There is a LeVar Burton project for generations from boomers to millennials and their kids. In 1977, he landed his first role, in the landmark miniseries Roots. During the 1980s and 1990s, the award-winning actor and director captured adults’ and kids’ imaginations as Geordi La Forge in Star Trek: The Next Generation and in PBS’s Reading Rainbow, respectively. And over the last decade, as the cofounder of LeVar Burton Kids, Burton has created a relationship with today’s young people through the interactive Skybrary reading app (formerly Skybrary by Reading Rainbow).
“In the ’80s, that’s where kids were—hanging out in front of the TV,” Burton says. “With Reading Rainbow, we used the power of that engagement factor and harnessed it to the idea that books are adventures: Pick up a book and you can go anywhere in the universe in your imagination. The app is the same mission; we just did it with a different technology.”
With the growing popularity of tablets like the iPad, Burton was certain that Reading Rainbow would successfully translate to increasingly tech-literate children. But he says Silicon Valley was initially skeptical. BuzzFeed nostalgia quizzes and remixes of every cartoon, comic book, game, and television show under the sun are ubiquitous now—but in the earlier 2000s, revisiting the past was nowhere near as popular as it is today. Being part of the massively successful Star Trek reboot convinced Burton “on a DNA level” that doing the same thing with another franchise was possible, but he ran into walls trying to raise money, build a team, and launch the product.
Rather than sticking exclusively with venture capitalists, Burton turned to the masses: setting a $1 million goal on Kickstarter. The campaign set a record, raising more than $6 million. It enabled Burton to bring Skybrary to smartphones, tablets, and gaming consoles, as well as low-income Title I schools for free.
“We are failing to teach our children how to read and write coherently,” Burton says. “And it is my hope that I can be part of the solution by continuing to advocate for children to become more than simply people who know how to read. I want them to become readers for life. Because readers for life tend to be self-educators.”
Skybrary ceased licensing the Reading Rainbow brand in 2017, but the mission remains. The virtual library contains 1,800 digital books and videos aimed at children ages two to nine. It’s an ad-free experience (“I don’t want to send mixed messages to kids,” Burton says) that he hopes will cultivate a new cohort of critical thinkers.
“It’s really important to have an educated populace,” says Burton. “If you can read at least one language, then you can educate yourself—and no one can take that away from you.”
Not only that, but reading stokes imagination—a part of a creative life that can easily be lost. “I’m glad that I’m connected to my imagination,” Burton says. “I maintain my belief in possibility.”
That’s a very good thing, considering that his calendar is always full. This month, Burton will resume filming his role as naval intelligence agent Rufus Nero on NCIS: New Orleans and appear in Jordan Peele and Charlie Sanders’ YouTube Premium sci-fi comedy series Weird City. He’ll also begin recording the fourth season of the short-story podcast for adults LeVar Burton Reads, a job he does behind the microphone as well as live.
“One of my favorite things to do in the world to do is read aloud,” Burton says. “Touring with the podcast last year was a gas, and I’ll do more of that this year. There are a lot of really talented men and women out there, and men and women of color that deserve the spotlight.”
Burton has long styled himself as a troubadour who wanders from place to place telling stories. Recently, the member at Los Angeles’s WeWork The Tower has come to realize that he has been in business for himself his entire career.
“One of the things I’ve learned in my 40-plus years in show business is that I have to hustle. My hustle has to be on point because I can’t just make my year doing one thing,” says Burton, who was a finalist at WeWork’s Creator Awards, a global competition for mission-driven companies, entrepreneurs, and nonprofits.
“Creating connections through strategic alliances and relationships, and finding people of a like mind and consciousness, and deciding not to work with assholes whenever I could avoid it—all of the things that I’ve learned over the years are valuable lessons to employ in this thing called entrepreneurship. I’ve been an entrepreneur for 40-plus years. I just never called it that. I called it being a working actor.”