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Conversations Make a Neighborhood

A #ListenFirst Perspective on A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

“Since we’re together, we might as well say, ‘Would you be mine? Could you be mine?
Won’t you be my neighbor?’

Most of us live in some type of neighborhood. When we feel connected to kind neighbors, it’s a beautiful thing. But given how many of our neighborhoods don’t fit that image, the thought of cheerfully singing Won’t You Be My Neighbor can seem even more make-believe than Daniel Tiger or King Friday XIII. Indeed, the spirit of Fred Rogers depicted in the new movie A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood stands in stark contrast to the distance and division now defining our collective American neighborhood. Yet this film inspires a new path for us today.

We are in the midst of a cultural crisis. Increasingly, we don’t just disagree; we distrust, dislike, even despise those who see the world differently. Most of us see fewer things that bind us together and have few or no friends who are not like us. Rather than connect with people, even difficult ones, as Fred Rogers did, we too often dismiss others as enemies with bad intentions, threats to be avoided. We’re failing to see the humanity, the dignity in one another. We’re withdrawing from conversations, fracturing relationships and fraying our social fabric. Seventy-five percent of Americans say this problem has reached a crisis level.

Fred Rogers, as vividly illustrated by this uplifting film, habitually found the innate goodness and dignity in all people. He was ever curious to learn their stories. He suspended judgment and extended grace. He was fully present. He focused his conversations on the other person. He listened first to understand.

We believe conversations—the kind Fred Rogers mastered—are the best way to foster relationships that make a neighborhood. And healthier neighborhoods create a stronger social fabric for our country as a whole. Turning the tide of rising rancor and deepening division in America begins in our neighborhoods.

Of conversation, Fred Rogers said, “Anything human is mentionable; anything mentionable is manageable,” and “If you want to talk to me, I should want to talk to you.” Mr. Rogers understood the transformative power of conversation to create connection with those around us. The journalist Mr. Rogers befriends in this story, Tom Junod, observed that “Sometimes we get to change a broken world with our words.”

In Tom’s 1998 Esquire magazine profile of Mr. Rogers—on which this film is based—he wrote, “Mister Rogers is … losing to … our twenty-four-hour-a-day pie fight, to the dizzying cut and the disorienting edit, to the message of fragmentation … and yet still he fights.” Those words feel even more poignant two decades later. While Mr. Rogers is no longer with us, this movie calls on us to continue his fight.

As Joanne Rogers tells Tom in the movie, Fred is nothing we can’t be ourselves. “If you think of him as a saint then his way of being is unattainable. He works at it all the time. It’s a practice.” May this movie and the brokenness in our own neighborhoods move us to practice.

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood paints a picture of what we could be, how we could live. It’s a picture of humanity, humility, goodness and grace. Today is not such a beautiful day in our neighborhood, but it could be. Fred Rogers showed us how. Now it’s up to us.

Pearce Godwin—“the national voice for bridging divides”—is Founder & CEO of Listen First Project, Executive Director of National Conversation Project, and leader of the #ListenFirst Coalition of 250+ partner organizations. He catalyzes the #ListenFirst movement to mend the frayed fabric of America by bridging divides one conversation at a time.

Graham Bodie is a listening scholar, educator, and consultant in the School of Journalism and New Media at the University of Mississippi. As Chief Listening Officer for Listen First Project, he advocates for the role of listening to help depolarize American culture.