Not all heroes wear capes — one of ours wore a cardigan.
When Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood debuted 50 years ago, you might not have taken the kindly Fred Rogers for a revolutionary. But as seen in the new award-winning documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, the soft-voiced Pennsylvanian minister was a countercultural icon. He preached love and acceptance in a period of history marked by turbulent politics, racial tension and the Vietnam War. Sadly, our current political climate seems just as divisive. So we’re looking back at some of the lessons Mister Rogers taught us about being good activists — and better neighbours.
Stand for, not against
Rogers acknowledged the world’s problems, but focused on solutions. He was a lifelong pacifist who ran segments about war, but rather than insult politicians or lobbyists, he told stories about peace and diplomacy. During the Gulf War, a potential invader called The Big Thing threatened the Neighborhood of Make Believe. Authorities declared “Call out the troops!” But before conflict escalated, one character suggested talking to The Big Thing instead. It turns out it just wanted a blanket. (Rogers was big on the healing power of naps, too.) The strongest forces for social change focus on fixing the problem, even understanding our dissenters, not finding someone to blame.
Kids can handle the truth
Mister Rogers was a straight shooter. His show tackled grief, divorce, race issues and disability by asking kids what they thought, instead of speaking for them. In one 1980 episode, 10-year-old Jeff Erlanger spoke about his quadriplegia. Rogers just listened to Jeff’s story, from the initial diagnosis of a spinal tumour to his surgery to correct autonomic dysreflexia. The segment ended with shared coping strategies for sadness — reading or making up stories. “A lot of things happen to you when you’re handicapped — and sometimes when you’re not handicapped,” Jeff observed in the segment. We’ve worked with millions of young people on service and leadership. Most kids are not only ready to hear about complex or difficult issues, but also ready to talk about them, often with insights that adults overlook.
Build community, not borders
Everyone was welcome in Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. In 1968, Francois Clemmons joined the cast, playing a police officer, to become the first black actor with a recurring role on a kids’ TV series. Meanwhile, in America, racial segregation was still a contested topic. People debated the merits of “black” and “white” public pools. When Rogers invited Clemmons to join him soaking his feet in a plastic tub on the Neighborhood lawn, the symbolism was not lost on the nation. “When I was a little girl there were many confusing messages about white and black and who belonged where,” one fan told Rogers when he retired in 2001, “but we knew we belonged with you.”
Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood wasn’t a place. It was a social movement that brought together diverse perspectives from across local, national and global divides. That message still resonates 50 years later as fans flock to theatres to pay one more visit to the Neighborhood — a place where everyone belongs.