December 28, 2016

Podcast: Sesame Workshop’s Sherrie Westin on How We Got to Sesame Street

Paul Zimmerman, WireImage, Getty
Sherrie Westin, executive vice president of the Sesame Workshop, joins Bloomberg Television anchor David Westin and a few friends at a 2015 benefit gala for the nonprofit, which produces Sesame Street and other educational content.

Studies have shown that every dollar invested in early childhood development yields $17 in future economic returns. Yet only 4 percent of U.S. spending on education and child development is focused on kids 5 and under. For nearly a half-century, Sesame Workshop — the nonprofit that produces the iconic TV show Sesame Street — has been working to fill that gap and "help children everywhere grow smarter, stronger, kinder," as Sherrie Westin, the group’s executive vice president for global impact and philanthropy, puts it.

Launched in 1969 with federal and foundation funding and a War on Poverty-inspired mission to better prepare American kids to enter school, Sesame Street remains as relevant as ever in the digital age. (Sesame Workshop was the first nonprofit to reach 1 billion YouTube views.) Now largely underwritten by HBO, the program airs in 150 countries; it also reaches millions of military families and, through a partnership with the International Rescue Committee, refugee children with specially tailored programs and content.

In this edition of the Business of Giving, Ms. Westin traces the birth and growth of Sesame Street and how the show has been adapted for different countries and cultures. She also talks about Sesame Workshop’s extensive use of data to inform its programming and demonstrate impact, and its groundbreaking work addressing societal issues such as disability and gender equity "through the lens of a child."

Listen to the full interview below and/or scroll down to read a transcript provided by the Business of Giving.

Denver: With more Emmys and Grammys than any other children’s television show, and as the first nonprofit to reach 1 billion YouTube views, Sesame Workshop has become an American institution. And now with the show airing in some 150 countries around the world, it has become a global one as well. There’s been a lot happening over at Sesame Street in the last year or two, and we’re so very fortunate to have been able to pry away from Sesame Workshop their Executive Vice President for Global Impact and Philanthropy, Sherrie Westin. Good evening, Sherrie, and welcome to The Business of Giving!

Sherrie: Thank you so much. I’m thrilled to be here.

Denver: There’s a tendency for all of us to take Sesame Street for granted. It has produced such great content for such a long time. But tell us how it first came into being some 47 years ago.  And what is it, at its heart, that informs and inspires the work that you do?

Sherrie: You are right. People love Sesame Street, but I think they often do not know the depth and breadth of our work. Sesame Street started in 1969, and this was part of the war on poverty. If you think back to the late ’60s, the Johnson administration, and Joan Ganz Cooney had the idea–and you have to understand this is a radical idea at the time– that possibly you could use the much maligned medium of television to teach. She and her colleagues set out to not only see if you could reach children with educational content that could make a difference in preparing them for school.  But also, could you specifically reach those children who may have less advantages in not being at a quality preschool, and get some of those advantages that upper middle class children had by arriving at kindergarten ready to learn?  So, it was quite a departure from what we thought of as children’s television in the day, and the best part is that it was a huge success.

Denver: One of the big changes you’ve undergone in the last year or so was that Sesame Street was shown exclusively on PBS for about four-and-a-half decades, and now it’s first aired on HBO with those episodes then shown on PBS, starting nine months later. There was a little bit of concern when this was first announced. But tell us, how has that gone?

Sherrie: The thing you have to understand is it was always critically important to us that we stay on PBS. That’s been our home for almost 50 years, and it’s how we reach every child in the United States. But what most people don’t understand is Sesame Workshop is a 501(c)(3), always has been. When I talked about Joan starting in 1969, it was through grants from the Department of Education, Carnegie Foundation, Ford Foundation. We struggle to make sure that we have the funds needed to continue to produce this incredible educational content. And quite frankly, HBO gave us an opportunity to fund that production– which was not an easy thing to do– and to provide the content free to PBS. So it’s really a win-win when you look at it that way.

Denver: Yes, it certainly is. I think people have to understand you have to be pragmatic to be able to scale and continue this work, and that’s what you’ve done… and very intelligently so. I’m no expert at early childhood development, but we’ve had a couple of shows on it, so I’ve learned a lot.  It just seems that the benefits of it are so proven and are so dramatic!  We’re recouping up to $17 for every dollar we invest.  Yet only about 4% of our educational budget and budget around childhood development goes to that 0-5 years of age. Why is that the case? And what can be done about it?

