For 25 years, LeVar Burton served as the executive producer and host of Reading Rainbow, sharing a love of books and reading with kids'and teaching them a thing or two about social advancements and important historical moments in the process. The actor, best known for his award-nominated performances in Roots and on Star Trek: The Next Generation, has spent his career using his talents for a greater good. Now, as the spokesperson for the AIDS Research Alliance, Burton is dedicated to a new cause'eradicating HIV/AIDS.
So many organizations out there are focused on treatment. The AIDS Research Alliance has made finding a cure its sole focus. Why was that appealing to you?
Treatment is the norm in this pandemic, but there's really no organization out there raising money to find a cure. So when they asked, after sitting down and hearing from them what the story of the ARA is and what their intentions are and the work they're doing, I thought, I would have to be soulless or dead to refuse.
So much of the focus among AIDS charities right now is on underdeveloped countries, but the ARA is based in and is focusing the bulk of its resources on the United States. Why was that important to you?
Because that's where the population of those infected is growing the fastest. And we still need to do a better job of educating our young. I get the impression that here in the United States, the prevailing attitude is, 'Oh, we've got that licked. AIDS is pretty much over, right?' Nothing could be further from the truth, especially in terms of the population of young, African-American men and women. It's growing at an alarming rate in Sub-Saharan African. It's growing at an alarming rate in China. Really, we're talking about the future of the human species, when you break it all the way down.
You have been involved in numerous projects over the years that have taken a place in the history books. From Roots to Reading Rainbow to the wide variety of charitable efforts you've participated in, why do you seem to gravitate toward projects with educational significance?
It doesn't make sense to not use the celebrity to a good end. I've believed for a long time that this communications grid that we have blanketed the planet with is, without question, the most powerful tool ever created for social growth and change. We are a global village, and to not use the opportunity to speak out for that which is right doesn't make sense to me. I was raised in a family where one's life was supposed to be about giving back. It's a part of my upbringing.
You've been in this business for more than 30 years, so I can imagine AIDS touched your life on a personal level very early on.
The early '80s'I saw a lot of colleagues going down and being taken, and we have certainly gone through a process of education in this business. I remember very, very clearly when Rock Hudson came out, and the ripple that sent through the town. There was, at that time, still very much a stigma. No one wanted to deal with it or address it. Then show business really educated itself. But then again we have a whole new generation of people who seem to have lost their minds, running around having unprotected sex. You just wonder, What are you thinking?
You're involved in an audio book project, Nelson Mandela's Favorite African Folktales, to benefit people living with HIV/AIDS in South Africa. How did that project come about?
Through Alfre Woodard. When Alfre calls, you don't say no. She is always involved with something really delicious and incredibly meaningful. She's one of those people. It was a no-brainer.
To what extent do you plan to get involved in the work they're doing at the AIDS Research Alliance?
Initially, it's being available to do outreach and speak to outlets like this. There are some events we have planned over the next few months. Right now, whatever they need for me to do, I'm up for it. Not that I could ever hope to fill her shoes, but I think the death of Elizabeth Taylor leaves a real void, and when ARA came to me, they said, 'Look, we need help.' When I went in and sat down with them and heard the story and how committed they are to finding a cure, I thought, Whatever I can do, I'm in.
LeVar Burton is currently taking the Reading Rainbow format and developing it for 2011. Look for an updated take on that show later this year.