‘What would Fred Say?’ Sewickley group hosts talk on civil discourse at Tull

Monday, December 2, 2019 | 11:46 AM

The release of “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” may seem timely in today’s divisive political climate.

Welcoming Everyone (WE), a non-partisan community organization founded by Sewickley residents, decided that the film, based on a relationship between the beloved Fred Rogers and journalist Tom Junod, should coincide with a community conversation about civil discourse.

About 50 people attended “What Would Fred Rogers Say?” Dec. 1 at The Tull Family Theater, which partnered with WE to present the event. It followed a 12:30 p.m. showing of “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” at the Tull.

Throughout the hour-long conversation, attendees shared takeaways from the film and the work of Mr. Rogers, as well as their thoughts on the current state of discourse in the country and how to move toward greater civility. Dr. Janie Harden Fritz, a civility and interpersonal communication expert at Duquesne University, facilitated the conversation.

Responding to a question about the political climate, Fritz said that many people do not listen earnestly. Instead, she said, people often listen to “gather ammunition” for their own arguments.

“It may be that we are listening but not hearing or hearing but not listening,” she added.

Ada Milliner, who said she planned to see the film later in the week, shared the value that the “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” television program had for her daughter. She said Mr. Rogers’ demeanor taught children the value of listening.

“If you want to follow through, you must listen,” Milliner said. “And the children listened because of his manner and his voice in the program.”

Barry Lewis, a pastor at Christ Community Church in McKees Rocks, highlighted the lessons about forgiveness in “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood.”

Inspired by Mr. Rogers, the journalist known in the film as Lloyd Vogel decides to reestablish a relationship with his father after years of tension. Forgiveness, Lewis said, is about seeing a relationship as more important than any source of division.

The theme of tribalism, especially when it comes to politics, was frequently brought up during the conversation. Attendees noted how easy it is today to pick a side and not make an effort to seek compromise.

William Craig, a former Sewickley resident who was visiting for the weekend, said that division is inherent in any democracy. But he suggested a greater emphasis on common values that should unite all citizens, citing the Constitution as an example.

Throughout the afternoon’s discussion, Fritz emphasized the importance of showing respect, regardless of one’s stance on an issue.

“Mr. Rogers said ‘I like you as you are.’ Somebody is in this moment, and you can’t change that, so you go into the moment with that person and walk with that person,” said Fritz.

While attendees were quick to point out the lack of civil discourse in society, many said they were optimistic for the future.

Clifford Miles spoke about growing up during the Vietnam War, a time when protests were commonplace, and the nation was deeply divided. He said internal conflict is nothing new and that he is fairly optimistic about the country’s future.

Civil discourse in times of disagreement, according to Barbara Pace, has made the country stronger at critical times.

“That’s what our country has been built on,” she said before noting the sharp disagreements between Founding Fathers John Adams and Thomas Jefferson in America’s earliest days.

“It’s how we come out of it, and we normally come out better for disagreeing, as long as some of us can make an effort to listen to what the other person has to say,” Pace added.

To learn more about future community events hosted by Welcoming Everyone, visit the organization’s Facebook page, www.facebook.com/welcomingeveryone.