In a scene during the final few minutes of Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, Fred Rogers reflects on the end of his iconic educational program and asks whether he achieved his goal. He wonders whether anyone “got it.” That was the moment I started crying. Now, I can’t think about Mr. Rogers, his work, or what it taught me about social impact without getting choked up.
The emotional connection for me is rooted in the parallels I find in Mr. Rogers’ work and mine. His questions surfaced sadness for me because he was asking whether his mission to intentionally and radically love through his work had been received for what it was. He didn’t see himself as an entertainer. He saw himself as an educator, a mentor, a friend. Mr. Rogers’ mission was to build a humanizing bridge between very young people and the very real world, warts and all. He aimed to support children in developing the tools to engage in developmentally appropriate ways with the issues we struggle with as adults — race, class, gender, family strife, equity, justice — rather than escape into Disney fantasies. As his show and career ended, he looked around at a world that was just as physically and emotionally violent as it was when he started his career and wondered whether any of his work mattered.
My tears came forth from a well of self-doubt and loss after leaving the educational institution I co-founded and led for 13 years. Our work was about helping adolescents develop the capacities for critical self-reflection, love, and intellect to an exceptional degree. These are the highly developed capacities that our great agents of change have shared — Dr. King, Mr. Mandela, Mahatma Ghandi, Ella Baker — that made them outstanding contributors to equity and justice. Over 13 years, I collaborated with a team of educators, community partners around the world, and our students to create and refine programs that were truly transformational for everyone involved. While I’m immensely proud of our collective work and my contributions to it, I left the organization with deeply rooted doubt in the value of my work and impact. Mr. Rogers’ reflections from retirement gave words to the overwhelming sadness this doubt brings. He gave me the space to cry.
Fred Rogers’ work (also depicted beautifully in Mr. Rogers & Me) wasn’t just about performing on stage with puppets and teaching viewers to tie their shoes. He was an academic, consistently diving deep into research on neural development, philosophy, and sociology. The was a theologian, translating his commitment to a radical love rooted in his spirituality into a data-informed, highly targeted intervention in the lives of children and families that needed it most. He developed a programmatic vision, built and led a team, established a culture of intentionality, and led an institution that required funding, focused leadership, and branding.
I found myself leaning into the screen during these films as Mr. Rogers’ words and actions reflected the challenges I faced. On the surface, these were the challenges of program and organization building, of securing funding, and defining the vision that the team would actualize. Underneath these technical challenges, was the deeper challenge of loneliness. He asked the question of whether the world “got it” at the end of his career because he knew that most understood his work to be educational, focused on developing social and emotional skills in young children. But that isn’t what Mr. Rogers was trying to achieve. Ultimately, he was trying to create a more just and equitable world, one in which young people developed their capacities for love and intellect in ways that were intertwined and humanizing. He didn’t address issues of race by pointing to skin colors. He did it by sharing a wading pool with a friend on a hot day. His teaching defined love as the uninhibited acceptance of others and ourselves. His teaching was about intellect being a universal characteristic rooted in curiosity and humility. His teaching was that love and intellect, when wielded in concert and balance, were the tools we needed when the world was darkest.
There are few who would read those aspirations and argue against them. Yet, the loneliness in championing them is that our society doesn’t offer a framework for pursuing them. In our work at Thinking Beyond Borders, funders immediately turned skeptical or dismissive when I employed this framing. They wanted to know what the metrics of success were. They wanted to hear the keywords of the day — “social entrepreneurship” and “social innovation” in our early days, later moving to “design thinking.” Our work was crucial for setting the stage for effective wielding of these tools, but that rejoinder never worked. Funders and influencers want to hear that you’ve adhered to the latest trends, not that you’ve spent decades researching and developing a framework built upon the expertise of generations of experts.
One of my colleagues at TBB helped me name this loneliness for the first time. Amanda, having just listened to me talk for 20 straight minutes about the often unrecognized value of our team’s work and the path I was trying to forge to leverage it into new opportunities for us to grow, turned to me and said, “You must be lonely in your work.” It took some conversation for me to understand the powerful insight she was sharing into my experience. I loved our team, enjoyed our collaborative working relationship, and consider them all close friends. Yet, I was responsible for holding the vision for our collective work, articulating it to all stakeholders, and determining how to move it forward. She pointed out that despite our many years working together, there were parts of the vision and the underlying assumptions and values that she and the team were still learning from me. And, she pointed out that in our conversations over the years, my stress and frustration most often revolved around the challenge of helping those people we needed to help advance our work understand the value we created.
What I’d like to share with Fred Rogers, is what the student and staff alumni of our programs have shared with me. Your work changed my life and the lives of those who were touched by it. No, you didn’t end poverty or war. No, your institution may not live forever. But the love and intellect you shared transformed me. It supported me in recognizing my own humanity in a way others didn’t. It helped me gain a confidence in my ability to learn, to love, and to contribute to a more equitable and just world. Yes, there are plenty of people in the world who don’t see this value and will never understand it. That is a loss. But we must never let that loss diminish the gains of consciousness and humanizing love we created together. I got it. And that matters.