by Beverly Aarons
Look, Listen, and Learn TV (LL+L), Seattle’s first and only early learning TV show created by a Black producer for BIPOC kids and families, brought home three Telly Awards. “I was stunned,” LL+L executive producer Val Thomas-Matson said during a telephone interview with the Emerald. She recounted the moment she received the award notice. “I was grateful. I was excited and just felt so validated in that moment.” But that moment almost never happened. For the better part of her youth, Thomas-Matson, who describes herself as a “recipient of [the] educational gap,” was wracked by shame, guilt, and low self-esteem.
“I didn’t do very well in school,” said Thomas-Matson, who proudly announced during the interview that she’s “61 years young” and Seattle born and bred. “It takes a toll on you as a young person when you don’t meet with school success.” Thomas-Matson grew up in the Central District when it was an all Black neighborhood and attended “one of the least performing Seattle public schools.” That young girl could not have imagined she would go on to produce LL+L TV and win one Gold Telly Award for her first season, one Gold Telly Award for episode 7 “Don’t Touch My Fur” and one Silver Telly Award for the mini-episode “What Does ‘Black Lives Matter’ Mean?”
Those kinds of dreams didn’t seem feasible for a young Thomas-Matson who had to grow up fast. She was the eldest and thrust into the role of parenting two siblings who had sickle cell anemia even though she was still a kid herself. “I had a lot of responsibility,” Thomas-Matson said, “and I just kind of had to grin and bear it, if you will, and do the best I could.” But it was a lot for a kid. Influenced by a logic only a child could make sense of, Thomas-Matson felt like the odd man out because she was the only person in her family who didn’t have sickle cell anemia. Meanwhile, her self-esteem was low because she wasn’t performing well in school. By the time she reached her teen years, Thomas-Matson’s self-worth had bottomed out.
But then the words of a stranger touched her.
“I remember watching one particular episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” Thomas-Matson said. “He was sharing that we were all special [and that] we were all really unique. And I just remember weeping — just to feel this love come through my television and reach out and touch me and let me know that I was special.”
Those special moments watching Mister Rogers’ as a teen, and later Ben Vereen in the New Zoo Revue when Thomas-Matson was a young adult, were the sparks that first encouraged her and would eventually inspire her journey to produce LL+L. “I really was attracted to both of these television shows because they were encouraging young people and that was really the seeds of Look, Listen, and Learn — I wanted to encourage young people [too],” she said.
However, before Thomas-Matson could fully cultivate the seeds of her dream, she was forced to battle her inner demons of low self-worth and shame.
“When you have a deficit, you find ways to compensate, right?” Thomas-Matson said, noting how she hid her flaws for many years. “So I did that.” But by her early 30s she had grown weary of hiding what she perceived as her flaws. “The burden of compensating for where I didn’t feel adequate just got too heavy for me to bear.” The breaking point came when a beloved sorority sister needed Thomas-Matson’s help. The sorority sister was running for president of the local chapter and asked all the sorority sisters to carefully craft and edit all of their written communications for the campaign. Thomas-Matson was flustered. She didn’t consider herself a good writer, but she wanted to help a woman that she admired and respected. It was time to “come clean” and get the help she needed.
“I remember going to another sorority member and saying, ‘I’m not a good writer but I want to be better, will you help me?’” Thomas-Matson said. “And so I had a sorority sister, in my 30s, actually help me with my writing. And it was only in beginning to come clean, if you will … [and] in admitting my worst fear that I was surrounded in community and that I was surrounded in love.”
It is this value of community and interdependence that Thomas-Matson wants to communicate to the young viewers of LL+L today.
“We don’t have to carry these wounds and these burdens all alone, and often in sharing them we not only begin to heal ourselves, we can help one another heal,” Thomas-Matson said. “That deepens our relationship [and] that deepens our community. And so with Look, Listen, and Learn, I just know that I don’t want another kid who hasn’t seen Look, Listen, and Learn to feel like I felt as a kid, you know, that shame and that embarrassment, because they are unique, they are special, and they can overcome — they can.”
The idea for Look, Listen, and Learn (LL+L) first came to Thomas-Matson in 2003, but she wouldn’t secure production funding until 2018. Despite her giant leaps of progress in self-esteem and her professional accomplishments, she was still plagued by self-doubt. And then there was systemic racism. Thomas-Matson said there were many private and public organizations exploring early learning and brain development, but when she reached out to them about LL+L, they weren’t interested.
“I think they were not interested because this idea was coming from a Black woman running around saying ‘I’m going to be the next Mister Rogers.’” Thomas-Matson laughed. “And that was confusing and off-putting.”
But there was one person who wasn’t confused at all: Dave Tanner, a producer and partner at North by Northwest Digital Studio. For years, Thomas-Matson said that Tanner, who she first met in 2007, would call her and check on the progress of LL+L, but she would always tell him that it was “on hiatus.” She would eventually go on to receive the Best Starts For Kids (BSK) Innovation Grant in 2018, but it was Tanner’s gentle encouragement that gave her the confidence to keep going.
“I think the reason his voice stands out is because there was a point when I realized ‘Hey, this guy is successful in business and if he thinks this is a good idea,’” she burst into laughter, “‘maybe you should borrow a little faith from him since you’re not doing this on your own.’ And so now he comes over from Spokane, Washington with his film crew, and every time we film a show that’s who films the show because he cares that much about us.”
Look, Listen, and Learn is a huge production. Every show is grounded in a story, a social emotional theme, learning objectives, and brain development research, and Thomas-Matson and her staff choose locations where families of color can feel safe to visit and explore such as the library or zoo. That last element was inspired by an experience that Thomas-Matson shares often.
“I was at Barnes & Noble and there was this white mom and this little white child and they were pulling out all sorts of books from the bottom shelf … and I looked over and there was this Latina, there was Brown mom and a little girl, and the mother was saying ‘No, no, no, baby, don’t touch, don’t pull those out. Put those back. Don’t touch, just look.’ And I just remember that moment, that it’s not safe for our kids to explore everywhere as it is for white kids, you know?”
Exploring with “everyday kids” on the show is an important part of the LL+L production. Thomas-Matson wants BIPOC kids from the community to participate so that they can learn and their families watching can learn too. For instance, one of Thomas-Matson’s most memorable moments on the show so far is a cooking segment.
“They were making this banana bread, and we took the banana bread out of the oven, and it was baked on one side, it was baked on the outside. But when you took it out of the pan … the whole inside of the cake was raw. It just ran out,” Thomas-Matson gave a long and hearty laugh. “We just all kind of watched this banana bread deflate and it was like, ‘We only have this loaf. We will find a way to use it.’ So we took the bread out of the pan and we cut it, and we zoomed in and refilmed and refilmed and refilmed.” She added that there was no way they were going to let the kids eat raw banana bread, so they had to do a little acting. “I remember we had this young talent … he had to pretend to eat it, and he loved it,” she laughs hard. “I’ll never forget his line ‘Yum, I taste the cinnamon!’”
There have been difficult moments too, like figuring out how to explain racism to 3- and 4-year-olds in the mini-episode “Do Black Lives Still Matter.” Thomas-Matson and her associate producer Kayla Fisher were so “distracted by the angst of racism” that making simple the complex issue of racism was a real challenge.
As Look, Listen, and Learn (LL+L) eases into its second season, Val Thomas-Matson said that producing the show has been life transforming.
“Being able to produce Look, Listen, and Learn has really helped me to listen to that good voice, not that ‘neener, neener, neener’ voice as much. It’s really helped me to listen to that little champion I’ve got going on in there as well, which is a voice that was missing for a long time, and that was definitely very quiet.”
Look, Listen, and Learn airs on Seattle Channel (channel 21) on Saturday and Sundays at 8:30 a.m. and 2:30 p.m.; on King County TV (channel 22) on Saturdays at 8:00 a.m. and 8:00 p.m.; and is always available on YouTube at the LL+L channel. Learn more about LL+L at www.looklistenandlearn.org
Beverly Aarons is a writer and game developer. She works across disciplines as a copywriter, journalist, novelist, playwright, screenwriter, and short-story writer. She explores futuristic worlds in fiction but also enjoys discovering the stories of modern-day unsung heroes. She’s currently writing an immersive play about the themes of migration as well as a series of nonfiction stories about ordinary people doing extraordinary things in their local communities and the world. In August 2018 she produced a live-action game and event where community members worked together to envision an economic future they truly desired to leave future generations.
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