Sesame Street recently revealed a new character to their show lineup, and it’s one that’s got us pretty encouraged. The new addition to the Street, Lily, is a homeless child that was first introduced several years ago. At the time, she talked about “food insecurity” because her family didn’t have enough to eat.
The beauty of Sesame Street has always been that they try to educate all young children and provide diverse characters to do so. But in including Lily, as well as other recent additions like Julia, a character introduced in 2017 who has autism, they’re showing that representation matters to them. They’re showing the countless kids who watch their show that everyone’s story matters, that everyone deserves love and friendship, and that everyone is important.
This does a lot of things. First of all, it models acceptance. Too often, kids learn bullying behaviors as a way of processing that which they perceive as “other” or “different.” When they’re taught diversity and inclusion from a young age, they won’t fear or antagonize another child just for being different. Ideally they will embrace that child and spread love and friendship themselves.
Second, it empowers kids who are the “different” ones. Minorities, kids with disabilities, kids with no home of their own. These kids can be forgotten by things like popular storybooks read in school, textbooks, general lesson plans. But when arguably the most popular show for young children is broadcasting and accepting the difference, the struggle, the power in being unique, kids are more apt to own those differences. To feel empowered themselves. To know that they can accomplish anything because they see it being done in their entertainment sources.
Many of us have never had to search for a character to relate to. Straight white people are the default heroes and heroines, and while female representation still has a way to go in equality of portrayal, white women are still not hard pressed to find strong role models for ourselves.
But what about little children of color? What about little children in wheelchairs, or children with mental disabilities?
What about children who don’t have a home?
Who is telling their stories? Who is telling the world that 1 in 20 children have experienced homelessness? When we think of “homelessness”, we tend to think of someone sleeping in a cardboard box under a bridge.
But it encompasses so much more than that. Homelessness can mean that someone had to move in with family or friends because their parents fell upon rough times, and it can mean that they have to change schools to go wherever their parents can find for them to stay.
It can mean ostracism and alienation. OR, now, it can mean acceptance and love. 1 in 20 is a large number; in almost any public school classroom there are more than 20 students.
Sesame Street is normalizing things like discussing feelings of insecurity about where a child will get their next meal or if they’ll ever have their own home. We should both rejoice about this representation and grieve that it’s necessary. We should laud Sesame Street and encourage the children in our lives to tune in, while doing what WE can to end homelessness as a problem for children and for the next generation. We should imagine how we would feel if it was OUR children, and work to help them with that same vigor in mind.
Sesame Street Introduces New Homeless Character, USA Today