Better World

Sesame Street Turns 50: A Look at Inclusivity, Cultural Acceptance and Kindness

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Mention that big yellow bird or the fluffy green grump in a trash can, and millions of kids and adults alike immediately know the neighborhood. This year, Sesame Street celebrates its 50-year anniversary of preparing children for success all over the world.

The anniversary episode takes a stroll down memory lane, looking back at favorite characters from the neighborhood. The hour-long special also packs a star-studded lineup, including special guests Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Whoopi Goldberg, Patti Labelle and Sterling K. Brown. 

When Sesame Street launched in 1969, it aired on 180 public networks. The show’s stated purpose has always been to help children reach their full potential. Sesame Street producers aimed that mission at bridging gaps in education, particularly between low-income neighborhoods and wealthier districts. Even at a time when much of the U.S. was still deeply racially and socially divided, the show didn’t shy away from portraying love and acceptance between children of all backgrounds.

The program grew rapidly, and by 1973 versions were launched in Brazil, Mexico, Canada and West Germany. But now, the show is broadcast in over 150 countries, and no two programs are quite the same regarding content or culture.

International versions of Sesame Street reflect the values — and problems — children see in their own communities throughout the world. In 1998, a Middle East version was launched, featuring Israeli and Palestinian children who lived on different streets, but sometimes visited each other to play together. It was later cancelled. Ahlan Simsim, which translates to “Welcome Sesame” in Arabic, is a Middle Eastern version of the show new this year, which brings educational and uplifting content to refugee children in Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, and Iraq featuring the character Jad, who is a refugee himself.

In the U.S. version, Julia is a new autistic character who will join the regular Sesame Street crew in April. Julia and her family were introduced in 2017, and the show has rolled out resources to help children learn how to encourage acceptance and neurodiversity. The cast also includes Karli, a character living in the foster care system whose mother battles with addiction.

Kami is another great example of Sesame Street tackling tough issues — she’s a five-year-old muppet who is HIV-positive. Kami was first introduced in 2002 on Takalani Street, the South African version of the program. She’s appeared on the show alongside African anti-apartheid human rights activists Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela.

Kami, which is short for Kamogelo or “welcoming” in the region’s Tswana language, contracted HIV from a tainted blood transfusion at birth. Kami’s mother died when she was an infant. Kami’s character helps young children deal with feelings of loss, sadness and acceptance — crucial messaging in a country where more than a million children have been orphaned by HIV/AIDS and 18 percent of adults carry it. Nigeria, which faces similar struggles with the virus, introduced Kami on Sesame Square in 2011 to help children combat stigma.

Sesame Street was the first-ever show targeted at disadvantaged youth using a research-based curriculum. And today, the results speak for themselves: over 1,000 studies show that children who watch Sesame Street are better prepared in literacy and math, and perform better in elementary school overall. Not only do kids benefit academically, but one study even found that regular viewing led to children forming more positive attitudes toward people from different backgrounds.

With more Emmy awards than any other television series, Sesame Street continues to engage communities and fulfill its mission — fostering a place where everyone counts.

Kaley LaQuea is an award–winning print and digital journalist who’s been creating content since 2008. She’s passionate about economic, environmental and social justice. She has an unhealthy relationship with caffeine and two cats: Totoro and Mononoke.