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Watch: Val Thomas-Matson

With art, puppetry and real talk, this television pioneer prioritizes children of color.

by Jas Keimig / June 23, 2023

The kids’ TV creator channels Mr. Rogers while crafting stories for underserved audiences. (Video by Tifa Tomb)

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Possum has a big decision to make.

The furry, slightly anxious woodland puppet and his class have been asked to paint a school mural, but choosing the colors and design is a difficult decision. Luckily, Auntie Lena has some good advice to help him get inspired.

“Sometimes ideas pop right into our heads, and other times it can take a while,” she says. “That’s when it’s a good idea to shake things up. Since you’re stuck, let’s take a break and moooOOOove our bodies!”

Together, Possum and Auntie Lena then kick and spin around Union Cultural Center in the Chinatown-International District as they learn about capoeira from Mestre Silvio and his young student, Raúl. Suddenly Possum had a vision: He was going to paint a giant bowl of worms-ghetti, “because that’s my favorite food, and the noodles are yellow!”

This cute scene is a part of Look, Listen & Learn, a public-access children’s TV show designed specifically to uplift Black, Indigenous and other children of color and promote their early development.

The big brain behind all this is Auntie Lena herself, aka local TV veteran Val Thomas-Matson, who, with sidekick Possum, gently guides her young viewers to look, listen and learn from the big, beautiful world around them.

Each episode is based on a different children’s book — most by authors of color — such as Hannah Arp’s Purple Ube or Frank Murphy’s A Boy Like You that Auntie Lena and Possum explore through activities like art, music and cooking. While the program is light and inquisitive, the books chosen highlight important social or emotional themes, and Thomas-Matson doesn’t shy away from discussing complex topics like forgiveness and land acknowledgment.

“One of the comments I got during Black Lives Matter from a local station here, when they were interviewing us, they said, ‘You talk about such hard issues on your show,’” Thomas-Matson says. “I said, ‘Stop. These are not hard issues, these are necessary conversations.’”

Grounded in brain development research, Look, Listen & Learn brings on both kids and community-leader guest stars to help Auntie Lena and Possum explore. Thomas-Matson appears in each episode, dressed in a brightly colored collared shirt and an equally colorful sweater vest. She’s Seattle’s own version of Mister Rogers — though some people she’s encountered don’t see it that way.

“Racially, and given my gender, folks don’t expect to hear myself talking about how I like Mister Rogers. We get stuck on those physical attributes,” she says. “If I were a white male saying that I’m a local version of Mister Rogers, people would be excited!”

Look, Listen & Learn is a dream years in the making for Thomas-Matson. Born in 1959, she grew up in Seattle as the eldest child with a lot of responsibilities. Local television shows for kids, like Boomerang and Wunda Wunda, were great comforts during her often-hectic home life. “Television was the one way I could escape for a while,” she says.

Her interest in media led her to study theater at Western Washington University, but as one of the few actors of color on campus, Thomas-Matson found herself competing against her friends for “cleaning lady” roles. It was an infuriating experience, so she changed course and followed her love of TV toward a goal of bringing more Black and brown folks into the media business and centering the learning of kids of color.

“I want to be a producer so I can identify the best person to be on camera that’s sharing expertise,” she says. “And the expertise deserves to look like me, my friends, my gender.”

After taking classes in early childhood development and receiving her degree in broadcast communications, Thomas-Matson left Western Washington University in 1981 and interned at KOMO and KING-TV.

She eventually produced and hosted Community in Action, a community affairs show for King County Government TV. She also worked extensively with North by Northwest, a local production company, as a co-host for their Washington Grown program.

Throughout all this she nursed her dream of making children’s television for Black and brown kids. It took almost 20 years to get Look, Listen & Learn on air, including two false starts in the early 2000s.

But in 2018, after receiving funding via the Best Starts for Kids Innovation Grant, Thomas-Matson and her team were finally off to the races.

Thomas-Matson co-writes the dialogue with producer Kayla Fisher. And to date they’ve produced nearly 40 episodes of the 30-minute program, featured kids and artists from across King County, won three Telly Awards and earned two local Emmy nominations. But Thomas-Matson is still focused on what matters: supporting and uplifting Black and brown children in a world that deprioritizes them.

“Everybody should be talking about inequality,” she says, “and how we can do better and make ourselves better as well as each other and our neighbors.”

Authors & Contributors

Jas Keimig

Jas Keimig

Black Arts Legacies Writer

ARTIST OVERVIEW

Val Thomas-Matson

A portrait of a woman smiling

TV producer, host

(b. 1959)

Artist website

Artist social links

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BECU is proud to support Black Arts Legacies. Learn more ›

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