Sherrie: You quote James Heckman, who I think is amazing on this subject. And what I find encouraging is: I do believe people are starting to understand the importance of early childhood. I see that domestically. I even see it now in all of the international work we do and the conversations around international development. When you look at the neuroscience, it proves that the greatest impact in terms of a child’s development is in those first five years. The other thing that the neuroscience shows is when a child is going through trauma, the most important thing to mitigate that trauma is engagement with an adult. And all of this means the early years are where you can make the biggest difference in terms of a child’s trajectory.

And I have to say, I’ve been at Sesame Street for many years, but I’m constantly amazed at how prescient Joan Ganz Cooney and Lloyd Morrisett and their colleagues were back when they started Sesame Street.  Because if you think about it, they knew then to focus on the earliest years. Now, we have evidence and proof and science to prove that that is the smartest place. That’s where we can have the greatest impact. They also knew how important it was to make the show appealing to adults. That’s why you had celebrities; that’s why you had music; that’s why you had humor and parodies. Because if the parent was engaged as well as the child, Joan always felt the learning would be deeper.

Denver: And that is no easy trick– to develop content that appeals at different levels, in a different way, and has them both engaged. Well, Sesame is certainly known for its mission-driven culture and as an organization that’s responsive to societal needs. So what I wanted to do, Sherrie, is to touch on a few of those and have you speak to them, if you would. A wonderful example is when the US Military came to you seeking help about talking to kids when a parent is deployed. Tell us about that, and what you did.

Sherrie: Actually, the genesis of that was really at the Workshop, and it was because there was a front page piece in the  New York Times that said there were some 700,000 families who had very young children who were facing deployment, even multiple deployment. So we actually thought: We have to do something! Sesame has had a long history of creating not just incredible content on the show, but targeted initiatives to address specific issues… always through the lens of a child. So when we thought of the number of young children impacted by what military families were going through, we actually went to the DOD and to others and said, “Is there something we can do here?”

So we created a program called “Talk, Listen, Connect.” It had video content, teachers/ parents guides, military websites. We reached, I think, over 6 million military families. It was distributed through Military OneSource, through every base.  And it was so effective that then the military came back to us and said, “Can we do a second phase around parents coming home injured, or changed?” We ended up even doing a third phase around grief, when a parent doesn’t come home, and I am so proud of this work. But also, we had such compelling research and feedback from families. There was nothing else created for children that young to help parents help them cope with these challenges. And today, we’re still hard at work with this audience, and we have a program called “Transitions,” where we’re helping military families and their children transition back to civilian life, since so many are now veterans and are now moving back into civilian life.

Denver: That is really wonderful stuff, and I love the way you explained how that whole program evolved as it went along. A most interesting partnership you have forged is the one you have with the International Rescue Committee to teach preschool-aged children living in refugee camps.  There are about 60 million refugees in the world; about 30 million of those are children. Tell us what you’re doing, and how you’re distributed in this context.

Sherrie: I’d love to. This is another example where we’re responding to what’s happening in the world, and this is clearly one of the largest humanitarian crises of our lifetime. And to your point, 30 million of those displaced individuals are children, so how could we not be focusing on: what could Sesame Street do? And while we’re in a lot of those countries– we’re on the ground in places like Jordan with local productions, local characters– but we knew if we wanted to reach displaced children, we couldn’t do it alone.

So there are a lot of great organizations working in refugee camps; we work with many of them. But we sought out the International Rescue Committee, the IRC, deliberately because we knew with their work, we could be a great partner in terms of what we bring to the table. And with IRC, if you think of them as our “boots on the ground,” they are directly servicing these families. And if we’re providing content– whether that’s mobile content, whether it’s literally printed materials, and the training– then we believe together, we can make a real, meaningful difference, particularly focusing on the youngest children in these camps.

Denver: I love all your characters, and I looked at the ones in Bangladesh and Egypt and Mexico and other countries around the world. But there was one young lady that really caught my eye, and her name was Zari, in Afghanistan. What are the challenges that you’re looking to address there?  And what has her impact been?

Sherrie: Well, I’m so glad you raised Zari because she’s one of my favorites, too. This is fairly recent. We have had a production in Afghanistan for almost six years. It’s called “Baghch-e-Simsim,” which means sesame garden in Dari and Urdu. But we realized that in a country like Afghanistan, there are so many young girls who do not have access to quality education, who are not allowed to go to school. And while we reach boys and girls alike, and quite frankly, we’re reaching almost 4 million children in Afghanistan through not just television, but also radio and community programs. But we also know the power of these compelling, engaging muppets to not only teach children, but to inspire them.

