Hairiette of Harlem Comes to Life at Harvard
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Hairiette of Harlem Comes to Life at Harvard

Tanya Wright
Tanya Wright, creator of Hairiette of Harlem (Credit: Kelley VanDilla)

In 2021, Tanya Wright left Hollywood and headed for the campus-lined streets of Cambridge, after decades of acting on successful television shows such as "Orange is the New Black," "True Blood," and "The Cosby Show." Portraying thoughtfully-selected characters on formative programs had shown Wright how entertainment could evoke powerful cultural responses to important social issues, “particularly the prison system, immigration, and transgender rights,” she says. When the COVID-19 pandemic shuttered Hollywood studios and schools across the globe, Wright was attuning to the ways in which the achievement gap — failures of education systems that disproportionately favor the wealthy — was widening. And she had a growing suspicion that she might be able to do something to help: “But I knew I had to educate myself, formally, first,” she says.

Wright’s Harvard journey

Wright applied to the Harvard Graduate School of Education in 2020, and in 2022 graduated from the new Learning, Design, Innovation, and Technology master’s program — where she designed a blended-learning tutoring software, called Hairiette’s House, to help children learn to read. That endeavor has blossomed into the Hairiette of Harlem franchise, a story-driven literacy platform she developed at the Harvard Innovation Labs. The platform uses the intersection of education and entertainment to engage children with videos that encourage reading.

“I was never planning to go back to school,” says Wright. “I was a very disinterested, distracted learner. Today I know that means that I was just bored. I was highly creative, and probably wasn’t stimulated enough in the ways a learner like me needs to be. And I wanted to create a system for those kids who were, like me, maybe a little distracted and creative, kids who didn’t do well on standardized tests, and who could have fallen through the cracks. Because the truth is, I could have fallen through the cracks. My mom had me when she was 15 years old, in the South Bronx. She had two children by the time she was 17. So statistically, someone like me — it could have gone another way. And I wanted to help. I had some ideas about how I might be helpful.”

Students who don’t read proficiently by the time they reach third grade are four times more likely to drop out of high school, according to a study by the Annie E. Casey Foun­da­tion. Consider poverty and the problem compounds. For Black and Lati­nx stu­dents, the com­bined effect of pover­ty and poor third-grade read­ing skills makes the drop-out rate eight times higher than that of their affluent peers. “And that’s when the incarceration rates go up,” Wright says. It’s true. Evidence shows that the consequences of poor childhood reading can be life threatening.

The world of Hairiette

Enter Hairiette of Harlem, an animated children’s franchise starring 7-year-old Hairiette and her magic friends, Charlie the Comb and Barbara the Barrette. The series’ first offering, “Goodnight, Hairiette”, is a short puppet musical featuring a fantastical bedtime story that premiered at HGSE’s Gutman Conference Center in November. Wright plans to tour the film at schools, community centers, libraries, and museums nationwide to help narrow the achievement gap, and, most importantly, inspire kids to read. And in Hairiette’s short time in existence, she and Wright seem to be doing just that: “After a screening I did with kindergarteners and third graders, they came up to me and asked for “‘the Hairiette book,'” says Wright. “So I was like, ‘Oh, this is exactly what I wanted!’” Of the 30 Hairiette books Wright has already written, the first three will be available in Target stores beginning September 2024.

But Wright isn’t stopping there. She says the patent-pending Hairiette’s House software is really “the crown jewel” of the initiative. An AI-powered, story-based tutoring tool for K-3 students, the program invites parents, caregivers, and teachers into the Hairiette universe to meet their children in a safe, exciting place for learning. Inclusivity is key, Wright says: Hairiette’s House will be available in multiple languages, closed captions, and audio only. It was designed to integrate seamlessly with existing K-3 Reading Circles, a common classroom strategy that promotes meaningful discussion of stories among diverse groups of students. Wright aims to make Hairiette’s House available in classrooms globally in the next 10 years.

Tanya Wright in front of wall hangings depicting famous children's books
Wright was a finalist at Harvard’s Saul Zaentz Early Education Innovation Challenge.

“My dream is for Hairiette to be the modern-day Sesame Street,” says Wright, who worked under the mentorship of Sesame Street veterans Joe Blatt (EdM 1977) and Jeffrey Dunn (AB 1977, MBA 1981). “I have this mission statement on my wall: Hairiette of Harlem is a beloved, globally recognized, and impactful children’s educational brand that creates accessible and joyful learning, connecting kids, educators, and parents worldwide,” Wright says. “So it is a trifecta. We can work with kids, but we also have to work with educators, teachers, and caregivers for real impact and sustainability.”

Wright found a home away from home at the i-lab (“It’s open 24-7 and there are snacks,” she jokes), and a community that supports her tireless pursuits to inspire and elevate today’s youth. “I am relentless when I get a notion to do something,” she says. “I joke that Hollywood doesn’t really know what to do with me. I come in with all these ideas. I don’t fit in a box…and I’ve come here to this wonderful, incredible place. And I’ve been able to realize my vision with such great support, and friendship. It’s really life changing.”