Behind the Brand N
In a shoebox-size studio at Sesame Workshop’s headquarters
on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, cast and crew members expert in
all things Muppet are preparing to film a 90-second video starring
Elmo and his new friend, Karli, a lime-green monster with yellow-feathered pigtails who is in foster care. The purpose of the scene, as
with so many Sesame stories, is to use pretend play to address a real-world issue “without overstating it,” says Kama Einhorn, a senior
content manager for Sesame Workshop, the nonprofit that creates
both Sesame Street and a slew of other educational materials that,
like this video, live entirely outside the show.
The cast reviews the plan for the scene: Elmo and Karli will use
their stuffed animals to construct a castle out of blocks. But when
Karli’s stuffed elephant accidentally knocks over the castle, the cheer-
ful Muppet will crumple with guilt. As Elmo consoles her, Karli will
quietly admit that she used to feel similarly because of her mom’s
“problem,” until she learned that drug addiction isn’t her fault and
that her mom loves her “no matter what.”
The story appears straightforward, but Einhorn and her supervis-
ing producer, Melissa Dino, have meticulously engineered every line
of the script, channeling the perspective of their young viewers. “Kids
can understand the concept of accidents not being your fault when
they can see what happens in the physical world,” explains Einhorn.
Teaching them to apply that principle to a familial relationship that’s
being roiled by substance abuse is difficult, but crucial.
THE NONPROFIT BEHIND SESAME
STREET HAS A TEAM FOCUSED
ON HELPING KIDS IN TIMES OF TRAUMA;
BECAUSE NOT EVERY DAY IS SUNNY.
BY AINSLEY HARRIS
PHOTOGRAPHS BY MACKENZIE S TROH
With the cameras rolling, Elmo and Karli run the
scene from the top. By the time the actors hunched below
the camera’s view stretch their characters’ furry limbs
into a closing hug—with Elmo telling Karli that he, too,
loves her no matter what—the crew members are wiping
their eyes. “It’s always a good sign when the crew gets
teary,” Einhorn says.
Since Sesame Street first aired on public television
in November 1969, the program has been speaking the
language of childhood without relegating children to
a separate, sanitized sphere. (Remember Teletubby-land?) With its signature mix of Muppets and humans,
singsong make-believe, and grouchy New York grit,
the Sesame formula has helped the nonprofit behind
the show, Sesame Workshop, grow into a multifaceted
organization that produces content reaching more than
150 million children in 150 countries every day.
Sesame has never shied away from challenging
subject matter: It dealt honestly with the real-world
death of the actor who played Mr. Hooper in 1983, and
has addressed everything from HIV/AIDS to Israeli-Palestinian relations in the decades since. But in 2015,
led by Jeanette Betancourt, senior vice president for U.S.
social impact, the nonprofit began exploring the idea of
creating an online library—with videos, storybooks, activities, and more—for children who have experienced
trauma, as well as for their caregivers and service providers. The initiative, Sesame Street in Communities,
launched two years later and has been methodically
tackling specific topics. In 2018, it was homelessness.
This year, it’s foster care and parental substance addiction. Next up will be gun violence.
“There is more and more science and understanding of the impact that traumatic events have on a child’s
ability to learn,” says Sherrie Westin, president of social impact and philanthropy for Sesame Workshop.
That impact, she says, is profound, and intervention is
“The sad reality is that children
are the first to get hurt and the
last to get help,” says Jerry Moe,
who counsels kids about addiction in their families as the
national director of the children’s program at the Hazelden
Betty Ford Foundation. “
Addiction is this disease of silence,
secrecy, and shame,” he says,
and yet “children know when
something is wrong.” If no one
in their life takes the time to
explain what’s happening, kids
make up their own explanations. “Often it’s that they did
Ganz Cooney and
than 450 employees,
not including multitudes of Muppets
Street, plus more
than 30 local
versions since 1972