This post is part of a special report on social innovation from What Matters, McKinsey & Company’s journal of ideas, in which innovators from around the world share their strategies.
For over forty years, Sesame Workshop has had a singular mission: to empower the lives of children through media. But media changes, and the needs of children change as well. We know that the world is evolving, and that what benefits children today may not affect the children of tomorrow. At the Workshop, we claim that every season of Sesame Street is an experiment; the truth of this assertion, I believe, is borne out in our history.
As a research-based organization (we have always had a team of full-time educational researchers on staff), we are continuously refining our content to ensure that we are having the desired educational effect. We also investigate the issues of the day, to figure out where we—Elmo and Big Bird, Grover and Rosita—can make a difference in the lives of children. And while most people know of us for our work on literacy and numeracy, Sesame Workshop tackles topics affecting the whole child—a wide array of issues that families across America and around the world face.
In recent years, Sesame Workshop has worked to educate caregivers and children on issues ranging from asthma to disaster preparedness. We have helped parents and caregivers talk with their children about difficult topics, such as the grieving process. Internationally, there are scores of localized Sesame Street productions reaching children on all six inhabited continents, addressing issues such as HIV, malaria prevention, female empowerment, and of course, the ABCs—or, rather, their equivalent in dozens of languages.
Recently, we entered a new area: childhood hunger.
Hunger is an issue that is often times ignored. Some who suffer are held back by shame from getting help. Others simply do not know whom to ask, or where to go, for assistance. And because those at risk do not often vocalize their needs to others, hunger can be an invisible problem, even in your community.
With roughly 20 percent of American children—one in five!—not having enough to eat, the problem is truly widespread. Factor in the scores of other children not eating properly, and American hunger is a true epidemic and growing.
We here at Sesame Workshop have a unique opportunity. Through our Sesame Street Muppets, we are able to reach and engage with a wide audience—one of all ages. We can raise awareness for this vital children’s health issue by weaving the magic of Elmo, Grover, and their friends with the true-to-life stories of children and families who are battling every day to cope with the economic uncertainties that have wreaked havoc with their finances and dinner tables. We can make a difference.
And unlike the Sesame Street of yesteryear, when we were just a television program, today’s approach is multifaceted, as we adapt to the innovations in media that are the hallmark of our times. Through our Healthy Habits for Life initiatives, we have created content, kits, and tools that help grownups address hunger, exercise, and related topics with the children in their lives. And in October, we introduced our newest Sesame Street Muppet, Lily, on a television special titled Growing Hope Against Hunger.
Growing Hope Against Hunger focused on the lives of children battling hunger. Lily, a new friend to Elmo and the gang, is going through the same trials and tribulations that many American children and their families are: more mouths to feed than food to go around. By sharing her story, Lily showed that there is not only no shame in being hungry, but that our communities can and often will come together to keep our neighbors and friends healthy, happy, and on the course toward better things. We mixed in real-life stories from families nationwide—true stories of hunger, perseverance, and hope—in an effort to remove the stigma of hunger in America.
But hunger—and for that matter, a child’s ongoing development more generally—require more than a prime-time television special. So, we do more. Through our partners and advisors, we distribute thousands of free outreach kits (in both English and Spanish) containing this content to children in need. Further, we make all of our outreach content available online, for free, on SesameStreet.org. And of course, there is still the Sesame Street you know and love, echoing these same themes every morning on your television.
As children move toward other forms of media, we will be there, too. We have an award-winning children’s website, smartphone apps, podcasts, educational video games, and more, all of which are focused on the same goal as the television show. As we all know, wherever there is a screen, there is a child. And if Sesame Workshop can reach that child, we can empower that child’s life.