LeVar Burton shares his journey at Lead 3.0
The 2017 Lead 3.0 Symposium in Redondo Beach featured a special keynote luncheon this year. A conversation between EdSurge CEO Betsy Corcoran and actor and education champion LeVar Burton was a highlight for many attendees.
Corcoran began the interview with questions about Burton’s life before he was an actor. He talked about the importance of his mother’s encouragement to read and her life as an educator. He discussed his early interest in the priesthood before realizing that there was incredible power in performing the storytelling that is a part of the job.
Burton referred to “Roots,” the seminal TV mini-series in which he starred, and talked about the way he watched the difference that story was able to make.
“It had the power to change minds… It had the power to shape consciousness,” he said.
Roots debuted in 1977, kickstarting a career that has spanned decades and touched countless lives. Burton also held starring roles on “Star Trek: The Next Generation” and was the host and executive producer of “Reading Rainbow” starting in 1983. The show ran for 23 seasons, one of the longest running children’s programs on PBS. The series won a Peabody Award and 26 Emmy awards.
The politics of representation was addressed directly, as Burton described the impact on him when he was younger of the original “Star Trek” series’ casting of a prominent Black character. He talked about the value of being able to look to a futuristic program and see some piece of himself reflected there; to know that the future held a place for him.
Corcoran steered the conversation toward the politics of education, highlighting the currently prominent issue of voucher systems. Burton, who attended a private parochial school, was resolute in his opinions. He stated matter-of-factly, “Vouchers, in an environment where vouchers work, offers a choice to families. I believe that (private school) is a luxury that should not be reserved for a certain class; a certain stratum of society,” he said. “If we’re going to use vouchers to suck up all of the resources and still leave those at the bottom of the ladder behind, then that’s just purely wrong. It’s just flat wrong in my opinion.”
Corcoran announced that Burton was thinking of touring schools.
“I want to get in the classroom,” he said. Immediately hands shot up and invitations were shouted to him from the back of the room. Smiling, he said that his goal with the project, slated to begin sometime next year, is to talk to teachers utilizing his company’s product and to hear what they want for their students and what may be preventing them from achieving those goals. “I want to use, as best as I am able, the agency of my celebrity to do what I can to help bridge that gap,” he said.
The conversation grew somber again as Corcoran displayed Burton’s recently penned children’s book titled “The Rhino Who Swallowed a Storm.”
“What I love about this book is that it doesn’t pretend that bad things don’t happen, but it talks about how to process, how to deal with them,” she said.
Burton responded with stories about his friendship with Fred Rogers, and his own grief, and what it meant to him that during a mass shooting that was on the news, Mr. Rogers was no longer able to explain to children how to handle their grief in an age appropriate way.
When Reading Rainbow ended in 2009, Burton formed RRKIDZ with his business partner Max Wolfe, which reconceived “Reading Rainbow” as a “skybrary” offering a library of books, videos and games for the web, iPad, and Kindle Fire as part of a campaign to bring a passion for reading to every child in every classroom.
“I thought, let’s give teachers a tool designed specifically for them,” Burton said. “When we began the journey to reinvent Reading Rainbow in the digital realm and not bring it back to TV, I did not know how hard the journey would be. Neither did I know how delicate it is to take a chance like that … it could have gone horribly wrong. What got us through was the team. I work with a phenomenal group of people who are supremely dedicated to this mission and are at the company because they want to make a difference in the lives of children…that makes all the difference in the world.”
When asked as a final question, what was next for him, Burton’s answer was characteristically genuine.
“I don’t know,” he replied. “I have no idea what the next chapter is, but my goal is to be part of the process, to stay engaged and healthy and passionate to be in the game.”
The Lead 3.0 Symposium is a collaborative effort of ACSA, CUE and Technology Information Center for Administrative Leadership. To learn more about Lead 3.0, go to www.lead3.org. For more about CUE, go to www.cue.org/about. For info in TICAL, go to www.portical.org.