Erin Barnes & Miriam Parson: What Pittsburgh means to us

The massacre at the Tree of Life synagogue was a horrific hate crime, the deadliest attack on Jewish Americans in history. There is no question that violence like this has no place in our world, our country, in Pittsburgh, or in Squirrel Hill. It’s a particularly cruel irony to see such an explicit outburst of anti-semitism and hate befall a community made famous for its generosity, philanthropy, love and neighborliness.

We have no doubt that Pittsburgh will come together, as we’ve already seen our city do, and lean on one another to mourn and to heal.

As our grief turns to resolve, many of us find ourselves wondering: what next?

Pittsburgh, as many have pointed out, is the hometown of Fred Rogers, America’s archetypal good neighbor. Perhaps for just one moment it’s worth reflecting on the first episodes of Mr Rogers’ Neighborhood, which aired in 1968 and focused on conflict. A puppet named King Friday was worried about an invasion of people who wanted to change the neighborhood and installed border guards to keep them out. Over the course of these episodes, Mr. Rogers and his cast of characters talk to and assuage King Friday of his fears. They had a conflict, and resolved it by opening up a caring, compassionate dialogue to uphold their values of being welcoming and caring to everyone.

We could still learn a thing or two from the puppets of Mr. Rogers’ neighborhood. In the face of hate, in the face of problems that seem infinitely big and insurmountable, it can be difficult to know what to do. But it never hurts to start small, and start with your neighbors.

For example, in The Hill District neighborhood, Elizabeth Chitester leads the Rising Voices Youth Choir, which she says “uses music as a social building tool” for kids ages 8 to 18. Elizabeth’s vision for the newly formed, mostly adult Liberty Interfaith Choir is to “use music with a mostly white, middle class population to discuss social issues like race, gender discrimination, and sexuality.” Studying, appreciating, and performing music that deals with such complex and sensitive topics provides both groups a “way in” to talking about them. Elizabeth worked with the nonprofit organization we work at, ioby, to raise money to print music and flyers, rent rehearsal spaces, and pay an accompanist. It’s a seemingly small gesture, but one that deepens compassion for one another in our youth and invites us adults to challenge injustice.

Whether it’s smiling at a stranger or creating spaces for just a few people to come together to question and challenge injustice, small actions let neighbors get to know each other and helps us build stronger connections and become more resilient. In doing so we embody Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s call, when he eulogized the murder of Black children in an act of terrorism in the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in 1963, that we confront not just the murderer but also the “system, the way of life, the philosophy which produced the murderers.” We have the opportunity to address hate before it festers.

At ioby, we believe residents know what’s best for their neighborhoods, and that healing that Pittsburgh needs now should be led by our neighbors. Neighbor-led change is an important, effective, and straightforward approach to tackling the insidious challenges that we confront as a community and as a country. We’ve seen people in neighborhoods across America, including Pittsburgh, use ioby to build resources, and strive for peace in the face of systems of oppression felt in their own communities. It’s what gives us boundless hope for Pittsburgh.

There are thousands of meaningful ways Pittsburghers can mourn, heal and rebuild community together through this painful tragedy. We admire and lift up the work that Pittsburghers are already doing to assist the families and friends of the Tree of Life synagogue today. Start small, and start with your neighbor, or: