Stories Untold: Saving Sesame Street from the America First Budget

Guest post: Rev. Elizabeth Grasham

I won’t bury the lede: I vehemently oppose President Trump’s “America First” budget for innumerable reasons.  But one of the big reasons I oppose it is because he’s threatening Sesame Street.

Before my divorce was final, I took my son to see his incarcerated father on a once-a-month schedule.  Our visits were always the same: the car would be searched at the entrance gate, we would take a Ziploc bag of quarters, my keys and ID inside, we would go through a body search inside the prison, and then we would sit down at the glass partition and wait for his father to arrive.  One Saturday in June, four years ago, as I presented our paperwork at the visitation desk, the guards gave me something in return.  Without explanation, I received a children’s book, “In My Family,” and a DVD from the Sesame Street Workshop.  Both of them were centered on new puppet characters that had a parent in jail.

My son was only 3 at the time, but in that moment I realized I had never seen any book or television show or movie that centered on the story of a young child with a parent in jail.   That vacuum of representation is preposterous, considering that in 2011-2012 alone, 477,000 Texas children (or 7% of the child population) had experienced the trauma of being separated from a parent through incarceration.  6 years ago, over 5 million children nationwide were affected by parental incarceration. Those numbers have only increased.

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It took years till I would encounter another child focused pop-culture story that featured a kid with a parent in jail.   Last December, the cartoon movie “Sing” was released and one of the main characters, Johnny, has a dad who ends up arrested and incarcerated in the timeframe of the movie.  Now, to be clear, Johnny seems to be a young adult (and is also a gorilla), so I’m not sure my son really felt a strong connection to him.  But still, it had taken 3.5 years for anyone with huge cultural reach other than Sesame Street to address the life experience that at least 5 million kids in the United States count as “normal.”

Sesame Street has a long history of lifting up the stories of children that other kids entertainment creators gloss over.  The South African version of Sesame Street, Takalani Sesame, features Kami, the HIV-positive Muppet.  Abby Cadabby, a character introduced in 2006, was the first Muppet to have explicitly divorced parents. In 2011, Sesame Street introduced Lily, a “food insecure” Muppet, who sometimes goes hungry because of her family’s financial situation.  Just recently, Sesame Street introduced a Muppet character named Julia who is on the autism spectrum.  The puppeteer who performs Julia, Stacy Gordon, has a son who is on the spectrum, and she recently said “Man, I really wish that kids in my son’s class had grown up with a Sesame Street that had modeling [of] the behavior of inclusion of characters with autism.”

My son doesn’t watch Sesame Street anymore, but I want to preserve this venerable children’s educational institution for all the children who still do.  I want kids to grow up and see themselves represented in all their favorite entertainment mediums.  I want, like Stacy Gordon, for children to learn about the different ways their friends struggle and grieve and learn and grow.  When we make space for, and lift up, the stories of people distinctly unlike us, we also raise up generations that have better developed empathy muscles than we do now.

As a Christian minister serving in an increasingly polarized and often vicious cultural milieu, I want to support institutions that breed empathy, prioritize education, and teach us to see and value our neighbors.

Since my ex-husband’s incarceration 6 years ago, I’ve experienced the pain of belonging to an invisible minority within the population.  I’ve learned the difficulty of seeing yourself caricatured and even dismissed by popular culture; of witnessing your child look for and fail to find themselves in the stories that they enjoy.  Subsequently, I’ve overhauled my preaching, rejecting the narrow definitions of “family,” or so-called “normative” life experiences, to include  and celebrate all the ways that we identify ourselves and form our tribes.  I’m still working, learning to be less euro-centric, less hetero-normative, less ableist, in the way I talk about the human experience and how it relates to the Kingdom of God.  But in no small part thanks to Sesame Street, I know that the only way we getter better at being human is to talk about all the different ways our humanity takes shape.

I hope that people of faith and of no-faith can unite around Sesame Street, and PBS, and the CPB, and the NiH, and the NEA, and NASA, and all the other public institutions that formidably serve the common good and find themselves threatened by President Trump’s proposed budget.  Our kids and our neighbors’ kids deserve a better future, a future that Sesame Street should be a part of.

rev g picRev. Elizabeth Grasham is the Solo Pastor of Heights Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Houston, TX.  She serves on the Board the Coastal Plains Area of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in the Southwest Region, is currently ending her term on the Regional Committee on Ministry for the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in the Southwest Region, and will soon begin serving the Board of The Young ClergyWomen Project.  Elizabeth blogs over at And Yet I Sing, and draws napkin notes for her son’s lunches on Instagram.   She is mom, a step-mom, and an avid lover of many geeky things, including but not limited to Star Wars, Neil Gaiman, and Dungeons & Dragon (3rd edition, obviously). 

"No; I travel with a retinue of house elves."

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