Season 53 of the beloved children's TV show "Sesame Street" gets underway with lots of celebrity guests and a message of love and inclusion. And it's happening under the direction of a history-making new executive producer. GPB's Leah Fleming interviews.

A brand new season of Sesame Street has kicked off with the characters painting a mural to celebrate the people who live in the neighborhood. But Muppet monster fairy Abby is having a hard time finding a paint color that accurately represents her fur color. Her fellow Muppets Tamir, who is Black, and Ji -Young, who is Korean-American, step in to teach Abby about mixing colors to create the perfect shade. 

Sesame Workshop said this brand new 53rd season is devoted to helping children grow up with a healthy self-identity and a sense of belonging. Sesame Street has had a long history of helping children do just that. 

Not only is the show boldly talking about diversity and acceptance on screen, but it's also doing it behind the scenes — and  doing it with a new executive producer. His name is Sal Perez. Perez has made history as the show's first Latino executive producer. GPB's Leah Fleming spoke with him recently.

Sal Perez:  I literally grew up on Sesame Street as a kid and then in my career as a producer as well. I started my career working as a production coordinator on our Latin America co-production. You know, I was always very close to my culture and hoped to be able to contribute to society in some way. And, you know, it is incredible to see how our characters impact kids and families all over the world.

Leah Fleming: When many people think about the show, immediately words like "fun" and "lifelong lessons" come to mind. But I think the phrase that is most common from so many viewers is “sense of belonging.” I'm thinking about so many of the characters who have come to Sesame Street that are differently abled, their families look different from traditional families. They may be dealing with homelessness, food insecurity, perhaps tackling racism. I'm wondering if that is going to be your mission moving forward? To be inclusive? And what does that look like for you?

Sal Perez: We want our whole audience, you know, kids and families from all walks of life to feel like they belong on Sesame Street. So part of that is to be able to represent those experiences in a ton of different ways with different characters, different family dynamics, you know? That's such an important aspect of what Sesame Street has always been from the beginning. And that's definitely a legacy that — that will continue, you know, going forward. Part of what I bring to the table as a producer, coming from a first-generation Mexican-American family, is someone that's been connected to so many different walks of life, and with my work with Sesame Street around the world. It's important for kids to really feel like they're seeing themselves on screen and that's something that we will continue to do.

Leah Fleming: Children are exposed to things that they are seeing in an adult world, like political violence and school violence. And some are experiencing racism firsthand. They don't even know what that is, but they just know what it feels like, that it hurts. And I'm wondering, are you tackling those subjects? And how do you do that with children?

Sal Perez:  On our show, what we focus on is our core audience, our preschool audience and what they're exposed to and the experiences that they might see. And so we will bring on characters of different races, different backgrounds that will bring their stories, their cultural stories, into our Sesame Street space. But, you know, it's something that's intended for kids to be able to watch and understand and feel safe again, you know, about what they're watching. So what we're tackling on the show is really to show, you know, all the different experiences of our characters, how they come together on Sesame Street. And then we have additional content where the caregiver or an adult can have a conversation with the kid. We want to make sure that anything that's on the show that a child is going to watch, that they come away with an understanding of what that curriculum point was, what they're learning and having an open-minded life.

Leah Fleming: So I know you have this new position on the set of Sesame Street. It's a [diversity, equity and inclusion] position, if I'm not mistaken.

Sal Perez: Yeah, it's called a DEI on-set advocate. So, you know, as we're looking to make content for the show where everyone feels like they belong — for what they see — we also want to ensure that everything that happens behind the camera — you know, on set — that everybody feels like they belong on Sesame Street, the set as well. So this role is there to ensure production members feel supported while we're navigating some of the more difficult subjects that we might be talking about in a story. We want to ensure that we have an environment where, you know, it's inclusive: People feel like they can chime in on what they're seeing, how it's being represented, and that we can be as authentic as possible. So what this role allows us to do is to have someone on set that can be that conduit between the producers and the writers of the show.

Sal Perez is the new executive producer of Sesame Street. He's the first Latino executive producer. 

Now all this diversity and inclusion at Sesame Street does not appear to have translated to Sesame Place. Over the summer, several videos surfaced online that show Black children being shunned by actors in Sesame Street character costumes. Sesame Place is not owned or operated by Sesame Workshop. In a statement, Sesame Workshop's president issued a statement that said, in part, “It's unacceptable that our beloved characters and brand have contributed in any way to the pain and hurt of any child. Sesame Workshop has always stood for diversity, equity, inclusion and kindness. We have been in active dialogue with SeaWorld, which is the licensed park partner who operates Sesame Place, to urge them to take immediate and significant actions, making changes to ensure all children feel welcome and loved at Sesame Place.”

 Since then, Sesame Place has said that all employees will participate in a training and education program designed to address racial bias and promote inclusion, prevent discrimination, and ensure all guests and employees feel safe and welcome.