LeVar Burton talks Kickstarter success, why we need 'Reading Rainbow' now more than ever

Reading-Rainbow.jpg

Image Credit: PBS

On Wednesday, actor LeVar Burton launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise $1 million to bring back Reading Rainbow. On Thursday, the $1 million was raised. And by Friday, nearly $3 million had been donated — and there are still 32 days left to contribute to the campaign. Talk about a fundraising success.

The Reading Rainbow TV show, hosted by Star Trek: The Next Generation star Burton, launched in 1983 as a program encouraging kids to read and continued its run on PBS until 2006. A few years later, Burton got together with business partner Mark Wolfe to create a Reading Rainbow tablet app, which went on to become a top educational app in the iTunes store. But that wasn’t enough for Burton: He and his team wanted to give everyone the gift of Reading Rainbow by not only creating apps for mobile and desktop, but also by donating Reading Rainbow educational materials to schools that can’t afford them. So Burton and company launched a Kickstarter campaign, thinking they would reach the proposed $1 million mark in 35 days. And reach the $1 million mark, they did.

More than 50,000 people have contributed in some way, whether it’s $1 or thousands of dollars, to the campaign so far. “There’s an amazing energy that’s swirling around,” Burton told EW. “And I’m happy to be a part of it, I really am.”

EW talked to Burton about what it was like reaching the fundraising goal so early, why he thinks Reading Rainbow is important right now, and how this is all related to late writer Maya Angelou.

Your reaction video to the Kickstarter hitting the $1 million mark has been making the rounds on the internet, and you obviously had a very emotional response. Were you expecting that you would hit the mark so quickly?
My expectations were that we would hit the 1 million mark in 35 days. I believed that we had a really, really, really solid shot at making our goal and getting the project funded. To have reached that goal in 11 hours was heart-stopping. If you had asked us, “Okay, so dream up the ideal scenario,” it wouldn’t have been that good or that fast. People were watching the page, their computers, like it was TV. And then the numbers kept jumping. It was actually, it was exciting! And when we hit a million dollars, it was just like “WHAT?! Are you kidding me?” It happened before dinner on the first day. It’s been really amazing. It has at times been incredibly emotional. This is my life’s work. I make a living as an actor, but my life’s work is Reading Rainbow.

Why are you doing this right now?
Because there’s a real need. America used to do an outstanding job of educating its populace. We used to be No. 1 in the world. Used to be. I’m gonna say it again: We used to be. We used to produce people out of our public school system at a high school level that had a classical education that could compete on the world stage, and in fact, it made us the world leader. That is not true any longer. And if this nation wants to continue to consider itself the leader of the free world, then we need to do a much better job of educating our children. That’s just the truth. I’m going to call it like I see it. So I saw this as an opportunity.

Reading Rainbow is obviously a great way to use technology in education, and as somebody who’s doing this and as someone who’s also a TV actor, what are your thoughts on children watching TV?
Here’s my point of view, and it’s funny to me, because I was asked this question 30 years ago when Reading Rainbow came on the air: “Isn’t television dangerous? Isn’t it detrimental to the education of our children?” And I started saying back then, well, excuse me, isn’t all television educational? The question is, what are we teaching with it? We’re teaching something with everything they watch. And in the vastness of everything that’s available out there, I’ve tried to make sure that there’s something that’s healthy, and nurturing, and beneficial as an alternative. Because not everybody believes that they have a responsibility to make sure that that which they produce in terms of content actually makes a positive contribution.

So now that you’ve exceeded the 1 million mark, what are you going to do with these extra millions?
I’m so glad you asked. [Laughs] One million got us on the way to universal access. That’s why the campaign is called “Every Child, Everywhere.” One million dollars got us from an app on iOS and the Kindle platforms to the web, much closer to universal access. Ninety-seven percent of American families have access to the web. Where do kids who have no wherewithal to access these technologies, where are they more likely to encounter them? In school. So the web version of the service puts us on the road to universal access, and it gave us the ability with that first million dollars to create a product that was specifically tailored to classrooms. Here’s the thing: We sat around last night and figured out that if we got to 5 million dollars — yesterday, at about this time, we got to 2.5 million dollars — if we could go twice as high and get to 5 million, that gets us, by anyone’s definition, universal access. Because that means Android, done. Mobile, done. So 5 million gets us all on those platforms, and it gives us the opportunity to give the school product to 7,500 classrooms. Free of charge.

And how will those classrooms be selected?
We haven’t quite figured that out yet. We’re working with everybody that makes sense, from the Department of Education to associations of teachers and educators. We’ll figure it out! We will figure it out. Why? Because we’re committed to figuring it out and getting it done. You know what’s cool? People now are coming out of the woodwork, people are coming to us and saying, “How can I help? I’ve donated, but what else can I do?”

What else can they do?
Stay tuned. As we speak, we are putting in place a mechanism where people can donate their time, their effort, their talent. We’re not quite ready yet.

What’s great about this is that with some Kickstarter campaigns — for, say, movies — there will be detractors saying, “why can’t they pay for this themselves?” But the overwhelming response to this is “Oh my God, this is so great.”
I believe that this is a world that was designed to create opportunities for us to work together so that everybody’s needs get met. And I genuinely believe if we had more economic cooperation as opposed to competition, we’d be a lot better off as a society.

On a heavier note, this has been an emotional week for you. You worked on Roots with Maya Angelou, and it’s kind of neat that this whole Kickstarter thing is happening now because it’s promoting literacy, and, as a writer, I’m sure she was so proud of what you were doing and what you are doing now.
I know that Dr. Maya is up there just grinnin’. Grinnin’ her a– off.

I bet she is.
I know she is! I know she is.

I saw you said on your Reddit AMA that you were about to go forward with the Kickstarter when you found out the news.
We were about to push “go” on the campaign. I mean, literally, it was happening at the same time. And right as we were pushing play, The New York Times confirmed. It was a shock. It was like, “Oh my God.” However, I also recognized in that moment that there was a symmetry to that. The passing of a giant in the literary universe and the birth of this new way to spread the gift of literacy. I just know that she’s up there, pullin’ strings, inspiring people, orchestrating things. She’s quarterbacking from the other side. [Laughs]

She’s a good quarterback to have.
She always was. She was always a pioneer. Read her obit and see the impact this one soul had on this realm. She was absolutely a force for good.

Things would be very different without her.
I agree. There’s a gift in everything. Sometimes it takes us a while to really discern what that gift is.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?
I am now in uncharted territory. I thought I knew what the world was like. I thought my beliefs and my opinions were sufficient enough to clearly define the world in which I live. And this week, I have been so surprised. When something like this happens, it’s affirmation that, are you kidding? You’re not alone? You’re not alone! Why would you ever think that you’re alone, that you have to do this by yourself? Human beings were built to cooperate, collaborate. It’s one of the things that we do brilliantly. I had forgotten that for a minute. And I’m so happy to be reminded.

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