CNN’s Van Jones (left) and Erica Hill joined Big Bird for a discussion about racism. Screenshot courtesy of CNN

Erica Hill (’98) talks about teaming up with Big Bird and company for a difficult conversation

By Emma Guillén

As the Black Lives Matter movement and police brutality protests have spread across the country, families have had the challenge of discussing these events with their children. Who better than the residents of Sesame Street to explain an issue like systemic racism in a way that’s easy to understand?

On June 6, CNN national correspondent and COM distinguished alumna Erica Hill (’98) teamed up with Big Bird and CNN’s Van Jones for a special 60-minute town hall, “Coming Together: Standing Up to Racism.” This collaboration between CNN and Sesame Street, which began as a way to teach kids about the coronavirus pandemic, has become an educational tool to help families shed light on the societal crises we’re facing today. COMtalk spoke with Hill about the collaboration, the conversations she’s having with her own kids about social injustice and how she believes journalists have handled this pivotal moment in our history.

COMtalk: How did the idea of teaming up with Sesame Street come about?

Erica Hill: Our first CNN–Sesame Street town hall, “The ABCs of Covid-19,” aired in late April. Like many of us, CNN’s chief digital officer, Andrew Morse, had been talking about the virus and its impact with his kids. Andrew had teamed up with Sesame Street in the past, and pitched the idea of a town hall aimed at children and families. Sesame Street has a remarkable gift for making tough conversations approachable and a little less scary. I don’t think there could be a better partner for a discussion about racism. Sesame Street has always celebrated diversity, community and empathy. For me, one of the most poignant and heartbreaking moments in that town hall was when Louie, Elmo’s dad, said, “Not all streets are like Sesame Street.” He’s right, and that’s why we need this discussion. The CNN–Sesame Street town halls are largely driven by the questions children and families submit, which is another reason I think they have struck a chord; these are questions many people have, questions that are often tough to ask and to answer.

How does Sesame Street facilitate difficult conversations, and address challenging topics, with kids?

I think the simplicity of the questions many Sesame Street characters ask helps to make the most difficult topic or discussion less intimidating. Kids are naturally honest and inquisitive, and Sesame Street has always been a safe place. That’s a perfect combination.

What kind of conversations have you had with your own children about racism in America?

Sesame Street has always celebrated diversity, community and empathy. For me, one of the most poignant and heartbreaking moments in that town hall was when Louie, Elmo’s dad, said, ‘Not all streets are like Sesame Street.’ He’s right, and that’s why we need this discussion.”
—Erica Hill (’98)

We’ve had a lot more conversations lately. I thought we were doing well—not perfect, I believe there is always room for improvement—but over the years we’ve talked about privilege, access, empathy and our role as allies and friends. We talk about how skin color and race impact the way people are treated. Sometimes the stories I cover also help to start those conversations. The reality is, we still have a lot to learn and do. My older son asked me to read The Hate You Give last year, which opened up a natural discussion about race, injustice and our own community. He’s 13 now, he’s out with his friends, and they won’t all be treated the same. What role do we play in those moments? We talk a lot about the importance of having a voice and standing up for others. We’re talking about what it means to be antiracist, and also recognizing the uncomfortable ugliness that exists in each of us. What is it? Why is it there? What about that makes us uncomfortable and what can we do about it? I find videos and books to be important tools and conversation starters as we all work to be better people, better allies and better listeners. At 10 and 13, my boys have such smart, mature questions and observations. They are genuinely bothered by injustice; I don’t want that to change.

How well have journalists performed this year in covering the murders of George Floyd and other African Americans by police, as well as the public protests that followed?

I’m so proud to work with the dedicated team of journalists at CNN, and to have a boss who believes that these stories need to be told. There are two pandemics converging; the challenge and privilege of covering them is a daily reminder of why journalism and free speech are so important. We need to continue to ask questions, to seek out voices and to listen. I hope we look back at this time as the moment when change began.

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