Tip-A-Cop LAPD Fundraiser. Courtesy Albert L. Ortega Photography.
What can we learn about leadership from a Dabo girl? Well, a lot as it turns out. I had the pleasure of hanging out with several Star Trek celebrities over the course of a recent Seattle convention weekend. I was particularly struck by Chase Masterson—Star Trek Deep Space Nine’s Leeta, the most featured of shows Dabo girls. Leeta was not just as another beautiful face, but she was a union organizer for the Guild of Restaurant and Casino Employees, a resistance fighter in the Dominion War, and eventually wife to Rom’s Grand Nagus. Fans will know what all of that means. These were usual situations for a character originally cast as a beautiful distraction for fictional gamblers. Masterson, however, commanded the attention of the producers, becoming a major character, and in her role as Leeta found ways to reflect many of her real world traits and passions.
I conducted an interview with Ms. Masterson recently and came away with the following lessons learned about leadership.
Serve Causes You Can’t Relate To: Many people connect to causes close to home, things that affect them or their loved ones personally, from AIDS to natural disasters. Masterson believes that it is “important to serve causes that you can’t related to—to reach out in compassion to people with very different experiences to our own. Only then do we move beyond doing something for ourselves and really engaged in changing the world for others.”
Persevere: Early in her career, Chase had to leave a project focused on creating a book about children with AIDS. She had to leave the project in order to take care of herself at a not so great junction in her life. But after she joined the cast of Star Trek, she re-engaged and brought the Star Trek fandom with her. “They are very compassionate, and very eager to help with any project I’ve brought forward. Star Trek goes beyond being just a television show and goes out to affect the real world.”
Don’t Discount Experience Gained Elsewhere: At one point, Chase worked in corporate marketing at the LA Philharmonic, but didn’t really want to do that kind of work. She had an acting degree and wanted to act. She is now very thankful for what she learned about marketing and functioning of the not-for-profit industry, skills she applies to her ongoing charitable work. “It’s funny how life works.”
We can all take a leadership role. Not ever activity called “leadership” has to be a grand role. “There is so much we can do as individuals to affect life of other people.”
Do something. The hardest leadership step is deciding to volunteer. “There is nothing wrong, and everything right, about being a volunteer and doing the grunt work. It is important to do the very smallest jobs so you can understand how the organizations work.”
Be Humble. “It is really the only way to truly influence people. You need to do what really needs to be done. These aren’t glamor jobs, you need to reaching and getting your hands dirty. Doing what needs to be done to change the world.”
Make yourself available. Masterson currently works with Homeboy Industries. She characterizes the organization not as giving second changes, but first chances. Her cellphone includes dozens of numbers to help support those in the organization, and they have hers. Just making yourself available and answering the phone means that they matter. At the organization level: “Many volunteers fade away, so organizations get skeptical. Half the battle is just showing up. If you are serious offer what you do, and keep on offering it. They will eventually realize that you really want to help.”
Teach. At Homeboy Industries, Masterson teaches a “life skills” course to the young people already involved in the organization’s bakery, café and silkscreen facilities. One member of the class said that Masterson’s class made her think of the hope her parents had when they first brought her home from the hospital, hope that deteriorated over the years until it was reborn with Masterson’s guidance.
Help others be leaders. At homebody, people aren’t judged by their stories. Their futures are powerful not in spite of their past, but because of them. Because they have come through a difficult life experience, they can then take the hands of other young people and help show them a way out, or help them avoid the mistakes altogether—even their own children.
Be Accepting: Recognize people for where they are, not where you think they should be. Master says that “Homeboy embodies, not just tolerance, but acceptance of who you are, starting from that point, not figure pointing—be inclusive and be loving about and say that if you did it yourself or someone did something to you, come and be safe now.”
Recognize the competition. Leaders can’t succeed unless they understand the alternatives available.Gang membership, for instance, is never the first choice, but sometimes it’s the only choice for belonging. Organizations like Homeboy offer an alternative form of membership. Leaders have to recognize the issues of transformation and migration. “Just leaving a gang puts people into jeopardy.” The men and women, and children, who make it to Homeboy are leaders themselves as they learn to say no to their previous choices.
Change is actually easy: Many people resist change, though overwhelming evidence suggests most changes are inevitable. One of the best ways to combat negative impact of change is to co-create the future. Masterson says: “If you volunteer, and work in a strategic way on issues that matter you can see change taking place, and that empowers you to keep moving forward.”
Do what excites you: The things that excite are often the things we are good at. “We need all types of talents to help change the world.” Leadership isn’t just about planning or being visible, it is also about administrative work or just listening. Whatever you are good at, volunteer organizations can find a way to leverage your talent.
Be bigger than yourself. Working in organizations like Homeboy Industries isn’t about Karma or the need to give back. It is about the work itself. “It is so much fun. It is joyful. You don’t do this kind of work because it pays off. Let me tell you, there are days, weeks, months, when it doesn’t. It is hard. It is hard loosing kids. But the days, in this kind of work, helping people is an amazing, time tested reward in itself. Once you realize that you don’t have time not to help. When you see coldness and fear turn to warmth and joy, there is nothing like it.”
Live your dreams. “For science fiction fans, this is so much of what the stories are about. Don’t just watch science fiction and hope for a better world. Live the stories. So much of what pop culture loves is about superheroes, why not be one.”
Masterson has recently been involved in working with another not-for-profit, Kiva, the micro-lender, to invest in the United States. One homeboy graduate is receiving a Kiva loan to start a hotdog stand business. Leadership begets leadership. For more on Chino’s Dogs, visit Kiva’s website here.
Masterson brings broad and deep experiences to her volunteer efforts. Leadership starts with involvement. The best leaders lead by making themselves available to people in need, helping to quietly heal the world one person at a time. Masterson concludes: “I’m not a leader of Homeboy, I’m just a volunteer there, but being a mentor to even one kid can make somebody a leader. That is very important to the world and is also very empowering. It is so easy for people, especially in places like Los Angeles, to get wrapped up in the Kardashians, or when they do give, to give to things like saving the Hollywood sign or putting in a new alligator tank at the zoo. But hey, zoos are important and the Hollywood sign is an icon. But when we as a society choose to pay attention to what’s happening 20 minutes from our houses, that’s engagement that makes a real difference—by focusing our efforts on helping people we can actually make the world better.”