Auntie Lena and Possum
Longtime TV producer and host Val Thomas-Matson is the creative force behind “Look, Listen and Learn,” a new community-powered TV series (which airs locally on public television stations and on YouTube) designed to encourage BIPOC children to take their rightful place in the world. She anchors each episode as Auntie Lena, an ultra-reassuring character who dialogues with a sweet-tempered puppet friend named Possum to explore the meaning of core developmental preoccupations of childhood (e.g., making friends, coping with change) — as well as far more difficult concepts to grasp, such as the COVID-19 pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement. We caught up with Thomas-Matson to learn more about the series.
What inspired you to create “Look, Listen and Learn”?
As an African American — as a Black woman — growing up in Seattle and attending T.T. Minor Elementary School in the Central District, I was part of the product of Washington’s failure to make sure that all schools are equitably resourced. I think that was really the earliest seed. I knew there needed to be a way to creatively get at this issue.
My exposure to all of that — and my later education and experience working for broadcast media and then working with Seattle King County in substance abuse and community organizing work — really fed into this idea of “Look, Listen and Learn.”
How do you describe the mission of the series?
Our mission is to inspire and advance early learning for young children of color. We do that by offering a locally produced television show and related programming that’s anchored in research about what works best for promoting school readiness.
Why a public media platform?
I was very aware that I wanted “Look, Listen and Learn” to be on the government access stations and available on YouTube so that they could be commercial-free. A very strong value I think that parents and caring adults have for their children is to have uninterrupted educational time — surely not educational time that is bombarded with commercial messaging that’s not really in the family’s and children’s best interests.
Share a bit about the creative development process behind the series?
“Look, Listen and Learn” is founded in race and social justice, early learning developmental principles, brain development research and real people. We knew early on that we wanted to use puppetry — and a little bit of animation — to convey foundational principles of reading, writing and arithmetic, as my mom used to say.
Possum comes to us by way of Thistle Theater, and they’re professional puppeteers. We use the Washington State Kindergarten Inventory of Developmental Skills list to help make sure that our content is developmentally appropriate.
Who is Auntie Lena?
Auntie Lena is your favorite auntie. I am one of those women who grew up in a Black and multicultural tradition of the extended family. Although I didn’t have any kids, although I wasn’t an educator, I still know a thing or two about what children need to succeed in life. And that’s unconditional love.
How has the pandemic influenced how you're thinking about the series?
COVID-19 is an equal opportunity issue, so it has affected us in the same ways that it’s affected everybody else. But it has also absolutely incited our creative juices. We have implemented what we call mini-episodes, which are short Zoom conversations between Auntie Lena and Possum. The first mini-episode had to do with COVID-19. Possum didn’t understand why everybody was wearing masks. Was this a new Halloween thing? Auntie Lena had to share with Possum that, no, he was being a community helper by wearing his mask and washing his paws.
It was the same with Black Lives Matter. Possum wanted to know why people were marching by his tree in a parade, yelling, “Black lives matter!” Auntie Lena explained to him that it is because Black lives don’t matter equally in this country, and until that happens, people are going to continue to remind us that Black lives matter.
All of the episodes have special moments for me, but that one was a hard one for me. Unbeknownst to me, my co-writer wrote a line for Possum, and it said, “Well, I’m going to be telling everybody that Black lives matter, because I don’t want anything to happen to you, Auntie Lena, because you’re Black.” So, yeah, we’ve just been using the opportunities that we’ve been given.
What do you recommend white families do to support the Black Lives Matter movement?
I think that the most important thing to do is for those families that aren’t in relationship with a Black family, an indigenous family, is to do your work to find those folks, because I think what happens is it turns from a movement to a relationship. One of the things I talk about with “Look, Listen and Learn” is we want the series to be out there for all families. Although we are focusing on representing Latin and indigenous and people of color, everybody needs to see “Look, Listen and Learn” so that they recognize the wonder, the beauty, the creativity, the intelligence of our BIPOC children. Because if we’re not comfortable with inviting everybody into our lives, we’re not comfortable inviting answers to some of these questions that still plague us. And so, we better get busy making sure everybody has the best opportunity to make their contribution to our society.
Are you seeing some seeds and signs of hope?
Always. Where there’s no hope there’s no life. I think that’s one of the greatest lessons of Blacks, of indigenous people, of immigrants: No matter how dire a situation, if you don’t have hope, that’s death.
What can parents do to support the great work of LL + L?
We want folks to please log on to our website and make a donation. If you’re really looking for a Black Lives Matter organization to donate to, guess what? We’re a Black-led organization!