By Sherrie Westin, President of Global Impact and Philanthropy | Sesame Workshop
“BROAD PARTNERSHIPS ARE THE KEY TO SOLVING BROAD CHALLENGES.”
Ban Ki-moon calls that one of the main lessons he learned as UN Secretary-General, and it’s something we at Sesame Workshop take to heart. Our mission is to help children everywhere grow smarter, stronger, and kinder—and often the most powerful way to achieve that mission is alongside a partner whose strengths complement our own.
People may know Sesame Workshop as the creator of Sesame Street, but many may not know that we reach children around the world through locally-created versions of the television series and targeted initiatives in the U.S. and internationally. Whether we are addressing HIV/AIDS in South Africa with the help of our HIV+ Muppet Kami, or tackling the lack of opportunities for girls by promoting gender equity and inclusion in places like Afghanistan, India, and beyond, Sesame has a long history of addressing some of the most challenging issues facing children. So, considering the massive refugee crisis prompted by the Syrian conflict, and given the staggering number of children forced to flee everything they’ve known, we knew we had a responsibility to help.
But we also knew we couldn’t do it alone. We needed a partner who understood the plight of refugees as well as we understand the needs of young children. That’s what brought us together with the International Rescue Committee (IRC)—the organization that’s arguably done more for refugees than just about any other, providing life-changing services to over 26 million people in 40 countries.
By combining the unique strengths of our two organizations—and with the support of the MacArthur Foundation, who honored us with their first “100&Change” grant of $100 million—Sesame Workshop and the IRC have embarked upon the largest early childhood intervention in the history of humanitarian response – something neither of our organizations would be able to do alone.
Challenges and opportunities abound in equal measure. For one thing, protracted refugee situations across the globe now last an estimated 26 years on average, yet less than three percent of the humanitarian budget goes to education–and only a tiny sliver of that is dedicated to early childhood education. At Sesame, we’ve always focused on a child’s earliest years, when it’s possible to have the greatest impact. Before age five, a child’s brain forms as many as 700 neural connections per second, laying the foundation for all of the learning, behavior, and physical and mental health to follow.
If we can bring quality early education to refugee children and promote positive adult-child interactions at this highly impressionable stage, we can affect their long-term wellbeing and the way they see themselves and the world.
The key to our plan is to reach young children and families wherever they are: in their homes and communities, in pre-schools and health clinics, on their mobile phones and on television. A brand new, localized version of Sesame Street will reach millions of children in Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria—teaching not only the academic basics, but also the socio-emotional skills they need to thrive. And, leveraging the IRC’s vast network on the ground, we’ll work with thousands of home visitors and facilitators to reach 1.5 million of the most vulnerable children through home visits, learning centers, and community programs — all designed to help caregivers restore nurturing relationships and give children the tools they need to overcome the trauma of war.
Of course everything we create for the project will feature our engaging Muppets, who have the power to connect with children and parents alike, imparting both simple and complex lessons. We believe children learn best when they see themselves represented on screen—so, when we create targeted local Sesame Street productions in places like India or Afghanistan, we develop characters to whom children can relate, with storylines that reflect their realities. This new show will feature iconic Sesame characters as well as new furry friends created especially for audiences in the region.
And our unique partnership has drawn support from government agencies and major NGOs across the region. Perhaps best of all, it is poised to scale, providing a remarkably cost-effective model that can be used by others working with children and families in future contexts, helping refugee children around the globe for generations to come.