Our Tomorrow: A new kind of Mister Rogers in our own backyard

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Look, Listen and Learn has been almost a lifelong project for Val Thomas-Matson. As a child, Val loved the show kids program New Zoo Revue, But she noticed that 

“I grew up in a central area and we then moved to Rainier Beach area, which is also very diverse. So everything in my world was not reflected in white,” Val says. “The earlier that we could get kids seeing themselves and others reflected on television, the more they know about their own potential and possibility.

Want to know how to watch? Visit Look, Listen and Learn’s website where you can find mini-episodes done during quarantine via zoom and their Youtube channel which has their full episodes plus other content available to stream. For those who haven’t cut their cords yet, they can watch the show Saturdays and Sundays on the Seattle Channel and TukTV and Saturdays on King County TV.

The following is a Q&A with Val that has been edited for length and clarity:

Where did the idea for the show come from?
Val: I grew up loving children’s television, it really was an escape for me. And I loved in particular, a show called New Zoo Revue. What I loved was, it was a show that had grown folks dressed up as different characters on Saturday morning, and they would introduce cartoon shows, but between the cartoon shows, they would take a moment to do a little educational, fun bit. And I just thought that was brilliant. 

As I became more interested in communications, and in the power of television and media, I knew I wanted to be a producer. Because the producer is the person who made the decision of who was going to be seen or who was going to be read and edited and being a black child, I did not see a lot of kids that look like me growing up, or a lot of people that look like my best friend growing up who happen to be Japanese American. And I knew if I were producing something that I would be able to invite whatever expert you know, to expound upon a thing, but they would be an expert that looks more like the folks in my world.

What are some of the topics you’ve talked about?
Val: We’ve filmed 13 episodes, which is what we refer to as our first season. We’ve done a show on change, which is something that has really been relevant to us given COVID-19. We’ve done a show on elders, the importance of honoring and loving respecting our elders. We’ve done a show on community helpers, making sandwiches for folks who are homeless and finding other ways to be of service in the community.

One of the most popular shows that we did was on boundaries called “Don’t touch my fur.” The book, which the show was inspired by was “Don’t touch my hair.” And so we use that as a jumping-off point to talk about boundaries for children.

One of the goals of this program is to help close the educational achievement gap that exists between white students and BIPOC students. Can you talk a little more about what that achievement gap is and what it means?
Val: Black and indigenous children in the state of Washington lag behind and I’m not sure I’d have to look up the numbers now…[but] for every white person that’s making it, we know that it takes up four or five or six or seven of us of color to be able and particularly Blacks and Indigenous in Washington State to catch up or to have success in school, and that’s not okay.

That gap—and it’s a gap that continues to broaden—is a disservice to all of us, no matter what color we are. Because that’s brilliance that is getting away. That’s brilliance that is not being developed. That’s brilliance that’s not being brought to the table to help invest in a cure for COVID-19. That’s what that education gap transfers to, is that if every child is not getting an opportunity to have the best education, we as a society lose out.

Why should people tune in?
Val: I think there’s a lot of different reasons. I think one of the key reasons that we want kids and families tuning in is because early learning is such a critical component of school success, and I think is early on as children and families can get messages could get support around increasing that muscle for school success, the better it is for all of us. 

I think another reason people can tune in is that the shows that we are modeling or the content that we are sharing is based on research. It’s great to have information that the University of Washington I-Lab has said is important for early learning, right? But it is also just as important that when we’re at Daybreak Star learning about how to plant seeds from an Indigenous perspective that that wisdom is being passed on to our children. And there’s not a lot of places that can receive both of those worlds together for our children, for our earliest learners.

You guys discuss everything including race, how do you talk about such a difficult subject to young kids?
Val: I was talking to a former colleague of mine, who lives in Montana. She’s a white parent. And I was asking her, how’s the Black Lives Matter movement going in Montana? And she said, what I kind of expected her to say, ‘well, there’s only white folks here so nothing’s going on.’

I said, “Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, that’s exactly where something needs to be going on.” I said, “How are you talking to your children about this?” And I said, “What are their ages now?”

She says, “Well, my eldest is six.” And so well okay, so what are you telling them about black lives matter? And she said, “I don’t know how to talk to them about it.” And I said, At six? I didn’t want to bring up the race. And I just very gently said to her, you know, there’s no way my parents as black parents could not have talked to me about race at that age.

With the Black Lives Matter [episode]…we’re talking about, what are things that we’re hearing kids say, what are kids saying, what are we hearing? And then we then can drill down to kind of the essence of well what is that one thing that we want to communicate? 

The scriptwriter said, “Oh, we shouldn’t use the word kill with, you know, preschool audiences.” I think, yeah, we have to use the word kill with preschool audiences. I said, black families don’t have that privilege, they have to be able to talk about that this is a life-threatening situation for their kid. That’s something your parents have to explain to you. If you look at the police the wrong way, you can be killed, they can shoot you. Those are conversations that we have to have.

So we have those dialogues scriptwriting so that we can make sure that we get to the truth, but do it in a way that’s age-appropriate.