"It's just amazing to be on Sesame Street." Sesame Workshop India's Sonali Khan on the worldwide love for the brand and its legacy beyond fun and learning

"It's just amazing to be on Sesame Street." Sesame Workshop India's Sonali Khan on the worldwide love for the brand and its legacy beyond fun and learning

When we first got the invitation to get an interview with Sesame Street, I immediately asked, "Is it with Cookie Monster?" Turns out I'm not the only adult who got excited, even Mike Shinoda's All That Matters highlight was being interviewed by the cookie-loving muppet.

Even if you didn't grow up on Sesame Street, chances are you'd have come across Bert, Ernie (or the infamous rubber duckie), Big Bird, Cookie Monster, Elmo, Count Dracula, Oscar the Grouch, or Grover at some point in your life.

Songs like 'Sunny Days' and 'People In Your Neighbourhood' are reminiscent of childhood, or if you're a former preschool teacher like myself, it's an instant throwback to teaching kindergarteners. Just the opening notes of the Sesame Street Theme Song can instantly make you feel bright and happy, even on dark and dreary days. As an educator, I've used some of their songs and videos available on their YouTube channel to aid in the lessons I would teach in class. (OK GO's 'Three Primary Colours' is a personal favourite.)

However, the legacy of Sesame Street goes beyond classrooms and cuts across culture, race, gender, and generations - with countless celebrity guests throughout the years - from legendary musicians like Patti La Belle to former US First Lady, Michelle Obama, to the muppets gracing stages like NPR's Tiny Desk Concert, and explaining relevant world issues to children, such as racism and the COVID-19 pandemic

Now on their 51st year, Sesame Street has added even more diverse characters such as Julia, a muppet with autism, Rosita, a bilingual muppet who speaks English and Spanish, and Kami, an HIV-positive 5-year-old muppet. Making education accessible to many children around the world, Sesame Street is currently available in over 150 countries and has been translated in languages like Spanish, Arabic, and Hindi, as well as several local dialects.

In a Zoom interview, I spoke with Sonali Khan of Sesame Workshop India to talk about what makes Sesame Street special, tackling social issues and themes in their shows, and everyone just wanting to meet the Sesame Street muppets.

Hi, Sonali! First off, can you tell us what do you do at Sesame Street?

Sonali: I am the Managing Director and Head of Operations of Sesame Workshop India, so I manage all the operations and mission-driven goals in India. That's my role.

Before this, I have spent a lot of time working for women and girls command so a huge amount of my experience is in women's and girls rights, covering many issues.

I actually used to be a preschool teacher before I shifted. So I've been teaching, up until five years ago. So this is really something special for me.

Sonali: Actually, I was a journalist. In the '90s, I used to work for a TV company, and I was a business journalist. Oh, wow. I made all the stock market news, corporate information, you know, the annual budgets. So it was a whole other world back then, and it was quite a personal journey, but yeah I made a similar transition at some point, away from journalism.

You've been working a lot with women and children in the past. What made you decide to join an organisation like Sesame Street?

Sonali: So, a couple of things, you know, while I was working with women and girls in India, over the last eight years I started working on issues like ending child marriage. As you know, there are these kinds of issues children were facing in India - anyone below 18 by law is considered a child. So we started working on issues and that surrounds children's concerns. 

So when the option of joining Sesame Street two years ago, I felt like came full circle because I started with women, started working with adolescent girls younger adolescents which were, you know, 10-11-year-olds and now I'm working for kids. Below 10, so you know it's really been such a journey.

I've also worked on issues like violence prevention, resilience building, and other kinds of rights access by using a lot of media, but it was the first time that I started looking into issues for younger children. So it's also a learning for me as well. 

I think, for me personally, it's really fulfilling. As you know, whatever you start with childhood stays with you. Being a school teacher, you know that by the time a person is a young adult, the foundation is laid now. 

In terms of values character building, we try to do that now, so we are not trying to do a bandaid or quick fixes later. So I think for me, working now with kids, this is actually really addressing those problems that we were trying to solve later which became more difficult so if we can address them earlier on.

I think it's going to talk to boys and tell them to be respectful earlier instead of at 19, it's already quite late. We really need to build those values with children, boys and girls very early on. I think you're solving for the long term. It's the most important thing we're probably doing.

What are your earliest memories of Sesame Street?

Sonali: In India, I didn't grow up with Sesame because you know, it was another time and age. But my children grew up on Sesame so I still remember buying CDs and putting them into those, you know those box computers and then having him play through games with Big Bird and the other muppets. That was my first memory of actually using Sesame to educate my child and since those series have been available in India.

Actually, when I was teaching, I used to use the videos on YouTube! In doing so, I've come across loads of musical guests and I guess I wanted to ask how does Sesame Street balance the commercial from the educational? In terms of guest selection.

Sonali: You know, I must share this with you it's been such a funny experience and I've been laughing about it. When we were talking to Jasper Donat (CEO of Branded Asia, the team behind All That Matters), and I think when we saw his excitement and not only he but you know the YouTube guys and everybody else was sort of talking to us, for being a part of this conference or get together, has been so excited because they have childhood memories of Cookie Monster and Elmo.

I think this, what really brings home to me and each one was recounting like "I learned numbers and I learned the alphabet and I learned this song. "

I'm just saying that somewhere I feel that many people have such affinity to Sesame, that I think they do it out of warmth and a fondness for Sesame. I think for the artists themselves, it's amazing just to be on Sesame Street.

I don't know who's gaining more really at a personal level, I think all of them get so excited to be just a part of Sesame Street. I've seen it, you know I've really seen it the excitement. It's like virtually like they everybody becomes children, again. So, I think they benefit a lot. They get an audience in the form of thousands of young children who will listen to them.

