Sesame Workshop advances in $100M MacArthur Foundation competition

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Sesame Workshop has moved forward in a MacArthur Foundation competition that will award a finalist $100 million to address a critical global problem.

In partnership with the International Rescue Committee, Sesame is among four organizations that advanced in the competition, the foundation announced Tuesday. The unusually large grant will enable the winning organization to address a big, complex problem, Cecilia Conrad, managing director of the MacArthur Foundation, said during a briefing call that included the finalists.

Sesame and IRC’s proposed project would provide educational content for young children affected by refugee crises in the Middle East. Representatives of the organizations said during the call that children affected by the Syrian refugee crisis, suffer “toxic stress,” a biological response to experiencing war that disrupts brain development and may lead to poor health into adulthood.

The proposed intervention from Sesame and IRC, titled “Sesame Seeds,” provides educational, culturally relevant content, representatives said. Already piloted in the region, the model can be adapted to other regional crises, according to the organizations.

If funded by MacArthur’s grant, the project would include a television program to reach a potential 9.4 million children in Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria; a caregiving program delivered through home visits and supported by mobile messages; and an early-learning program providing teachers at government preschools and community and nongovernmental organizations with digital and print lesson plans and educational content.

The caregiving and early-learning programs will bring social-service professionals to 1.5 million of the most vulnerable children, according to the organizations.

Sesame Workshop and IRC’s program “will improve children’s learning outcomes today and have a beneficial long-term effect on their emotional development,” Conrad said.

The other finalists include Catholic Relief Services, which is working to change how society cares for orphaned children; HarvestPlus, which aims to eliminate hunger by fortifying staple crops in Africa; and Rice 360 Institute for Global Health at Rice University, with a project to improve newborn survival in Africa. MacArthur chose finalists the strength of their teams and partnerships, the viability and credibility of their proposals, and their teams’ ability to sustain projects benefits long-term, Conrad said.

Finalists will answer questions from the public submitted via social media on “Finalist Fridays” beginning Sept. 29. Sesame Workshop and IRC will participate Oct. 13.

The four finalists will present proposals to MacArthur’s board of directors at a Dec. 11 event in Chicago, which will also be streamed live. The board will choose the winner.