Community organizer Val Thomas-Matson (center) is the producer of Look, Listen & Learn, a King County-based early learning educational program. Citing Hattie McDaniel and Fred Rogers as early sources of inspiration, Thomas-Matson brings her deep experience of working in media to the show—she's worked at KING TV and hosted the daily community affairs talk show Communities in Action for King County Government TV for three years. She's also worked extensively with the multi-award-winning production company North by Northwest as co-host on Washington Grown.
Look, Listen & Learn is such an amazing (and entertaining) resource for children and families. What inspired the creation of this show?
First, thank you for your kind words. I grew up in Seattle's Central Area and attended TT Minor Elementary School—one of the lowest-performing schools in the district. I'm not sure who may have known, but I struggled with school and it didn't come easy for me. Children's television programming was an important support for me. Mr. Rogers , Shari Lewis & Lamb Chop helped me gain quiet confidence along with a supportive community which held high expectations for me and all of its children.
A key turning point was watching The New Zoo Revue . I knew deep down that entertaining and educating was a formula to help kids feel better about themselves while they also learned. I wanted to help keep other kids from feeling stuck with school, but also encourage them to keep trying. Children’s TV seemed to answer that calling of my heart’s desire. It's what I wanted and I had no idea how to get there...from there. For over 30 years these embers burned within. I'd made strides towards realizing my dream over the years and finally with the King County Best Start for Kids Innovation Grant in 2018, the dream was funded into reality.
As a producer and a Black woman, I want Black, Indigenous and other children of color to see themselves reflected in early learning and for everyone to see us excited about learning and discovery.
How is making content for children different from making content for adults?
I craft with the child in mind, as well as adults who are hopefully watching along with the child. I want the child inspired and excited, but I also want that for the adults! Adults need to better understand our role in helping to shape hope-filled and curious learners.
What advice would you give to filmmakers who want to make content for children?
What, wait! My people? Filmmakers who make content for kids? Who are you? Where are you? It feels rather lonely out here, especially for those developing responsible edutainment for audiences of color with Black and Brown leads. Ugh! Okay, that's not advice. LOL. (Optional ramblings)
Advice: Understand that what you have to offer is most likely a calling that's unique and special to you. IF you don't do it—it won't get done. There will be other Star Wars, Black Panthers, and Wonder Women. Those are known formulas (no disrespect intended). But what Ben Vereen, LaVar Burton, and what I am striving to do is welcome in a new way of producing content for children and families that features local Black and Brown leads, experts, staff and content for all of the worlds to see.
Know that securing funds for this work is innovative, revolutionary, stressful, and hard. Make sure that you have bonafide support to get and keep your financials in order. It's solid business sense that helps to counter nay-sayers. We work with a fiscal sponsor who provides a solid foundation, which helps with transparency and accountability.
Make sure that your initial team reflects your audience. I do not believe that you can genuinely represent viewers who are not at the table or, as they sing in Hamilton, "...in the room where it happens."
Your show is geared toward BIPOC children ages 3-6 and their families, can you give us an example of how the show has helped explain complex subjects like Black Lives Matter and COVID-19 to that audience?
As a Black person, who was once a child, I have the experience of my parents talking with my sisters and me about race for our safety. For Black and Brown families, race is an ongoing conversation. Our daily plans involved the awareness of where we'd be and how we'd need to "act accordingly". This phrase is my mother's famous admonishment to us girls. We could not NOT have race conversations - our lives depended on them. These conversations happened long before we went to school and as I said, almost daily.
This is the type of authentic information that fuels our script development. When a white writer asks, "Should we use the word 'killed' in the script?". The answer for me as a Black, a producer, a writer is a resounding yes. We have to speak to children honestly to help impart the consequences of not acting accordingly.
Hopefully, the lessons from COVID-19 and the BLM protests will help all of us embrace the need to talk honestly about race and being a community helper to help build a more equitable society. There is a lot that white families don’t know about this construct called race. This is a fact that has been systematically built into our American culture. It’s some of what we are talking about with LL+L and we hope you’ll do the same; LOOK, LISTEN AND LEARN.