So we were very deliberate in making sure that our first local muppet, our first Afghan muppet was a girl. She wears her head scarf; she wears her school uniform; she loves to learn; she loves sports. And so everything we do is modeling that a girl can be an equal with the boys, that she can go to school. And I think what’s most rewarding about this work is we see what an impact she’s having—she’s providing quality education to girls who have no other means of preschool education. But by inspiring and modeling, we’re also affecting little boys’ attitudes. And we have research that shows that little boys who regularly watch test 30% higher on attitudes of gender equity, because they think:  “It’s fine for my sister to go to school!”

I’ll give you one more anecdotal piece of data that I find so moving. The State Department helped fund this project, and they did their own research. This was qualitative research. And they found again and again that fathers actually said they had changed their minds about permitting their daughters to go to school.

Denver: So you’re reaching big boys, too.

Sherrie: Absolutely. And again, that’s the power of these muppets. They engage parents and caregivers, adults as well as children, boys as well as girls, and, I think, in a non-threatening way.

Denver: Yes. That’s a big difference. I did see Zari in one of these schools, and I saw all the girls running up to kiss her.  I mean, it just lifted your heart to see them like that.

Sherrie: They’re little rock stars, I have to tell you.

Denver: I can only imagine, Sherrie, how heartwarming and rewarding it must’ve been to have experienced at Sesame the response that you got from parents to your ”See Amazing in All Children”  initiative. Tell us about that program.

Sherrie: You’re mentioning all my favorites because this was our autism initiative. It’s still going on strong. In fact, we have Phase II to launch in the Spring, and we want to make sure this is evergreen and that we’re constantly providing more and more content. But the idea came again because we looked at what’s happening: 1 in 68 children in the US is now diagnosed on the autism spectrum, so how could we not be trying to figure out how we could address and help those families and those children?

What I love about this initiative “See Amazing in All Children”  in particular is that there are two objectives. We have provided and created incredible content to help families with an autistic child make those everyday moments somewhat easier. These are apps; there are videos; there are storybooks. We also created Julia, the first ever autistic muppet. And when you think about the ability for us to de-stigmatize autism, to build awareness and empathy… When you have a muppet like Julia—and for instance in the storybook, Elmo is best friends with Julia, and he’s introducing Julia to his friend, Abby. Abby’s reaction is, “Oh, I don’t think Julia likes me. She doesn’t look like she wants to play with me. She doesn’t look me in the eye.” And Elmo is able to explain, “Oh, no, no, no. That doesn’t mean she doesn’t want to be your friend.” And so the second sort of objective here was to create content that could help all children understand, have more empathy, and know what they have in common with an autistic child, versus just seeing the differences.

Denver: With autism being so much more prevalent among boys than girls, what made you go with Julia?

Sherrie: Well, in every initiative we undertake, we start with our own incredible amount of research, and we pull together advisory councils so that we’re talking to experts about an area that we may not know as well. Through our work, through our advisors, we realized it was actually very important for people to understand that a girl could also be autistic. So you’re right. Most cases, there are more boys who are on the spectrum than girls.  But part of our goal is to break down the misunderstandings. So, what better way to debunk that myth than to show that Julia is a little girl, not a little boy?  That was very deliberate.

Denver: Sure. And very interesting. Well, as you just mentioned, you have a great reputation for doing a lot of rigorous research– both the formative kind, when you’re setting up a program and designing it, but also at the back end when you’re measuring your impact and results. Tell us about some of the things you’ve discovered from that research.

Sherrie: Well, you have to understand again, going all the way back to the roots of Sesame, research is in our DNA. It was always combining researchers, educators, and the producers. We tested everything and still do in terms of our, as you say, formative research. Are we effectively teaching what we set out to teach? Does the content engage with children? So, we will always do our homework, and everything is steeped in research. The summative research– or the impact research– is critically important because if we’re not impactful, we want to be able to self-correct.  And we also could not raise the necessary funding if we weren’t showing our impact. It’s also what we’re there for. We’ve got to… for our own sense of impact… we have to know what’s working and what’s not.

But let me give you some examples. The one that is most often cited was a longitudinal study on Sesame Street in the US. It showed that children who grew up watching Sesame Street performed 16% higher on their grades, even in high school. So instilling that sort of basic learning, arriving at kindergarten ready to learn… and that joy of learning stayed with them. So that kind of research is so important because it shows the efficacy of how one can teach through media. But in other countries, I’ll give you an example. In Bangladesh, where we have a local production called “Simsimpur,” children who watched test 67% higher in literacy.

