First Lady Michelle Obama accepts the Joan Ganz Cooney Award, named for Sesame Street’s creator.
Good evening everyone…and thank you so much.
To the donors and supporters…to the Muppet performers, the cast, the writers, the producers and the entire crew…to Sherrie Westin, who’s been such a terrific ally for so many years…and most of all, to Joan Ganz Cooney, a visionary who for so long has been sweepin’ the clouds away for millions upon millions of children around the world…I simply want to say thank you.
Thank you not just for this extraordinary and humbling honor, but for everything you’ve done for these last fifty years.
In fact I have to say it feels a little backward for me to be receiving this award… I feel like I should be giving you something—because for my entire life, you all have given me so much.
I come here tonight as a child of Sesame Street myself.
I was five years old when the show first aired, one of thousands of little girls on the South Side of Chicago sitting cross-legged in front of the TV.
Before iPads and Disney XD and the Cartoon Network, there was only one kids channel—and in our house, it was Channel 11, PBS.
At the time, before white flight set in, my neighborhood was a wonderful mix of races, ethnicities, and income levels.
So whenever I’d catch a glimpse of that funky, diverse street with a stoop and a grocery store… what I saw felt familiar.
The architecture was a little different—New York brownstones instead of the South Side bungalows I was used to—but the feeling was the same.
There was a gentle Hispanic woman, like the one who lived next door to our family.
There was a kind man sporting an Afro, like I’d see when my mother sent me to the store to pick up “a loaf of bread, a container of milk, and a stick of butter.”
And there were all sorts of kids, some who looked like me, and some who didn’t—a wonderful group of friends where it didn’t matter if you were black or white or fuzzy and living in a trash can.
Back then, I didn’t understand the power of this show—that it was designed to close the achievement gap in low-income areas, an early educational intervention to prepare children for school.
I just saw a big friendly bird…a vampire who liked numbers…and two buddies—one short and funny, and the other a little bit taller and a lot more anxious.
It was a place I couldn’t have been more excited to visit for an hour or so every day…a place where it was ok to laugh and to cry and to be confused…a place just for me, and I liked that.
I was reminded of that feeling again three decades later, when my own daughters were among the thousands of South Side girls growing up on the show—which means I come here tonight not just as a child of Sesame Street, but as a Sesame Street parent.
Even as the universe of children’s programming had grown and advertisers trained their sights more precisely on kids, Sesame Street remained a constant.
As a mom, I could turn it on and know that what my kids were watching was educational, appropriate, and fun—not just for them, but for me, too.
I appreciated the deftness with which the show handled sensitive topics like grief and death… conflict and loss…even the nation’s trauma after 9/11.
As a parent, I began to better understand the method to what you all were doing.
I recognized the way that episodes explained diversity and inclusivity not by lecturing but by modeling… the way Sesame Street taught kids without them feeling like they were being taught.
It’s genius, all of it—not just feel-good TV but some of the smartest, savviest developmental tools you can offer your child.
No one connects with kids better than you all do.
And that’s why, when I became First Lady, and I knew that I wanted to help kids reach their potential, my first question was a simple, but familiar one: “Can you tell me how to get to Sesame Street?”
Over the years now, we’ve done so much together—I’ve planted seeds with kids on set in New York…invited Elmo and Abby to read stories on the South Lawn…slow-danced with Big Bird in the produce aisle of a supermarket.
Together, we’ve put Big Bird and Elmo stickers on things like bananas and broccoli, helping to promote the sales of healthy food…we’ve shined a spotlight on the incredible service of our nation’s military children…we’ve worked to educate girls internationally.
So I cannot tell you how proud and thankful I am to come here tonight as a Sesame Street partner.
Because here’s the thing: Whenever I started looking into these complicated issues, and developing my own plans to address them, one of the first things I found, without fail, was that Sesame Street was already on the case.
You are always ahead of the curve, always out there observing, and learning, and creating new ways to help kids and parents navigate the world around them.
And that goes far beyond the efforts we’ve collaborated on.
There’s Julia, the Muppet with autism who does things “in a Julia sort of way.”
There’s Karli, the Muppet in foster care you just introduced last week, who describes how her heart grows bigger while she lives with her “for-now” parents.
You’ve reached out to refugees in Syria and Bangladesh… sought to help Israeli and Palestinian children find common ground…helped break through the stigma of HIV/AIDS—altogether, you’re connecting with 150 million children in more than 150 countries.
It’s just a breathtaking level of impact.
And as First Lady, I was thankful for the opportunity to learn from you all—to see how that impact happens.
I saw not just the painstaking standards you all hold yourselves to…not just the complicated logistics or the unique comic genius of the performers, but the rigorous research and academic backing that goes into every sketch…the meticulous planning and brilliant messaging behind every new effort.
And it all adds up to something far, far greater than the sum of its parts.
And that’s why I come here tonight, most of all, as a Sesame Street believer.
There is something unexplainable that happens on Sesame Street, some unique alchemy that bubbles up when you combine all those clever and artistic people with a deep and abiding devotion to every child’s story, whatever their individual needs and circumstances.
It’s magic…it really is.
I’ve seen it in the eyes of the children who came to the White House—they’re transfixed…a six-foot tall black First Lady just disappears when Elmo or Rosita shows up in the garden.
But it’s not just children—I’ve felt that magic myself. As I’ve said, I know how all this works… I’ve seen behind the curtain…and yet—even at 55 years old, every time I do a scene with Big Bird or run lines with Elmo, I find myself absolutely spellbound.
I’m cracking up at silly jokes, charmed by the repartee, and fully transported back to that special place of my childhood.
I will never forget the first time my daughters visited Sesame Street with me.
It was a little over a year after my husband was first sworn in.
As Malia, Sasha, and I walked onto that street, and caught a glimpse of that brownstone, and that grocery store, and that trash can…we were totally overwhelmed, in awe, our faces filled with wonder, our spirits soaring.
And it wasn’t just us.
My staff was mesmerized.
Even the Secret Service agents had big goofy grins on.
In the time since, we’ve had so many amazing experiences.
I’ve been to Great Wall of China with the girls.
I’ve spent the night in Buckingham Palace.
We’ve had an audience with the Pope in the Vatican.
And I cannot be more honest with you—there is nothing like visiting Sesame Street… nothing that marries boundless aspiration with simple goodness…nothing that strips away the daily madness and distraction…nothing that is so pure and hopeful—and absolutely essential to the future of our country and our world.
And the beauty of what you all do is that you take people there every single day… to a place that’s A-OK…a place that actually lives out the values we all believe in—honesty and cooperation and respect for each other’s differences…a place the rest of us would do well to visit a little more often.
And I couldn’t be more thankful that it’s brought to us not just by the letter B and the number 3… but by all of you.
That’s why I feel a little awkward accepting any kind of honor from Sesame Street—because you all just give, and give, and give…not just to me but to every parent looking for reinforcement…to every child in every corner of this world who’s ever hummed along to that theme song.
So as a child of Sesame Street, as a mother, a partner, and an unabashed believer in the magic you’ve created, I cannot thank you enough for what you do.
Congratulations again on fifty years of history—and here’s to fifty more.
God bless you all.