A lot of the songs are really popular like 'Sunny Day'... just the opening chords of the song you already know what it is. Do you think there's a formula in like creating songs and identifying the ones that are attractive or that stick to children?

Sonali: You've been a school teacher right? Yeah, the songs that work for kids are the one that set your feet tapping. They have very simple lyrics, they have repeated lyrics. Kids can start singing them. So I think the simplicity of the song, the fun element, but also I think to constantly focus on values, so I think that has been really something that kids can relate to.

I think the relatability of the songs, just the joy of the songs, I think the amazing part about sesame and I think we all of us sort of say, is it, there's this huge amount of joy behind that. 

Just with 'Sunny Days', you really start feeling the sunniness right. That's the formula. So that's really the formula, it's tapping it's fun. It connects with children, it's simple it's value-based it makes you feel good about yourself. Yeah, I think if I just try and put it into, like, in three or four words, then that's what I will say something that makes you feel good about yourself, will definitely stay with you.

Sesame Street has a lot of songs about like the alphabet counting and things like that, but these songs also stress on values. So like especially like in these times how does Sesame Street. Translate certain social issues that we might want to discuss or bring up with the children

Sonali: The first thing that came to my mind was, you know, the sensory response to the Black Lives Matter movement. That was something that happened in the US, not so much in India. At that time doing a town hall, and we spoke about these issues and it's not like we have spoken about this for the first time.

We have spoken on issues that matter to children. We have really talked about diversity so whether it is representing children with different abilities.

We have Julia, a muppet that lives with autism.

We have talked about issues around homelessness. In one of our markets in South Africa we have a muppet called Taki, she's affected by HIV. In our own way, we bring the world's issue's to children in a way that the child can understand. These are not simple issues, sometimes kids could get scared.

How do we make sense of the issues children live with today? Something that you know is that they can understand, they can deal with them even if they've dealt with very difficult issues. Having difficult conversations on "sacred touch" and "bad touch," what is acceptable. Now we are working in some areas around the globe, including India, where children very vulnerable so we have created content to address that.

Our I Love Elmo series which is actually produced in India and now in the US, it's now being used and dubbed in eight different languages. So when we say values, this is something we have embraced. Children can learn and have fun with our content, but we've made sure that these issues are something that children can also learn about.

Practically the whole world is still in lockdown right now. Especially for places like ours (the Philippines), children aren't back in school yet. There's a lot of online content that is quite overwhelming for parents and children. Aside from being a pioneer in this industry, how else can Sesame Street stand out from the rest of the pack?

Sonali: I think when, when the lockdown started somewhere in March and April, we did a quick turn around and came out with what we call #CaringForEachOther initiative, which was a global initiative, and it was something that we ran across India as well.

We came up with three thematic issues: one is looking at prevention of the infection and COVID-19 how to prevent it in a simple way talking to children about it but also addressing their social-emotional well being. We realised very early on that there was a fear factor - people were saying, you know, at that point of time, that more people are getting infected. Children were getting scared thinking "my grandparents will die." What's going to happen.

So we started really immediately telling and advising families to be mindful of children in the room, and how we are communicating around it and understanding the stress within the family.

Then, looking at continued education, given all the audiovisual power that we have -  how to make it available, and this was something we really went quite out on a limb on and really started working in India. We provided material to all broadcasters and some of them, reached over 36 million kids with our wash hands series. That's in India. We also helped the government by providing them our educational content. We also reached out to partners across India, all other NGOs that are providing education to preschools to other kinds of informal systems, to make this content available to kids.

We also ran a couple of webinars - talking to parents about managing stress and being aware that children can be exhibiting stress as well. From providing education content so that kids can still get quality learning at home, to talking about the virus and preventing the virus, to actually talking about well being, you know, in a deeper sense. We covered all of this. And I think the team was working harder than usual, to deliver this in COVID time. We really as an organisation, pivoted. We are looking at a lot of digital content.

In India, we have both media presence as well as community outreach, which had all come to a halt. So we are now looking at digital solutions to try and continue reaching those communities. We're trying YouTube, TV, and other platforms to reach more children as possible.

Do you have any favourite Sesame Street songs on a personal level?

Sonali: In India, we did a lot of spin-offs on with Bollywood. Lots of spin-offs on Bollywood, so songs on nutrition, health, and personal hygiene.  But the one I like the most is the one hen a child learns to appreciate themselves and their well being. It's a beautiful song because I think it's from the perspective that we're all special.

You know, that all differences are fine. To be able to understand that, and value, and respect that. I think that song does a great job on that and I think we need to keep reminding ourselves about it as even as we become older.

Sesame Street is said to be the "longest street in the world" with presence in 150 countries. How much of Sesame Street is localised content?

Sonali: While Sesame Street is the lead brand and that's where it started in the US 51 years ago, but in all our regions we have localised content. In India, it's called Galli Galli Sim Sim and in South Africa, it's Takalani Sesame. Now we have a Middle Eastern version, Ahlan Simsim So, everywhere we have done that, that means local content has been produced. So the show that we that that's currently airing on our national television has up to 70 to 80% locally produced.

It's been quite challenging. It's not an easy task, as we are a non-profit organisation. We have to constantly raise resources to produce this content. So while we localise content, we also use international content.

India has a lot of languages across the country and early on we were very clear that most children learn in their mother tongue. So because of that, we will fight to make content available in different regional languages. 

What should Sesame Street fans, both young and old continue to look forward to?

Sonali: I think you should continue to look forward to amazing content, engaging content. Our mission is to help kids everywhere grow smarter, stronger and kinder. It's critical for me to remember the kind of work we do as well.