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It's likely that while every generation since the 1960s recognizes the original "Star Trek" for what it is, the current generation of the college demographic is probably mostly unfamiliar with all of its original cast. There may be plenty that still do remember George Takei as Hikaru Sulu, one of Captain Kirk's closest allies, but amazingly enough this 77 year-old actor, director, writer, speaker and activist is far more recognizable to the youth demographic than nearly any of his other "Star Trek" counterparts. The reason for this is his not only embracing social media, but his mastery of it, becoming one of the biggest celebrities on Facebook at any age with almost 10,000,000 likes.
George has a fascinating life story and motivating message, one which he has shared for years but now is focusing, through his partnership with Greater Talent Network, on the campus market and is an absolute pleasure to listen to with his deep, resonating and unmistakable voice. The folks who may not recognize his face might still have some familiarity with his voice, as he has done significant amount of voice over work in narration and the world of animation.
Known very widely for his fervor in LGBTQ activism, George has become a leading voice for equality in our country today. Some might be surprised to learn however that this is far from the first topic he has chosen to speak on and be passionate about activism in.
George was a child during pre-WWII living on the West coast in California. During the war, he and his family, along with every other person of Japanese descent (American citizen or not) were imprisoned in U.S. internment camps, within the bounds of the United States of America. "From the time of my late teens throughout the rest of my life, I have been an activist in social justice issues and supporting political candidates. The reason I had such passion for this early on is that as a child I grew up incarcerated behind U.S. barbed wire fences, simply because we happened to look like the people who bombed Pearl Harbor. Japanese Americans were incarcerated simply because of our ethnicity."
This was at a time in George's formative development where the full implications of what he and his family were going through were not really under his power to be fully understood. "This happened when I was between the ages of 5 and 9 and I was too young to really understand what was going on. Children are amazingly resilient and adaptable and life in these concentrated communities became routine for us. Lining up three times a day to eat in a noisy mess hall or going to a mass shower with my father became normality."
Once he got a little older, he set about educating himself. "When I became a teenager, I started reading books, particularly in civics, about the shining ideals of American Democracy. Then, I heard one of Dr. Martin Luther King's speeches, ringing with idealism and belief in the fundamental principles of our American Democracy. I engaged my father in conversation after dinner and he explained to me that our democracy was a people's democracy. That meant it could be as great as our people can be, but it was also as fallible as people are. Our democracy is vitally dependent on good people who cherish those ideals and I was so inspired by them and acted upon them. Then one Sunday afternoon he took me to Adlai Stevenson for President Headquarters. He said we volunteered but actually he volunteered me,' George says laughing.
This turned out to be a cathartic moment for George. "I got to see how our democracy works. Watching the passionate people work to get Governor Stevenson elected was inspiring and galvanizing in itself. I went from there to volunteering on my own to work on a campaign for a U.S. Senator from California. Then I became actively involved in the civil rights movement."
From then on George was involved in advocacy and the public speaking that is inherent with it. "I have been speaking publicly from the time I was about 18 years old and I feel that it was a vital and valuable time for me to get that passion rooted within my character." It's little wonder then that he makes efforts to speak on campus, where he can reach students at that same age and stage in life. "Our democracy is a unique form of government and my father, who suffered the most and lost the most during the internment, was someone who believed the most in this system as well. He paid a high price and he told me about some of the young Japanese Americans who went from behind those barbed wire fences to the front lines and fought for this country with extraordinary heroism. He also showed me the flags that were draped over the coffins of those same dead soldiers, flags which were brought back to their families still living behind those same fences. Now, imagine the complexities involved here, the layers of emotion. The grief of losing your husband or your son, then to be given the flag that covered their coffin honoring him... which represents the country keeping them imprisoned. There were a lot of the complexities and dealing with them was a great challenge for my generation. Today's world has its own intense complexities as well, and dealing with them is where leadership comes from and where great wisdom has to come into play. So, we need young people who are idealistic, inspired and engaged. We have to encourage them to be the best of who they are to continue to contribute to this system which is so dependent on each of us making our contribution to it. If this is an ideal I can help to present to young people through my personal story, then I have a duty to do so now as much as for any other cause I have advocated for previously."
