Seth Chitwood, Standard-Times
This story originally appeared on SouthCoastToday.com
NEW BEDFORD — “Sesame Street” is welcoming two new friends to its almost always sunny neighborhood. New Muppets Wes and Elijah, a Black father and son, will teach Elmo a new lesson: The ABCs of Racial Literacy. A third grade teacher at Alma Del Mar says it’s about time.
“I feel like it personally came a little late, but better late than never,” said the charter school’s elementary school teacher, Roshonda Ndebumadu, about the longest-running series’ newest neighbors.
“Unfortunately, with everything going on right now, I think it’s helpful that they’re reiterating their stance on educating children about differences and about valuing diversity,” she said.
Over the past 52-years on television, “Sesame Street” has tackled topics such as hunger, addiction and mental health. The decision to welcome Wes and Elijah Walker was part of Sesame Workshop’s ongoing racial justice initiative, “Coming Together.”
“The students and I always talk about what’s going on. I’m pretty passionate about social justice. And I try to instill the same in my students,” Ndebumadu said. “I try to get them to speak up about different things. I had them sign a pledge of allies, by allies and allies.”
For Ndebumadu, a Nigerian-American, becoming a teacher wasn’t on her mind growing up in Georgetown, South Carolina. “That wasn’t the original intention,” she recalled. She attended Converse college, in which she had the chance to work with AmeriCorps and the Boys and Girls Club. Then, when she moved to Boston five years ago, she had the chance to work heavily with City Year.
“That gave me time to reflect on if I wanted to be in education,” Ndebumadu said. “I’m trying to find a way to incorporate my education background and my public health background together. And I think that being a teacher is a perfect way to do that.”
She accepted the job at Alma Del Mar last year.
“I feel like I want students to see someone that looks like them, and fights for them and believes in them,” Ndebumadu said. “And know there’s someone out there who loves them for who they are, no matter what. I want my students to be empowered and know that they can make a change.”
Recently, she received a Master’s Degree from Sposato School of Education and Simmons University MPH with a focus in health equity.
On “Sesame Street,” Wes and Elijah Walker will discuss topics such as skin color and how younger minds can understand other topics around race and diversity. In their debut scene, Elmo asks Wes why his skin is “Brown.”
Wes excitedly responds, “Oh, I know Elmo, my mom and dad told me it’s because of melanin.” “Mel-ah-nin,” Elmo pronounces slowly before asking, “What’s that?”
“It’s something that we each have inside our bodies that make the outside of our bodies the skin color that it is,” responds Wes’ dad, Elijah. “It also gives us our eye and our hair color.”
“Some parents aren’t OK with the kids knowing too much, like they want their child to still be a child,” Ndebumadu said. “Depending on your background, you don’t have that opportunity, you don’t have the luxury of avoiding it.
“Especially when you’re Black, you have to have that conversation about how to act around police, how to act around other people in law enforcement, you have to conduct yourself a certain way, you have to talk a certain way. A lot of Black kids don’t have that chance to stay a kid.”
On June 6, 2020, CNN invited Elmo, Louise, Abby and other characters to join hosts Van Jones and Eric Hill to create a town hall for kids and families in junction with Coming Together titled “Standing Up to Racism.”
“I feel like this generation has been more fortunate with being open minded in welcoming different people of different backgrounds,” said Ndebumadu, adding she’s happy that “Sesame Street” is amongst the first few children’s program to spark a conversation about diversity in households.
“I think the fact that we’re in the middle of a pandemic, a lot of people have time to reflect, and they have to face those demons and face the monsters we’ve been avoiding for so long,” Ndebumadu said.
“Sure, it’s moving kind of slow,” she said. “As long as change is happening, I think in a few years, what was taboo today or a few years ago, won’t necessarily be.”
“Sesame Street” premieres new episodes exclusively on HBO every Saturday. Kids can also watch on PBSKids, YouTube, Sprout and by visiting sesamestreet.org.