By Ginger Young, founder and executive director
This week, more than 570 philanthropic and nonprofit leaders gathered at the Raleigh Convention Center for the Triangle Community Foundation’s What Matters lunch. The highlight of the day was the keynote speech by Sonia Manzano, better known for 44 years as Maria on Sesame Street.
Sesame Street, Manzano reflected, was able to confront difficult issues such as death in honest and authentic ways with young children. This was uncharted territory – just as featuring characters of color such as Maria and Gordon was a new frontier in American culture in the 1970’s. Yet it worked. Why? Because of a secret weapon, Manzano said: Muppets.
Muppets made the contemplation of death and other painful subjects manageable for children. And they made the everyday lives of a diverse community of characters – raising children, running fix-it shops, teaching school – delightful and normal. The presence of a giant yellow bird, a diva pig, and a decidedly green frog stole the hearts of children and parents alike and delivered a new level of authenticity to entire generations of young viewers.
It occurred to me, as I listened to Manzano, that this secret weapon is no different than the secret weapon that we at Book Harvest have the privilege of deploying every day. BOOKS are our secret weapon, surreptitiously tricking youngsters who claim they don’t like to read to stay up late with a flashlight and a copy of Diary of a Wimpy Kid hidden away, and leading kids who have never travelled outside of Durham to imagine worlds far beyond their own – and to plot their travels to those worlds. The raw beauty, the joy, the pathos, the boldness of the stories we share with young readers open up possibilities to them that they never could have imagined.
And, as we came together by the hundreds at What Matters, we marshalled the secret weapon of our own imaginations. We imagined ALL that we can accomplish together when we commit to supporting our children’s success. The talk was of third grade reading proficiency, a much-embraced marker of a watershed moment for a child: the child who is reading on grade level in third grade is the child who has succeeded to date and who is poised to continue that success. Every child deserves that watershed moment, where much has been accomplished and thus so much is possible. But less than half of our kids right now realize it.
We were inspired by Manzano’s reflections and by our own collective dreams for our kids. Just as Sesame Street did, we WILL push beyond the way things have always been done to a new reality – a reality in which, together, we realize wonderful new possibilities for every child in our midst.
Click here to learn more about the Campaign for Grade Level Reading.