Fred Rogers’ Legacy in the Digital Age

The Fred Rogers Center marks their 10th anniversary this week as media creators, scholars, educators, and advocates meet in Pittsburgh for the 2014 Fred Forward Conference. We spoke with the Center’s new executive director, Rick Fernandes, about their work to build the next generation of “Freds.”

Remake Learning: Let’s start with your background. For most of your career you’ve been a TV executive. How does something like that prepare you for what you’ll be doing at the Fred Rogers Center?

Rick Fernandes: I get asked that a lot, because I don’t have experience in academia or a degree in early childhood education. Recently, I was a TV network executive, but it’s my experiences as a television director and producer that is really applicable to running an organization. There’s budgeting, messaging, and research—but more importantly, it’s bringing together brilliant and creative people from different fields and having them work on a common goal.

What’s your first step at the Center?

Rick Fernandes / Photo: Ben Filio

Rick Fernandes / Photo: Ben Filio

Planning a road map for the next 10 years. One of the items on the road map is getting information out to the public. There is great research coming out from many organizations including the Roger’s Center, and it’s known in the academic community and certain circles but not by the general public. We need to think about how to reach people whether as professional development, or for college students studying early childhood education, or for parents.

How are you going to get the message out? And whom are you trying to reach first?

I think parents are the toughest group of people to reach. They’re busy. They’re working long hours. Some people are working two jobs just to stay afloat. When do they have time to find information they can trust? It’s easy to say, ‘Go to the internet,’ but that doesn’t solve the problem of who’s a credible source.

Do you have some idea of how to cut through that noise and actually reach parents?

Early childhood educators. You’ve left your child with these people; you must trust them to a certain extent. So the question for us is, how do we work with organizations to help early childhood educators learn what they need to learn so they can pass the message on to parents? Then, down the road, the second group of people we should work with is pediatricians. Again, there’s a certain level of trust between parents and pediatricians. If we can figure out how to collaborate with pediatricians, then they can carry on Fred’s message to parents.

It sounds like your mission is two-fold. One, reach out to people who can help parents get the information they need to make good media decisions for their children. But then, also, you’re talking about reaching the next generation of media-makers.

Fred was about helping children grow up to be confident, caring, and competent. Many of us who are in the TV business learned from Fred. But who’s next? Who’s going to keep his mission going forward?

What’s at stake in terms of keeping that legacy alive?

Fred was a master of the “deep and simple”—“deep and simple is far more essential than shallow and complex,” he’d say. It’s critical that future generations can learn that art from Fred. We live in a world that is becoming more and more complex and connected. It is important that we don’t lose that “deep and simple” connection with children.

You’ve talked about Fred’s legacy. Say more about that. What did he do so well?

He knew how to connect with people. He was very focused on social and emotional learning and making sure children were respected. Very few people deal with that in a direct and authentic manner. Fred knew how to take complex and emotionally difficult topics and make them “deep and simple.” It is important as a society that people connect with other people with respect and empathy—specifically with children.

What exactly does “social and emotional learning” mean?

Fred was about learning and managing your emotions. How do you handle yourself socially? How do you deal with feelings? How do you communicate with other people?

Do you feel that in the current ecosystem of children’s media there’s too much focus on cognitive intelligence at the expense of emotional and social intelligence?

It’s swinging back. Recently, people have been talking about how these two have to go hand in hand. It’s not just cognitive that’s important—or just emotional. You need them both together.

[one_third][blockquote style=”large”]What I want to do is daunting, but that’s why it’s thrilling. I want the Center to help the next generation of “Freds.” [/blockquote][/one_third][two_third_last]How do you choose digital media for your kids?

Carefully. I ask people. I play or look at it first. I look for good reviews—the Children’s Technology Review or Common Sense Media. But mostly, it’s about not just leaving them with the device and walking away. It’s about carrying on a dialog. Asking questions. When our daughter is watching TV, my wife and I will ask her, “What happened in the story?” or “Wow, that happened?”. So she’s not just passive for half an hour. We’re constantly trying to figure out how to engage her mind. That’s how we connect with technology.

Why do you think there’s such schlock out there?

That’s a tough question. I think there are some people who just want to make [/two_third_last]money. But I also think there are many people who really believe they’re making something educational but they don’t have the right training or the right advisors or mentors. And to be fair, the business model is very tough and the competition is even tougher. Sadly, usually the first budget item that gets cut is the educational consultant.

What are some of your biggest challenges at the Center? What keeps you up at night?

There are a lot of good organizations out there in a similar space. How do you find a way to work together that makes sense? I’ve met a lot of other really caring people at other great organizations, and though we’re not all doing the same thing, we’re doing similar enough things that we’re competing for funding—which is limited. How do you stay afloat as a small nonprofit in tough economic times? I’ve had some great, exciting conversations with people I’d like to partner with, but then how do you keep the conversation going and moving forward when you’re in different locations and everyone is busy? When you’re working with multiple organizations, and everyone has their own priorities, how do you keep the excitement alive?

That sounds daunting.

The daunting stuff is actually what gets me most excited. What I want to do is daunting, but that’s why it’s thrilling. I want the Center to help the next generation of “Freds.” It’s about carrying on the legacy. In 20 years, I want to run into people working with young children or people making great content and have them come up to me and say, “Hey, the Fred Rogers Center inspired me.”

Is there anything you’re doing at this upcoming conference that particularly excites you?

It gets back to the question of who the next generation will be. On opening night, we’re doing a session called Fred Chats. We’ve invited five young people between the ages of 17 and 22 to talk on different topics. It’s important we have these people here. I know we’ll have lots of brilliant people who will be part of the conference—but it is important to me that we also include the next generation. What ideas do they have? What are they doing that can make us see things differently? Mentoring is a two-way street. I’m always amazed at what I learn from interns.

So this next generation idea is really key.

Otherwise it’s just going to be the same group of us getting old together. That’s what worries me. And in a way it has nothing to do with Mister Roger’s Neighborhood, the show. It’s okay that the next generation never saw it. The important thing is that they not forget Fred Rogers—the man and what he stood for. That’s what’s important for me.

Published June 02, 2014