More Boldly Going: A Family Foundation Turns to Activism in Trump Era

By Tate Williams for Inside Philanthropy

The giving of the Roddenberry Foundation to date has projected a kind of sunny progressivism, channeling creator Gene Roddenberry's and Star Trek’s optimism about human potential for innovation, equality, and inclusivity. 

These days, however, the U.S. has taken a pretty sharp turn away from that ethos, and the funder has found a harder-edged voice in response. Roddenberry’s latest program, a fellowship that will award 20 activists $50,000 each, conveys more of a clenched fist than a Vulcan salute. 

The fellowship’s recently unveiled website is illustrated with a bird’s-eye view of crowds of people spelling out “RESIST!!” along a beach. The announcement video cuts together footage from the civil rights movement, LGBT and indigenous rights marches, and other activist imagery.

Boldly going, indeed. 

“It became clear to us that we wanted to support the increase in civic engagement and activism we’ve been seeing across the country,” foundation CEO Lior Ipp said in the announcement. “In an era in which more and more people are fighting for what they believe in, we don’t have the luxury to be bystanders. In fact, we have an obligation to help.”

The fellowships will go to activists working in four areas—civil rights, climate change and environmental justice, immigration and refugee rights, and LGBTQIA and women’s rights. In case it wasn’t clear enough that the program is a direct opposition to the Trump agenda, Gene Roddenberry’s son and foundation board member Rod Roddenberry added, “My father … would have been appalled by the current rhetoric and ugliness in which we are attacking each other for the differences in our faith, race, place of birth, or choice in life partner.”

The fellowship builds on the foundation’s growing suite of programs, including its Catalyst Fund giving small grants for early stage ideas to solve problems. And the funder’s flagship program is the Roddenberry Prize, notable in its first round for being wide open regarding issues, and drawing more than 600 submissions from across the arts, education, environment, health, human rights, and science and technology. 

The fellowship program, as with the Roddenberry Prize, boasts a crackerjack panel of judges, some big names in progressive activism, academia, media and beyond. The 23 judges for the first round of applicants include: 

  • Rhea Suh, NRDC president
  • Neera Tanden, Center for American Progress president and CEO
  • Vien Truong, Green For All director
  • Bill McKibben, founder
  • Michael Mann, Penn State professor and prominent voice on climate science 
  • Melissa Harris-Perry, Maya Angelou Presidential Chair at Wake Forest
  • Tricia Rose, director, Center for the Study of Race and Ethnicity in America, Brown University

Even in a field increasingly crowded with prizes, fellowships and challenges, the star power and brain power of the lineup makes this one jump out. 

There’s a couple of other key takeaways from this fellowship. For one, it presents a more specific stated focus than the Roddenberry Foundation has advanced to date. Not only that, it’s a more explicitly political focus than I had expected to see from this funder.

In that sense, we can count Roddenberry as one of a large and growing number of philanthropic voices motivated to take a stance in response to a reckless administration and the surge of public opposition that's emerged. 

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