George doesn't come on campus with a specific agenda, unless he is brought in to speak specifically on a topic like LGBTQ or Human Rights. He seeks to inspire students to be proactive and involved in the topics that matter to them and he does so through telling his own story and experiences, not by standing atop a soapbox. "I don't know all these individuals; they each have their area of interest and set of ideals and how they think the world should be. I don't give the students assignments, because it is up to them to be who they are. I personally am a liberal democrat, but some of them may be conservative republicans. I think there is a place for all of us, as long as we all subscribe to the ideals of this country. If I am talking to people that are fundamentally conservative, they should be who they are. We are a part of a society with infinite diversity in infinite combinations. We work in the arena together, learning from each other and being challenged by each other. But, I don't tell my audiences what they should do or where to look, only that they should seek some direction and do something."
While he isn't issuing specific directives, George does make his presentations audience specific - this is not a turn key presentation that is a one-fits-all for every performance. He can focus more on specific topics and attempts to tailor the presentation to the audience at the time. All of the presentations are based on the wisdom and experience he has gained through his personal trials and successes. "I do speak for example about the internment of Japanese Americans. That was one of the greatest failures of our system, how the country got swept up in war hysteria and did a horrible thing."
That has obvious implications in how we are to handle today's climate and our relationship to the Middle East and its people, but George uses the example in a less literal sense as an analogy to another hotly debated topic that lands even closer to home for many Americans than even the shadow of terrorism (which unfortunately is all too often considered synonymous with Muslims and Muslim-Americans). "I use the metaphor of the barbed wire fences that confined us then to the legalistic invisible fences that confine LGBT people, strung with the wire of ignorance and the barbs of prejudice. Because we live in a system of democracy, one man - one vote, we can't have things like Citizens United, a Supreme Court ruling that was absolutely contrary to the ideals of our system, and essentially makes a single vote meaningless because of untethered corporate money being poured into our general election system. So, I do speak on some specific topics that I am passionate about, but I do it in such a way as to let the audiences decide their motives and direction for themselves."
One of the most remarkable aspects of George's story is how he has not only had a very long and successful career in Hollywood, but also how he has managed to bridge the gap between generations, becoming the rare internet celebrity who was actually a celebrity before the Internet (he got his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1986). Approaching 10,000,000 Facebook likes, this 77 year-old actor has come full circle, from a show about futuristic technology to a real life master of it through social media. And perhaps the most charming thing about it was that it was a happy accident. It might surprise many people that someone of his age would be adept at social media, and maybe it does make his story more notable, but that perception also ties directly back into one of the core points George is working to drive home. "There again we are dealing with stereotypes. We were imprisoned because of stereotypes and LGBT people are discriminated against because of stereotypes about perversion. In that same vein, when one gets over 60, you are put into a certain category, but the fact is that seniors are diverse in many different ways. This morning I had a recording session and there was Betty White, 92 years old and still working. Or Angela Lansbury, who is one of my theatrical favorites and heroines. Seniors are just as diverse as anyone else and that includes some of them who are really handy or good with technology. I am not saying that I am a computer wizard, but social media is something that I seemed to be a good fit for."
And now we come back around to that happy accident that has made George a genuine Facebook phenom. "About seven years ago, we started developing a musical about the internment of Japanese-Americans. I had been going around speaking at colleges on the topic specifically, but I had been noticing that the majority of the audiences I was drawing were from the LGBT community or allies. What we needed to do was to get to a larger demographic... that middle class, decent, hard working, fair minded majority of Americans. They might not have time to do a lot of research into the struggles of others, but a foolproof way to reach people is humor. It's what ties us all together. Humor is the sweet honey that attracts people. We were investing a lot of time and money into the project; it was theatrical art, but it was also show business and we hoped for it to be financially successful as well. I thought that maybe social media would be a way. At the time my audience was made up of sci-fi geeks and nerds (laughs) and social media seemed like a great way to reach that core and have the content spread to a larger theater-going audience. I began with Star Trek oriented memes or funny observations, then began injecting humor into things. Particularly successful was Grumpy Cat, which got a lot of people coming in and took on a life of its own. My base grew and grew and as it grew, I started throwing in some social justice issues. That also contributed to a great expansion of the base. By the time we opened for our world premiere at The Old Globe theater in San Diego, we had a built in audience already and it turned out we had a sold out run that was extended and ended up setting theater records."
His reach has continued to spread and he proves himself time and again to be one of the wittiest, quickest and most profound content creators on Facebook. George Takei is a wealth of wisdom and experience, a very good speaker and a really funny, pleasant guy. Let him share his experiences with your students and let them experience the presence of not only a true Hollywood legend, but a galvanizing and passionate social advocate as well.
BOOK IT: For more information on bringing George Takei to campus, contact Mike D'Andrea at Greater Talent Network at (212) 905-3801 or MikeD@greatertalent.com.