Star Trek's Nichelle Nichols: A lesson in micro-mentoring

Actress Nichelle Nichols (Lt. Uhuru) credits the advice of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in helping shape her career, and turning her into an influential ambassador for NASA. This act of 'micro-mentoring' changed her career, how can it work for today's parents?

Nichelle Nichols sang with Duke Ellington and Lionel Hampton before turning to acting and the role of Uhura on 'Star Trek.'

News of former “Star Trek” star Nichelle Nichols’ influence as a NASA recruiter points to advice given to the actress by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. that changed the trajectory of her career. The simple input from the respected civil rights icon led her to become a major influence in attracting more female and minority candidates for the space program.

It also represents a great example of what is considered “micro-mentoring” – a practice of accepting advice from a respected figure in a limited scale, without a longt-erm mentoring relationship.

Around the early 1960s, when Ms. Nichols played Lt. Uhara on the hit show “Star Trek” she was the only African-American woman on US television in a major role, defying the standards at the time to cast women of color as maids or bit-players used for comic relief.

Nichols, now 81, told CNN this week that back then she was considering leaving “Star Trek” for a career on Broadway when King, a fan of the show who watched it with his own kids, personally lobbied her to stay and continue to be a powerful role model for African-American people.

King’s talk with Nichols reminds me of another "Star Trek" character, Mr. Spock, and his famous line from “The Wrath of Kahn” film, “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one.” By accepting that idea, the actress would eventually help the American space program take off on a much improved trajectory.

Because Nichols admired King she chose to remain on television. As predicted by King, her power as a role model grew.

Therefore, years later, when Nichols voiced her disapproval of the growing space program in 1969 for being too white and too male, executives at NASA changed their heading and recruited the actress to travel the nation as an ambassador.

As a result, Nichols successfully helped women and minorities get their feet on the path to space.

While this was a case of one adult taking time to advise another, and the same principles can be applied to help a child, teen, or young adult.

This story shows that we can make a profound difference in someone’s life by taking the time to mentor for a moment.

We can point out their strengths and perhaps make a bold suggestion for them to go where they may not have considered going before.

Nichols shows us how vital it can be for us to follow-through on our parental instinct to gently offer clarity that may help others to remain on course.

The act of micro-mentoring makes use of our powers of observation and our life experience to share a perspective with someone who might not be able to see something from a different angles based on their standing in life.

From where Nichols stood in the early 1960s, she was looking at her career path in a very traditional sense as a series of personal goals.

King saw her career as a thread within a growing tapestry for the African-American community.

Having four sons has taught me to accept the fact that I am not always able to influence my own kids, but others can lend their advice to help mentor them and help shape their paths.

Perhaps that’s why it takes a village to raise a child. In my rookie parenting years, I often struggled to accept that other parents, teachers, friends and celebrities can exhibit more positive influence on my child that I can.

That doesn’t mean I’ve failed as a parent. It means I raised a child who prefers a wealth of options and a variety of teachers. That’s not a bad thing.

While it may take one celebrity to guide another, you don’t have to be famous in order to help a neighbor’s child, who marvels at your garden, learn to plant a seed.

All it takes is a willingness to explore new frontiers in parenting and community engagement.

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