Sesame Street Leads the Addiction Conversation


I have a bachelor’s degree in Sociology. Sociology is the science of society, social institutions, and social relationships; the systemic structure of the development, structure, interaction, and collective behavior of organized groups of human beings. I have a master’s degree in Social Work. Social Work is a profession whose primary mission is to enhance human well-being and help meet basic and complex needs of all people, with a particular focus on those who are vulnerable, oppressed, and living in poverty. That is my disclaimer for those of you who continue reading this article.

Racism. sexism, and classism are built into the fabric of the United States of America. The land we inhabit was taken from indigenous people through blood, sweat, and tears.  Slavery was legal when the Constitution was signed, and an entire race of people were considered property for 400 years. The wealth and health of our Founding Fathers can be attributed to the kidnapping and brutality of enslaved Africans. Women were not allowed to vote until 1920 and racial minorities until 1965. Anyone willing to open their hearts and minds wide enough will see structural inequality and systemic racism still in play today.

I love America and there is no place that I would rather live. That is my second disclaimer. The land of the free has locked up thousands of individuals for selling a product (marijuana) that has now been legalized without freeing the current inmates or commuting their sentences. The American Dream can be a nightmare for those who are trying to pull themselves up by their bootstraps while being denied opportunity and access to resources. This great melting pot has locked innocent immigrant children in cages. Many Americans consider these situations justified.

Sesame Street is 50 years old. In May 2019, Sesame Street introduced Karli as the face of Sesame Street in Communities foster care initiative. Sesame Street in Communities offers online-only resources to caregivers to help explain difficult issues to children. Karli’s story line was later expanded to include that she was placed in foster care when her mother went away for treatment for (opioid) addiction and is now in recovery. Sesame Street frequently introduces characters with a variety of life circumstances to teach its young viewers empathy for others. It has touched on death, racism, and has introduced Julia, a Muppet with autism, as well as Lily, who is homeless.

I love Sesame Street because it was such an important part of my early childhood. I love that it is television that is truly geared toward children. There are many leadership lessons we can learn from Sesame Street.

There are many people who are unhappy with Sesame Street’s decision to tackle addiction.

There are people who feel that the subject of addiction is too mature and tough for children. They feel that this is not a topic that young children should be introduced to. The decision to create Karli was so that children who are experiencing the trauma of addiction will not feel alone. The intent was not to introduce the topic to unaffected children. This is also the reason that the character is introduced online and not on the regular television show. It allows caregivers to determine if or when their children will discuss the subject.

Others are upset that the same compassion and care shown to children and families suffering with opioid addiction was not shown to children and families who suffered with crack addiction. They see this as a race issue because the demographics of persons addicted to crack is vastly different than the demographic majority addicted to opioids. Even the language used to describe the addiction and traumas is different. Crack babies versus drug-addicted newborns creates a very different picture. Didn’t our language speak harshly and critically of the crack epidemic of the 80’s and 90’s? I would argue that news coverage, political campaigns, and public service announcements seek compassion and support for the current opioid crisis. Words matter.

Epidemic = affecting or tending to affect a disproportionately large number of individuals within a population, community, or region at the same time

Crisis = an unstable or crucial time or state of affairs in which a decisive change is impending; a situation that has reached a critical phase

Where do I stand on Sesame Street and Karli? I understand both the opposition and the support.

I know that our (collective) understanding of trauma, drug addiction, and the social emotional development of children has increased in the roughly 30 years since crack invaded our inner cities and ravaged families and communities for generations. Our ability to spread awareness has also increased through new technology, including social media. Sesame Street first aired in 1969 and has always been a leader in early childhood education. I do believe that America demonized the poor and those addicted to crack but I do not want another generation of children to experience the shame and guilt I witnessed three decades ago. I support Karli’s character because it allows children to feel seen and heard and encourages empathy and compassion from their peers. Sesame Street is about the children. It is my hope that this empathy and compassion one day will spread through the county like wild fire. Everyone deserves it!

Nicki Sanders, MSW, is a Leadership and Career Strategist who helps mid and senior level women leaders develop the confidence, competence, and credibility to lead with authenticity and boldness. She has an extensive background in leading multi-disciplinary teams, developing and managing programs, and forming public-private partnerships. She is a college professor with a passion for teaching and mentoring the next generation of leaders. Nicki is an accomplished supervisor, trainer, and group facilitator who has merged her Master of Social Work degree and over 20 years of diverse work experience into a thriving business. Nicki Sanders Leadership Consulting assists companies in expanding their influence and impact by enhancing employee recruitment, increasing employee morale and performance, and decreasing employee turnover.  Nicki is a travel and cupcake lover who also enjoys reading, listening to music, and serving her community.

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