Hohenstein: What does being a neighbor mean to us?

"Won’t you be my neighbor?" As a kid watching Mr. Rogers, I took this question, and the answer it implied, very seriously. The lesson that everyone can be your neighbor, was ingrained in me from my family, school, and TV (we had a black and white that stopped at Channel 12 so I got a healthy dose of PBS). That lesson is the reason that my neighborhoods mean so much to me. It’s also the reason that events that happen in faraway places like the Ukraine matter to me. Those folks are my neighbors in a bigger sense. In my district, a place where Polish is probably the second language ahead of Chinese Mandarin and Spanish, many of my neighbors are even more connected to what is happening half a world away.

I have received numerous calls into my office from constituents (neighbors by another name) asking me to do what I can to help the Ukrainians, and to help Poland, Moldova and other neighboring countries as they take in refugees. As an elected official, I cannot show favoritism towards any charitable cause, but I will say that for those looking to make donations and contributions, it is wise to look to organizations with a track record and those connected directly to refugee services. The requests coming into my office are from people who have personal experiences with the Soviet regime. They know firsthand what tyranny and oppression look and feel like. In the fleeing Ukrainian refugees they see themselves.

Seeing someone else and recognizing yourself is the first step to becoming a neighbor to them. Taking the next step: to help those in need, without worrying about getting anything back; that is the true essence of building a neighborhood. In Philadelphia, we have built neighborhoods on the local scale. Each space in my district has its own unique character and identity and I love that. People are ready to see themselves in their neighbors and do the small things (like shoveling each other’s walks) to the bigger stuff (getting involved with kids’ sports teams, civic associations and Town Watch). We know what we have in common – a piece of territory called a neighborhood – and we don’t worry so much about the differences. We can do the same on a broader scale.  

In the current social climate, we don’t always recognize the ‘global village’ the same way. We shrink back from war, disaster, and conflict overseas because we have difficulty seeing ourselves in the people suffering in Haiti, Afghanistan, or Central America. We focus first on the differences between ‘us’ and ‘them.’ Things like language, religion, culture, skin color, or economic status seen as are more important than basic human struggles. We have been trained to see differences first and commonality second.

The need to listen to Mr. Rogers is greater than ever. We know we have the ability to see the humanity, to see the common beliefs in freedom and opportunity, and to act on them to support our neighbors in the Ukraine, Poland, and Moldova. In the last year, I have also seen neighbors standing up by sending relief supplies to Haiti; welcoming refugees from Afghanistan, and helping children from Guatemala and Honduras find new homes in Pennsylvania. When we see people as neighbors when they are far away, it makes it easier for us to see the people living next door to us as neighbors as well.