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PNC’s Grow Up Great project resonates with children


PNC’s Grow Up Great project resonates with children
“Here she comes, beaming with pride and something to say…”

These words which are in the beginning of the theme song of the animated series Alma's Way, resonates with children, especially Latino children who may have not seen themselves represented on television.

The series, produced by Fred Rogers Productions (FRP), is partially funded by the PNC Foundation. Since 2004, the date of its inception, the PNC Grow Up Great project, has collaborated with the PNC Foundation along with FRP.

The PNC Foundation has also contributed to FRP's award-winning series Daniel Tiger's Neighborhood.

According to studies, approximately 6 in 10 parents believe it is important for their children to see diversity reflected in the characters they see on screen, and that kind of positive representation not only affirms their experiences, but also provides opportunities for them to better understand cultures other than their own.

“When our partners at Fred Rogers Productions shared the Alma's Way concept with us, we knew we wanted to play a part in bringing this important worldview and learning opportunity to young children," opined Sally McCrady, chair and president of the PNC Foundation.

"Investing in early education is a powerful way to create meaningful impact in the communities we serve. That's the driving force behind PNC Grow Up Great, our bilingual, $500 million philanthropic initiative that’s been making an impact across our markets for 18 years now.”

Alma's Way was created by Sonia Manzano, one of the few Latina actors on television when she first appeared as Maria on Sesame Street. From 1971 to 2015, she was a regular on the educational program.

When Manzano was approached about creating a show, she created Alma, a self-assured 6-year-old Puerto Rican girl from the Bronx, New York. Her life is surrounded by a diverse group of family members, friends, and neighbors.

“A lot of the show borrows from Sonia’s experiences as a child and from all of our life experiences,” said Olubunmi Mia Olufemi, the series’ supervising producer. “The show has a very diverse development team, with a lot of us having lived in New York and a variety of other places.”

The title of the show alludes to "Alma's Way" of seeing the world. Manzano wanted children to understand that everyone's path is unique and valid. Alma addresses the audience directly in "Think Through" moments in each story, where she reflects on a situation, considers others' points of view, and makes difficult decisions - all critical components of learning to think for herself.

“A guiding principle Sonia put into place was, ‘I want kids to know that they have a mind and they can use it,’” Olufemi says.

See It and Be It
Alma, her family, and some of her neighbors are Puerto Rican, Cuban, Mexican, Dominican, and even Bangladeshi, demonstrating the diversity of the neighborhood's population. Viewers are given a glimpse into the lives and cultures of the characters, from the music they listen to and dance to, to the Spanglish Alma speaks, to the mofongo Abuela Cecilia cooks - the recipe is even available on the Alma's Way website.

Because the team wants to show kids that "if you can see it, you can be it," the characters have a diverse range of occupations. Alma's Mami is a musician and music teacher, Papi is a veterinarian, Ta Gloria is a New York City bus driver, and Uncle Nestor is a playwright and musical director of a Bomba ensemble.

“Studies in children’s media show that positive representation of specific cultural and racial groups has a huge impact on how kids view themselves,” said Olufemi.

“Likewise, not seeing someone whose hair or skin looks like yours. For example, I grew up reading Seventeen magazine and, at the time, none of the makeup shades they advertised worked for me. That means you don’t exist. You grow up feeling outside, like you don’t represent any sort of beauty or anything in the world.”

Alma's cousin, Eddie Mambo, has cerebral palsy and is another example of intentional inclusion.

“It was really important to us to have a character with a visible disability so they know he is different,” said Olufemi.

“But there’s no special episode about Eddie. He just is who he is.”

Aside from the PNC Foundation's involvement with Alma's Way and Daniel Tiger's Neighborhood, PNC Grow Up Great and FRP have collaborated since 2016 to celebrate Be My Neighbor Days in nearly 45 PNC markets across the country.

“We have a mutual interest in families and getting them engaged, and that’s where Be My Neighbor Days really took off,” said Paul Siefken, president and CEO of Fred Rogers Productions, and ex officio member of the PNC Grow Up Great Advisory Council  for PNC Grow Up Great.

Siefken also stated that thinking about diversity, equity, and inclusion should be a key component when considering the work of FRP, rather than an afterthought.

He went on to add, “We’re looking at how we can celebrate racial and ethnic identities in these events. We do this by working with community leaders and organizers on how Be My Neighbor Days can represent the people in the community and celebrate the children in that community in a meaningful way."

The Message
The same dedication to diversity, equity, and inclusion pervades its programming.
While technology and the way we deliver media evolve, the fundamental principles of early childhood development do not, according to Siefken.

 “It’s still about children learning how to manage their feelings, interact with people and navigate the world they’re living in,” he explained.

“We have experts who have studied the way children’s world view develops, so we can be sure we’re speaking to them in an age-appropriate level. Daniel is for ages 2-4; Alma is for 4-6. It’s a whole lifetime of difference in advancement, so the social-emotional learning is very different.”

This early childhood tenet has led to a space where young viewers can learn and delight in the diverse cultural world of Alma’s Way – a show with a little girl who has “something say.”