Last night, Joan Ganz Cooney was honored at Sesame Workshop’s Annual Gala. This is the first time that Joan, who co-founded the Children’s Television Workshop 45 years ago and remains Chair of the Workshop’s Executive Committee, was honored by her colleagues. It won’t be the last honor conferred—though Joan, who is incredibly modest given the revolutionary contributions she has made—might prefer less pomp and circumstance as she looks back at her unprecedented impact in the children’s media space. At the gala last night she received kudos from former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, First Lady Michelle Obama, and Diane Sawyer, as well as Cheryl Henson, the daughter of her creative alter ego Jim Henson. In her remarks, Joan, as always thoughtful, witty, and memorable, expressed the passion that animated her vision of a better society with one compelling phrase: Put the children first!
Two wonderful highlights of the gala were the announcements by her granddaughter Chloe that a new award will annually be conferred for outstanding leadership in educational media in her honor, and by Sesame Board Chair Vincent Mai that to recognize Joan’s remarkable work (and their original contribution to the launch of CTW in 1969), Carnegie Corporation of New York and Ford Foundation have awarded a two year grant to support the Joan Ganz Cooney Center’s Fellows program. Our team is delighted that we will have the opportunity to support young leaders who will be inspired by Joan’s legacy to pursue issues of great substance, and to make their own impact on the field. As she remarked last night, the legacy of the Workshop is a living and vibrant community that has much more work to do! See the Workshop’s lovely tribute video, below.
My own experience with Joan goes back—at least indirectly—to the late 1960s when I was in elementary school. My parents were activists—my dad a civil rights organizer and intergroup relations expert and my mom a children’s mental health practitioner and advocate. I recall hearing about an evening engagement in New York City they had with Joan and her husband Tim, when she and co-founder Lloyd Morrisett, were on the verge of creating Sesame Street. My folks couldn’t get over how creative and timely the idea for Sesame Street was—I think my dad was also smitten by Joan’s great beauty, sophistication and verve!
Four decades later I had the great good fortune of being recruited by Gary Knell, then CEO of Sesame Workshop, and Joan to start a new institution—the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop. We have built a team that is standing on her shoulders to explore innovation and change in the digital space, inspired every day by her leadership, courage and wisdom to prod media designers to deliver delightful learning experiences that will help propel young people to reach their full potential.
In the media saturated, cable news bloviating, uncivil public discourse of the moment, we rarely pause to recognize true innovation, quiet dignity, and a laser focus for doing what is important and right for the generations who must build a shared future. Joan Ganz Cooney isn’t “on the media circuit” these days (in fact she has always been a bit uncomfortable in the limelight.) But like the “greatest generation” who made our nation a beacon of hope and light to so many across the globe, she is our rock star, a true trailblazer, a giant for the ages. As recognition of her contributions are celebrated at events like last night’s gala, it is our firm hope that thousands of young women will be inspired by her remarkable contribution and turn their energies to—as she has done so magnificently—making the world a better place. Warmest congratulations to Joan and her lovely family on a very special occasion! Simply put: when the history of the past half century is written, there will doubtless be a special chapter written to document her leadership, wisdom and the indelible contribution she and the colleagues she inspired have made to make children and families across the globe smarter, stronger and kinder.