So you can have an incredibly meaningful impact and move the needle by providing this content to children who have no other means of quality education. I can give you data in every country on gender equity, on  attitudes around water sanitation and hygiene– where we set out to teach basic wash behaviors– because we have the ability to change attitudes, to change behaviors, as well as to impart cognitive learning.

Denver:  You’re making a difference.

Sherrie: We are making a difference.

Denver: I think something that a lot of our listeners might wonder about is whether you’ve done any research on screen time– the appropriate amount of screen time that infants or young children should be getting. Do you have any overall philosophy on that?

Sherrie: We follow the American Academy of Pediatrics recommendation on screen time.  Interestingly, they just recently said that they felt 18 months was about the right age where one could introduce screens to a child. But the most important thing to understand in that is: Content and context matter. It’s what a child is seeing on that screen.

Denver: The kind of screen time.

Sherrie: Absolutely. And I will say that one of the things that we mentioned earlier that is baked into Sesame Street is: inspiring and including the adult, so that the content is also modeling engagement and becoming a catalyst for that engagement. So, it’s not just what you’re doing when you’re watching, it’s what happens after the screen time. It also is what happens if a child is engaged while an adult is as well, so that that can be a catalyst for that engagement.

Denver: That’s a great point. I also noted you’re putting a sharper focus on kindness– something which does seem to be in rather short supply these days. In fact, you recently completed a survey on kindness. What did it tell us?

Sherrie: Well, absolutely. But I want to say, we are really emphasizing kindness, but again, it’s something that we have always done. It’s part of our DNA. Our mission at Sesame Street is to help children everywhere grow smarter, stronger, and kinder. And that is not just a clever tagline.

This is a production, and every initiative we do has a whole child curriculum. What is meant by that to educators is that it’s both the cognitive and the social and emotional skills. We know that a child…it is as important that they have those social and emotional skills to arrive at kindergarten– ready to learn and to succeed– as it is:  literacy and numeracy. Kinder has always been an important part. Smarter – literacy, numeracy; Stronger – resilience, health; Kinder – empathy, understanding.

But we also knew today that it really felt like this world needs to be a little kinder. We did a study because we actually wanted to start more of a national conversation around kindness. We also wanted to see: “Do parents feel the same as we do? That there needs to be an emphasis on kindness?”  And we found:  Absolutely!  Among parents and teachers, there was a real consensus that the world is unkind, and the importance of teaching kindness, empathy. There was also agreement in terms of: that has more to do with the child succeeding than just the basic academics.

It’s important to note that every season of Sesame Street is an experiment. The basics are always there:  the same: smarter, stronger, kinder, but we emphasize a particular curriculum each year. So the new season, which has just launched, the curriculum is kindness, and that’s what we’re emphasizing.

Denver: That’s great. Let me get back to the business side of Sesame Workshop for a second. We haven’t had much of an opportunity on this show to talk about licensing – how it works, the revenue it generates to support the mission, the role it plays in building a brand. Sesame Workshop knows licensing. How important is it to your operations?  And how do you go about it?

Sherrie: Well, Sesame Workshop, first and foremost, is a nonprofit organization, always has been, 501(c)(3).  But when Sesame Street was launched and was so incredibly popular, they realized they had an opportunity to license the characters. It’s why you saw Sesame Street Plush and toys, and that that was a wonderful means of unrestricted income. I’m sure most nonprofits would love to have that unrestricted revenue source, and I will say the only caveat is: I do think it is one of the reasons that fewer people understand that we’re a nonprofit. They love Sesame Street, but when you see toys, you assume maybe we’re commercial; you assume we have plenty of funding. So, one of our challenges is to try to raise more awareness for the depth and breadth of our work, the fact that we are nonprofit organization in need of funding, our mission-driven work, and the fact that every penny goes to support our educational content. We have no shareholders. But it is a challenge for us, and it’s one of the reasons we’re launching something we’re calling the “Yellow Feather Fund.”

Denver: What is that?

Sherrie: Well, the Yellow Feather Fund was inspired by Big Bird. Big Bird is really known for kindness and generosity.  Big Bird  created his own Yellow Feather Fund. He created a lemonade stand actually to raise money for children around the world. If nothing else, we hope it raises awareness so that people understand Sesame’s work and our nonprofit status, and,yes, our need for support.

We’re very fortunate the license revenue helped support this work, but it’s not enough. And if you also understand the dynamics, there are so many children’s properties today. That’s not a source of revenue that will grow. It’s much less than it was years ago. We get about a third of our program support from foundations, generous corporate partners, even government grants. But that’s a third, and the licensing is about a third, and then we have distribution fees. But we don’t have the individual giving that most nonprofits do….Interestingly enough, only 3% of our revenue comes from individuals. So, we have decided that we are going to invest in trying to raise awareness to, of course, try to cultivate major donors. But because Sesame is so beloved, people always want to help; you find that with our autism initiative. People would just…when they understood what we were doing… they wanted to be supportive. So, the Yellow Feather Fund is meant to give people an opportunity to support Sesame and our great work at the grassroots level, if you will.

