Would you be my neighbour? Lessons on community from Mister Rogers

by Stephen Thirlwall

A new movie came to Ottawa this summer entitled Won’t You Be My Neighbor? It was shown at a limited number of theatres, including the Mayfair Theatre, one of Ottawa’s locally owned, independent theatres.

The film is a brilliant documentary about Fred Rogers and his television series for children, “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.” My response to the film was to write this movie review and ask various serious questions.

Fred Rogers, in his own words, felt that every single person can make a positive contribution to the world. Each one of us is unique and has their own special combination of qualities and abilities.

He told each young child that he loved, respected and accepted them for who they are. Via his TV show, he guided them to use their uniqueness in a constructive way and balanced this against the challenges being faced in contemporary America.

Although he was actually an ordained Christian minister, and politically a Republican, he did not preach a narrow or restricted line. Instead, he operated through his writing and stilted acting to bring out openness in society.

He showed children, in terms they could grasp, how to face critical decision-making regarding challenges and problems. He helped them to channel anger, fear and other feelings and make them come out on the side of love, joy, friendship and a moral behaviour. His manner was always to speak to children in a quiet, friendly and gentle (but concerned) way.

In spite of his own feelings of inadequacy, he persevered and made a difference. There were those who criticized him, mocked his approach and spread false rumours about him (all shown within the film), yet the success of his TV show prevailed. He truly touched hearts.

If he had any regret, it was that he was unable to do anything to stop major disasters, such as 9/11, from happening. However, even after 9/11, and after deep reflection, he still presented his audience with a message of ultimate hope: that each one of us can help make a positive difference. He did not waver from this, no matter how difficult it may have been for him personally.

The movie prompted, for me, some questions for us to face in this current time and place.

What is a neighbourhood? What is a community? Are they the same thing? Is a neighbourhood just the physical area where we live as diverse unconnected people? Or is it the connection between us and our connections with the venues, services and activities around us that matters and forges neighbourhood? Can we change and improve our community and neighbourhood? And most importantly, what is our role and responsibility? How can we contribute to a strong and healthy community and society?

Mister Rogers would say that you don’t have to do something grand and earth-shaking. You just have to do something, however small.
Centretown and Dalhousie are two physical neighbourhoods with fairly distinct boundaries. Centretown is bordered by the Rideau Canal, the Ottawa River, Bronson Avenue and the Queensway. Dalhousie shares Bronson Avenue and the Ottawa River but then extends further west. Yet it takes communally active people to make them real and vibrant neighbourhoods.

Neighbourhoods and communities can have different scales. Centretown and Dalhousie could be considered together as one neighbourhood. Or they could each be subdivided into various smaller neighbourhoods: the Golden Triangle, Elgin Street, Bank Street, Chinatown, Little Italy, etc.

Can we gain a sense of community at all levels: local neighbourhood, citywide, regional, provincial, national, and global? In some ways, we do this all the time. But how consciously are we engaged in this?

Do you feel that you are part of a connected community? Or does this even matter to you?

Mister Rogers would certainly say it should matter because this is the environment in which you live. Do you want it to be a friendly, healthy and nourishing one for you? How can each of us contribute to positive change, formally or informally? Won’t you be each other’s neighbours?