Sherrie Westin

Sherrie Westin, Executive Vice President of Global Impact and Philanthropy for Sesame Workshop, and Sarah Smith, the Senior Director of Education at the International Rescue Committee, Joins Denver Frederick

The following is a conversation between Sherrie Westin, Executive Vice President of Global Impact and Philanthropy for Sesame Workshop, and Sarah Smith, the Senior Director of Education at the International Rescue Committee, and Denver Frederick, Host of The Business of Giving on AM 970 The Answer in New York City.


Denver: And this evening’s semi-finalist of the MacArthur Foundation’s 100&Change initiative is Sesame Workshop, teamed together with the International Rescue Committee to educate children displaced by conflict and persecution. And here to discuss their proposal with us is Sherrie Westin, Executive Vice President of Global Impact and Philanthropy for Sesame Workshop, and Sarah Smith, the Senior Director of Education at the International Rescue Committee. My thanks to both of you for being here this evening!

Sarah: Thank you!

Sherrie: Thanks!

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Sarah Smith and Sherrie Westin  © gt.foreignpolicy.com

There are 65 million people displaced around the world; half of those are children. Under 8, there are about 12 million. So it’s a massive, massive scale.

Denver: Let me start with you, Sarah. Give us an idea of the scope of the refugee crisis and that of displaced persons at it stands today.  And how many of those are children?

Sarah: Thank you. The scope of the refugee crisis today is unprecedented. There are 65 million people displaced around the world; half of those are children. Under 8, there are about 12 million. So it’s a massive, massive scale.

Denver: And if you would for a moment, what’s the difference—because we hear it used so much interchangeably—between a refugee, a migrant, a displaced person? What’s the distinction among them?

Sarah: The most important difference is that a refugee is somebody who has had to flee their country. So they’ve crossed an international border, and they have done so because they’re in fear of persecution, and they’re fleeing for their lives. A displaced person is somebody who has also had to flee their home, but they have not crossed an international border. So they have stayed within their country, but they’ve also had to flee because they are in fear for their lives.

On average, a refugee stays a refugee for 17 years, and somebody who’s been displaced in their country… for 25 years.

Denver: And whether you’re a displaced person or a refugee, how long on average do you remain displaced?

Sarah: It’s quite shocking and I think this is one of the most unbelievable statistics. On average, a refugee stays a refugee for 17 years, and somebody who’s been displaced in their country… for 25 years. So this is a long-term problem.

Denver: So this is not a short-term solution; this is their life. This is their way of life for a quarter of a century, in some cases.

Sarah: Exactly.

Denver: Sherrie, what is the impact of violence and neglect and these unimaginable hardships on children and their ultimate development?

Sherrie: Well, Denver, there’s been so much research and evidence in the last few years on how detrimental those adverse childhood experiences – what is often referred to as “toxic stress” – is on a child’s development, with long-term repercussions to their health, not just to their cognitive ability, but to their health, to their livelihood. So we know that if we reach children in those critical early years, that we can make a huge difference on children’s outcomes, particularly for children who have been subject to violence or trauma because they need the help to mitigate the damage from that experience. So when you think of refugee children, obviously, these are children who have had extreme experiences that can really alter their long-term opportunities. And this is an area we know we can make a difference.

Denver: Sherrie, if you look at the totality of this worldwide humanitarian system, what kind of emphasis is placed on early childhood development, emotional well-being, and education?

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Sherrie Westin of Sesame Workshop Joins Denver Frederick

The following is a conversation between Sherrie Westin, Executive Vice President of Global Impact and Philanthropy at Sesame Workshop and Denver Frederick, host of The Business of Giving on AM 970 The Answer in New York City.

abwqpowoDenver: With more Emmys and Grammys than any other children’s television show, and as the first nonprofit to reach 1 billion YouTube views, Sesame Workshop has become an American institution. And now with the show airing in some 150 countries around the world, it has become a global one as well. There’s been a lot happening over at Sesame Street in the last year or two, and we’re so very fortunate to have been able to pry away from Sesame Workshop their Executive Vice President for Global Impact and Philanthropy, Sherrie Westin. Good evening, Sherrie, and welcome to The Business of Giving!

Sherrie: Thank you so much. I’m thrilled to be here.

Denver: There’s a tendency for all of us to take Sesame Street for granted. It has produced such great content for such a long time. But tell us how it first came into being some 47 years ago.  And what is it, at its heart, that informs and inspires the work that you do?

Sherrie: You are right. People love Sesame Street, but I think they often do not know the depth and breadth of our work. Sesame Street started in 1969, and this was part of the war on poverty. If you think back to the late ’60s, the Johnson administration, and Joan Ganz Cooney had the idea–and you have to understand this is a radical idea at the time– that possibly you could use the much maligned medium of television to teach. She and her colleagues set out to not only see if you could reach children with educational content that could make a difference in preparing them for school.  But also, could you specifically reach those children who may have less advantages in not being at a quality preschool, and get some of those advantages that upper middle class children had by arriving at kindergarten ready to learn?  So, it was quite a departure from what we thought of as children’s television in the day, and the best part is that it was a huge success.

Sesame Workshop is a 501(c)(3), always has been.

Denver: One of the big changes you’ve undergone in the last year or so was that Sesame Street was shown exclusively on PBS for about four-and-a-half decades, and now it’s first aired on HBO with those episodes then shown on PBS, starting nine months later. There was a little bit of concern when this was first announced. But tell us, how has that gone?

Sherrie: The thing you have to understand is it was always critically important to us that we stay on PBS. That’s been our home for almost 50 years, and it’s how we reach every child in the United States. But what most people don’t understand is Sesame Workshop is a 501(c)(3), always has been. When I talked about Joan starting in 1969, it was through grants from the Department of Education, Carnegie Foundation, Ford Foundation. We struggle to make sure that we have the funds needed to continue to produce this incredible educational content. And quite frankly, HBO gave us an opportunity to fund that production– which was not an easy thing to do– and to provide the content free to PBS. So it’s really a win-win when you look at it that way.

The early years are where you can make the biggest difference in terms of a child’s trajectory.

Denver: Yes, it certainly is. I think people have to understand you have to be pragmatic to be able to scale and continue this work, and that’s what you’ve done… and very intelligently so. I’m no expert at early childhood development, but we’ve had a couple of shows on it, so I’ve learned a lot.  It just seems that the benefits of it are so proven and are so dramatic!  We’re recouping up to $17 for every dollar we invest.  Yet only about 4% of our educational budget and budget around childhood development goes to that 0-5 years of age. Why is that the case? And what can be done about it?

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