Back to the Future: Diversity for Today from the 1960s

A few years before I retired ( January 2014) from my position as associate vice chancellor for Human Resources at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences. I  wrote a piece for the campus’ diversity and inclusion newsletter. I’ve had a strong interest in diversity and inclusion work since the late 1980s. I just ran across that piece from years ago in my archives…thought I would share it:

A few years ago, the Chancellor’s Diversity Committee invited Judge Wendell Griffith to campus to be our annual Diversity Week speaker. Being a Trekkie (or is it Trekker?) from the early days of the 1960s television show “Star Trek,” which aired with Captain Kirk, Mr. Spock and crew, I remember being transfixed when Judge Griffith began his talk by describing the bridge occupants of the Star Ship Enterprise.
Gene Roddenberry, the creator of the “Star Trek” series, had a vision of what the future would look like in a world that was like no other I had ever seen. The Enterprise bridge crew that was beamed into my living room every week consisted of a confident white male captain who exhibited all of the inspiring leadership qualities found at any leadership seminar; an alien from the planet Vulcan, who was completely left brain (analytical, void of emotions) in his approach to everything; a young officer of Russian ancestry with a very pronounced accent; another young officer, of Asian ancestry; a communications officer of African ancestry, plus a host of other characters who provided weekly doses of diversity never before conceived for prime-time television. For me the show was loaded with value, including the fact that it dealt with many of the current social ills of the day.
“Star Trek,” though purely fictional, carried the strong message that a collection of characters that look nothing alike could work collaboratively, exploring the universe, while showing respect for other world civilizations and the stamp of diversity that each added to the cosmos. Being a young African-American male in the sixties, “Star Trek” truly fascinated me, especially in the context of the cultural, social and geo-political backdrop in place at the time. The 1960s were marked with heightened racial strife, the beginnings of the women’s movement, American troops on the ground in Vietnam, mistrust among young people of anyone over the age of 30 – just to name a few of the issues that made the 10 o’clock news regularly. “Star Trek” presented a poor, young black man with an image of what a bright future could possibly look like where the isms of race, sex, age and the like would no longer inhibit a diversity of sentient beings from throughout the universe working together for a common good on each and every weekly episode.
Many would say that Roddenberry was a bright-eyed dreamer, who came up with a fictional concept that was highly marketable for Hollywood. Forty-eight years later, the technological marvels on the show that were completely implausible at the time remain so. But “Star Trek” also presented us with a vision that provided a ray of hope to me at the time – hope that if a forward thinker such as Roddenberry could dream of such a future in fiction, could not those of us in the real world apply the lessons from his creation and apply them to the real world? Obviously, one of those lessons was recognizing the value of diversity and how, when applied, can result in greater success when we are faced with monumental challenges.
If one doesn’t look beyond the fictional qualities of “Star Trek,” one can never see that the show had merit through the connections it made to real life. Nichelle Nichols, who portrayed the role of communications office Ohura on the show, considered leaving at one point. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., a fan of the show, encouraged her to remain because her presence made a powerful statement. She portrayed a black female in an authoritative, non-stereotypical role on prime time television. That was an important message for society at the time, and some might say it is yet the case today.
I am still a huge fan of “Star Trek” today and am still hopeful that we can someday, maybe during my life time, go where no one has gone before by a deeper acknowledging, valuing, harnessing and utilizing of all of the diversity the creator has invested in our world to make it a better place. I often find myself going back to the future that Gene Roddenberry created.

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