Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry dreamed of an inclusive, tolerant, and peaceful world–like the one he made on the fictitious USS Enterprise. In the famously utopian show, race is irrelevant, all religion is tolerated, and technology solves big problems, from how to replicate food out of nothing, to how to fly a spaceship across many galaxies.
By now, Roddenberry, who died in 1991, might not have imagined real-world technology catching up with sci-fi. Teleportation is still pretty far away. But he might have thought we’d have taken a step forward on the whole tolerance-peace thing. Instead, arguably, we’ve gone backward in the last 25 years.
“He had a very progressive agenda, as you can see by the show. He would be disgusted by what he was seeing today,” says Lior Ipp, CEO of the Roddenberry Foundation, which works to safeguard the great man’s legacy.
“Star Trek had the first interracial kiss 50 years ago and here we are still talking about the Charlottesville massacre. Issues of inequality are still at the forefront of our society. He’d have thought we would have learned how to deal with these issues by now,” Ipp says. (For the record, historians debate whether the 1968 “kiss” between William Shatner and Nichelle Nichols was actually a TV first, and whether it was a kiss at all. But never mind).
Usually, the foundation looks to fund early-stage technology in fields like education, energy, and agriculture. Last year, it gave away $1 million to a string of startups, including Opus 12, which is converting carbon dioxide emissions into useful products like new fuels. In the age of Trump, the foundation is switching gears somewhat. It now sees the need to fund activists as well as technology innovators.
“The board got together after the election and we felt that we couldn’t continue with business as usual,” Ipp says. “We are still looking for bold ideas and creative solutions, but this is a pivot for us to invest in activists and activism.”
Today the foundation announces the first winners of its inaugural $1 million fellowship. Twenty fellows will get $50,000 each in 2018 as they launch new projects in fields like climate change, women and LGBTQ rights, and immigrant and refugee rights.
The winners include Alicia Garza, one the founders of the Black Lives Matter movement. Her Black Futures Lab is launching the Black Census project in 2018, aimed at documenting the real-time lives of up to 200,000 African-Americans across the country.
Other awardees include Cristina Tzintzun, who leads Jolt, a Texas Latino rights group, and New York-based Alicia Nieves, who’s launching a mobile app to help immigrant communities to protect themselves during ICE raids. Another awardee, Caroline Bettinger-López is improving how police respond to domestic violence and sexual assault against women and LGBTQI individuals. Bettinger-López, based at University of Miami School of Law, is a former official in the Obama White House.
Ipp is aware that shifting the foundation’s focus to activism is a risk: It could become known as a partisan powerhouse, rather than a nonpartisan shaper of new technology. But he reckons it’s worth the risk, and he argues that activism often involves technology these days anyway.
“People think activism is all about marching and screaming loudly, but these people are phenomenally well-organized and they’re oriented around impact the way an entrepreneur or nonprofit would be,” he says. “There is a 21-century activism that isn’t your grandfather’s activism. It’s about using technology platforms, delivering impact, and being strategic. It isn’t just about marching on a random Saturday every couple of months.”
We’ll be hearing more from all of these projects. Hopefully, they will make Gene Roddenberry proud, wherever in the galaxy he might be.