he said “Mommy, Sawyer needs an embargo.” I think that’s a bit of Sesame Street parenting to takeaway, but I do wonder everyday whether or not we wouldn’t in fact have world peace if more of my counterparts hadn’t been groomed on Big Bird instead of perhaps Big Brother. And so I think the global reach Sesame Street is having is likely to have ramifications for many years to come.
Now one of the reasons that Sesame Street has been so effective in shaping kids is that it meets those kids where they are. Parts of Sesame Street look like their streets, and the parts that don’t, prepare them to walk down streets that don’t look like their streets with people who might look different than them or people who might come from a different neighborhood.
And it was no accident that when Sesame Street was launched in 1969 at time when there was a scarcity of African American male role models on television, the program created the character of Gordon Robinson, an African American to be the loving dad on the show. And while we may take for granted today and shouldn’t take for granted today, that a cast of furry Muppets could be joined by an African American family and a married couple named Louis and Maria, for its time this was ground breaking. And so much that has come since goes back to the decisions that Joan and her team made before it was fashionable.
This approach of meeting people where they are is something I try to do at the UN. It is a key part of the way President Obama asks his diplomats to go about their business in the world. We understand that America is stronger when we know how to see the world through the eyes of other countries, whether they are allies or adversaries, and when we do some listening as well as some speaking. And this can be done in some really small ways. The UN has 193 member states; most of whose streets look very different from ours; and since taking up my post I’ve tried to visit as many of the missions in the UN as possible. I’m up to about 120 missions. It’s their embassies. These are their homes. They put their pictures on the wall. They hang their art. It’s the books that they have carried with them often thousands of miles to put on their coffee tables. And I think in a way by going to them and meeting them on their street we show an America that actually respects and cares about the dignity of other countries. And I think that’s a version of Sesame Street diplomacy.
So finally, this approach of meeting people and physically and metaphorically where they are is what Sesame Workshop expansion into countries around the world is all about. And I know it’s been said here earlier this evening, it is one this for children in India to be told that proper sanitation will keep them healthy; it’s important. But it reaches kids in an entirely different way, when Rana, the fuzzy green Muppet girl on Galli Galli Sim Sim India’s version of Sesame Street explains to kids why she always wears sandals to protect her feet when she goes to the latrine.
It is one thing to tell girls in Nigeria and their families about the importance of getting an education; it resonates in an entirely different way when they see Kami, a bright yellow girl Muppet on Nigeria’s Sesame Square talking about how much she loves school and sports. These Muppets may be fuzzier than the normal kids but they speak their languages and they speak to the challenges in the world that so many are facing today. And in those fuzzy Muppets little Indian and Nigerian kids see themselves and they see what they are capable of just as my son and daughter do by watching Sesame Street; and just as I did as a little girl watching one my 3 channels and watching Joan’s tremendous creation. So I am incredibly grateful, and I thank you Joan for your leadership and I thank you all for this very kind honor. Thank you.