About two weeks ago Julia and I attended the US Global Leadership Council’s annual conference. The day was filled with brilliant speakers, but in the end we both agreed that one of our favorites was Gary Knell, President and CEO of Sesame Working shop. He discussed “Muppet Diplomacy”, the idea that through educational television we can develop nations and encourage a more positive relationship between the U.S. and other nations. As Julia mentioned in an earlier post, this was a refreshing viewpoint on a panel that mostly focused on the direct impact of development on business’ pockets (not so surprising since it was a panel on development’s economic impacts).

Sesame Workshop was founded thirty-eight years ago to help low income children in the U.S. prepare for school. The concept was simple: use television to address the developmental needs of children. Since then, the Sesame Street model has gone global. Sesame Workshop works with 18 countries (Australia, Bangladesh, Brazil, Egypt ,France, Germany, India, Indonesia, Israel, Japan, Jordan, Kosovo, Mexico, Netherlands, Northern Ireland, Palestine, Russia, South Africa ) on locally produced media following the Sesame model. Each production team involves the top educators, researchers, psychologists, child development experts, artists, writers and musicians in their respective countries. Today Sesame Street if the most researched show in history.

What is most interesting about this process is how local productions are using the Sesame model to talk about regionally relevant issues. Rechov Sumsum, the production in Israel features Arab-Israeli and Jewish- Israeli muppets living together in harmony. Alam Simsim, Egypt’s production features a bright young female muppet, Khokha, to promote the empowerment and education of young girls.

South Africa’s Takalani Sesame embodies the spirit of the “rainbow nation” and features muppets that speak with accents that reflect the diversity of the nation. Most notable is Kami, a young female muppet who is HIV positive. As South Africa continues to be devastated by the HIV/AIDS epidemic, the show is attempting to dispel the culture of silence and stigma surrounding the issue.

The name “Kami” comes from the Setswana word “Kamodelo” which means “acceptance.” Kami is a positive, lovable character that is accepted by her fellow muppets despite her HIV status. She also encourages less shame associated with HIV status. “Sometimes when you’re ill, you mustn’t keep it a secret, you must tell people,” she explains in one episode.  Kami is asymptomatic, which is becoming more common with the increasing prevalence of treatment and drug availability through the government. A few days ago I saw this Time article announcing that Nigeria’s new Sesame Square will also feature the lovable Kami. I am excited to see Kami’s popularity and hope that this is an indication of shifting attitudes regarding HIV positive individuals.

The Sesame Street model is providing a much needed forum for discussing the difficult issues that many nations are facing. These shows are teaching children concepts of understanding and cooperation where they may have little exposure to them otherwise. And, they are encouraging them to start thinking and talking about these issues from a young age.  It is difficult to think of more valuable lessons for the future generations of leaders and global citizens.