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  • Emerging Ally

Fred Rogers

Like so many people of my generation I grew up with Mister Rogers Neighborhood. Fred Rogers shared lessons and stories and made us feel like we were special. He also helped my generation of kids tackle some pretty stiff issues.

For a quiet soft spoken person, he somehow made huge statements about belonging and personal worth. He made everyone feel as though they were special and that they belonged. He was unflinchingly kind. And in my adult years I realized he was also incredibly brave. He took on issues with kindness. He helped kids understand difficult issues with simple examples. But at the heart was always a rubric of kindness.

In May 1969 Mr Rogers aired a particularly impactful episode.

It resonates even today.

In the episode Mr Rogers is outside his house on a hot day. He has one of those plastic kiddy wading pool in front of him and he fills it up with water from a hose. His shoes and socks are off and he puts his feet in to cool himself off. Then the policeman on the show walks by and they chat. Officer Clemmons mentions he is a little tired and they about how hot it is. Mr Rogers - true to form - offers him a chair to rest and to cool off in the pool. Officer Clemmons says thanks and takes his shoes and socks off and joins Mr Rogers by putting his feet in the pool. They have a nice conversation and then go to get out. As they do Officer Clemmons realizes he doesn’t have a towel to dry off. Mr Rogers offers to share his towel. Officer Clemmons thanks him and they dry their feet and Officer Clemmons returns to his patrol as they exchange pleasantries and the scene ends.

Now as a kid this is nothing unusual. We did the same thing in front of our house on hot days. And other kids would join us in the kiddy pool to splash and have fun.

What was unusual was Officer Clemmons was black.

This episode aired in 1969. This was aired against a backdrop of Civil rights protests, segregation and redlining. Martin Luther King Jr has been assented a year earlier. Federal legislation was being enacted to eliminate racial disparities in voting rights and access to housing.

In addition in 1969 many pools were segregated. This was the subject of court cases and protests.

The episode was not an accident.

This episode was a direct shot across the bow to the idea that people of different races should not share the same public space and accommodations.

But it never said that.

There was no grandstanding. No lecturing. No pontificating.

They talked about the weather.

But the statement was undeniable. And powerful.

But it was also consistent. It was a single powerful act in alignment with everything else Mr Rogers did.

People often think allyship has to involve standing at the front of the parade. But it doesn’t. Public pronouncements are good. Necessary even. But oftentimes simple acts create as much meaning.

When the CEO attends the Employee resource Group (ERG) meeting people notice. They don’t even have to say something. Their presence says enough. But the statement becomes more powerful when they continue to attend events. They don’t have to attend every event but they have to set the tone.

When I ran a team I always made sure the team knew I was a member of every ERG. It was a simple statement but one I used to help set the culture. And I backed it up with attending as many events as I could.

Allyship is not about grandstanding. It is about doing the little things.

As always I hope this helps. I look forward to continuing the conversation. Please let me know your thoughts in the comments.

All the best,

Dave Terné

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