Denver: Grassroots, yes. Well, that’s great! Well, how do they get involved? What’s the proposition going to be?  And how are people going to get engaged?

Sherrie: Well, I hope you go to if you love Sesame and if you want to support our mission-driven work. We are so grateful for all of our support from all of our funders. We’ve had amazing support from corporate partners like American Greetings. Actually, autism would not have been possible without American Greetings; Robert Wood Johnson Foundation; Gates Foundation supported our work in India, Bangladesh and Nigeria around basic water sanitation and hygiene. We’re so grateful for that support, but we want to do so much more, and we cannot do it without the philanthropic support.

Denver: Absolutely. I’ve looked at the list, and it’s a very impressive list. it’s just not long enough.

Sherrie: Exactly. You have to understand, too, we’re fortunate to have the licensing revenue to help. You mentioned HBO?  That helps pay for the production of the show, but not the military familes or the autism initiative or, for heaven’s sakes, Bangladesh. There’s no licensing revenue in places like Afghanistan and Bangladesh. We’re there because of the generous support of like-minded funders and people that want to make a difference.

Denver: Yes. And you have such wonderful and distinct programs that people can attach themselves to.  Whether it be a corporate sponsor, or even an individual, donations can go to something that is very meaningful to that person.

Let me talk to you a little bit about corporate culture. I’m always fascinated by corporate culture, and I know Sesame Workshop is a great place to work. And as a leader there– one who’s an optimistic person, someone who has the long view– what’s the kind of work environment that you’re seeking to create at Sesame Workshop?

Sherrie: Well, listen. Actually, the reason I came to Sesame Workshop was—it’s a long time ago, 18 years ago, I can’t believe I’ve been there that long!  But my daughter was just 3-years-old; I had adopted a little girl from China.  Lily was 3. I loved my work, I was at ABC at that time, but I really, at that point, knew I wanted to focus mainly on children. I knew I wanted to be in a place that would be family-friendly because I cared very much about being a good mom, devoting as much time to it as I could.  And I thought:  What better place than Sesame where everything is about helping children?  You have to be family-friendly when you’re at Sesame Street, and we’ve honored that. I have so many young women who work for me who have young children. We have always tried to be very flexible in that regard. And I think the reason it’s a great culture, most of all,  is because everybody there knows they’re contributing to helping children grow smarter, stronger, and kinder.  And that is so rewarding!

Denver: Sure is. So tell us what’s next for Sesame Street? I know you have a movie coming out, and I also know that your 50th anniversary is around the corner in 2019. Now, there are not too many other TV shows, Sherrie, that you can look at to see what they did for their 50th anniversary. Have you started planning for it, and can you give us a little tease on anything that might be on your mind?

Sherrie: Absolutely. We’ve already started brainstorming from every corner of the Workshop on the 50th because people are so excited about it. And we will celebrate the heritage of Sesame, absolutely. We will celebrate with partners. But we also want to use the 50th as a hook for people to understand we’re not just 50 years old.  We’re as relevant and as impactful as ever… And I think to  shine a light on the real impact we’ve made in children’s lives on many of the issues you’ve mentioned, but also on where we go for the next 50 years.  Because we want to just keep making a difference, and we want every child to have the same opportunity to grow smarter, stronger, and kinder.

Denver: You certainly have.  And you don’t sit back and wait for it to come to you; you go out there, and you look for it. It’s so good to see how you’ve created, through your own impetus and initiative, all these programs. Well, Sherrie Westin, Executive Vice President of Global Impact and Philanthropy, I want to thank you so much for being on the show this evening. Now, if listeners want to learn more about all the work you do at Sesame Workshop or, again, if they want to make a financial contribution to help support this life-changing work, what would you have them do?

Sherrie: Well, I would love that. I hope they would go to sesameworkshop.orgwhere they can learn about this amazing work and our initiatives. And even more, if people wanted to support that work and would go to, I would be so thrilled.  We are so grateful for people’s support. And most of all, I just appreciate you giving me the opportunity to talk about this work because it is making such a difference, and so few people understand the depth and breadth of this work.

Denver: Well, they’ll understand a lot better after listening to you, Sherrie. It was a real pleasure to have you on the program.

Sherrie: Thank you so much!