Earlier today, I made a guest appearance on WBEZ's Morning Shift to discuss the 50th Anniversary of the original series of Star Trek. The idea was simple: discuss the lessons I had learned growing up watching the show.
(Really - I came of age during the beginning of syndication, and I've not only discussed the show on WBEZ in the past...I've also written several Star Trek-related posts for this blog).
One of the areas that I touched upon in the conversation was how, as a nonprofit professional, the show influenced my own attitudes around social justice and social conscience. However, I think Star Trek contains many lessons that resonate not only within my own work in community organizing (and yes, I can draw a straight line between Star Trek and community organizing around tobacco prevention), but that I think have important resonance for other Chicago-area nonprofit and social enterprise professionals in their work....and their life.
So, just a few nonprofit (and life) lessons from Star Trek:
- Missions matter...and knowing your mission is critical: One of the great aspects of Star Trek was that its mission statement was built into the fabric of the program. To quote: "Our...mission: to explore strange new worlds. To seek out new life and new civilizations. To boldly go where no man has gone before". Yes, it reflects the show's 1960s-era times (and would later be amended to "where no one has gone before"), but Star Trek wasn't just a show that took place in space - it had an organizing philosophy (unlike its competition Lost in Space). Knowing your organization's mission - and defining your personal mission - can often mean the difference between getting by and moving forward.
- Everyone is capable of both great good and great malice...and professionals learn to how to manage both capacities: Episodes like The Enemy Within and Mirror, Mirror show (in dramatic terms) how people often have two sides to their character, and that character assets in one context can be character defects in another. As nonprofit professionals, we can easily forget that we're expected to always be noble, positive....but that the best of us work to integrate those negative impulses. And like Mr. Spock, we can work to integrate our emotional and intellectual selves in a unique manner.
- Diversity and inclusion aren't just phrases - they're active principles: Many cite Star Trek's diverse cast as a touchstone for its futuristic thinking....but I would like to go one better and suggest that Star Trek's stories promoted the idea of healthy diversity. Journey to Babel highlighted differences between various alien races while in the midst of a crisis. Day of the Dove and Devil in the Dark focused on accepting differences, and how divisiveness never benefits anyone directly. (If you've been following the current Presidential race, Day of the Dove seems very timely). Nonprofits and social enterprise are both committed to the idea of diversity, but it means full diversity in ethnicity, gender identity, sexual orientation, and thought. Star Trek provides some great early - yet critical - thinking about these issues.
- "Genius doesn't come on an assembly line basis - you can't simply say, 'Today I will be brilliant'" - Many nonprofit/social enterprise professionals struggle with both integrating new technology and maintaining a specific level of creativity and innovation. As this quote from The Ultimate Computer suggests, innovation and creativity are not traits that can be brought on demand, but require time, thought, and effort. Like many other nonprofit & social enterprise professionals, I find myself frustrated because I'm not being "creative enough"...but this quote reminds me that creativity and innovation require work.
Many of us who work in the nonprofit/social enterprise field find ourselves challenged to make a greater impact on the community with limited resources. However, as we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the original Star Trek series, we can find many great lessons that the show can teach us about our work. Let's end with a famous quote from Return to Tomorrow - although focused on space travel, Kirk's words about risk make it clear that despite our challenges, driving social change is definitely worth the effort:
And as always, thanks for reading!
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