Aspen Institute, Ideas Festival works to draw in millennials
Economic inequality, poverty, mental illness, racism, sexism, gun violence, health care, climate change, education, technology, religion, sustainable urban development.
Those are among the hot-button issues that 14- to 24-year-olds from Aspen to West Africa identified as important to them this week at a more youthful Ideas Festival.
The Young Adult Forum, a 4.5-hour session Wednesday that was open only to the 25 and younger crowd, is part of the Aspen Institute’s newest division and initiative to engage and involve younger people.
“We believe that young people need to be part of every conversation that talks about not only where the world is going, but talks about you,” Rajiv Vinnakota, executive vice president of the Institute’s Youth and Engagement Programs, said at the forum before 250 teenagers and young adults from around the world. “Why aren’t you in the room when we’re talking about issues that impact you?”
A young and energetic audience — about half of whom call the Roaring Fork Valley home and half who traveled to Colorado from both urban and rural pockets globally — clapped and cheered wildly.
“We realized that there weren’t enough young people who were actually engaging in all the issues, who were asking the hard questions,” Vinnakota said.
He said the forum is “the tip of the iceberg,” as the Institute’s Youth and Engagement Programs, which started early in 2016 under president and CEO Walter Isaacson’s vision, offer 900 programs nationwide that focus on things such as leadership, civil discourse and empathy.
The subjects discussed in-depth at the forum were as diverse as the crowd, from the importance of the U.S. Constitution to how technology is shaping young peoples’ identities.
Jon Lovett, a former speechwriter for President Barack Obama, opened the forum with an entertaining, light-hearted look at adolescence.
“For the next, say 10 or 15 years of your life, you’re basically playing poker against yourself,” Lovett said, illustrating his notion that adolescence is “a lot about fighting a little battle with yourself about what’s great about you versus some of the stuff about yourself that you’re working on.”
As an icebreaker, Lovett assigned the young folks to reveal their strengths and weaknesses to strangers and share them aloud with the audience.
Without missing a beat, Lovett then assumed a more solemn tone in an attempt to impress one final thought on the young minds before him.
“Let’s be honest, I don’t care if you’re Republican or Democratic,” Lovett said, “This is a dark time. It is.”
Disclaiming his political affiliation as “liberal,” the 35-year-old screenwriter continued, “I think it’s fair to say that … whatever your views are, this is a harrowing time” and argued the need for youth activism now more than ever.
The forum is one example of the Aspen Institute’s goal to reach a younger generation around the world.
For 18-year-old Chernor Diallo, the ideas started before arriving in Aspen and will continue when he returns to his home in Liberia.
Diallo and five of his African Leadership Academy classmates attended the festival through the Bezos Scholars Program, a yearlong leadership development program in partnership with the Institute. The program funds the students’ trip to the Ideas Festival and provides them the means to launch local ideas festivals in their home communities.
Diallo said one of his “major highlights” in Aspen was a session about how religion could unite America.
“I found it amazing. It challenged me on a lot,” Diallo said Wednesday. “Coming from a Muslim background, I was kind of told to be not so open up to everyone and to homosexuality.
“I learned a lot. I really appreciated the presenter, and I realized that, as a Muslim, I need to preach peace because that’s one of the foundations of Islam.”
Another key festival takeaway, he said, was acquiring “some basic understanding about leadership and entrepreneurship around the world.”
Diallo said he and his peers intend to bring this knowledge back with them to West and South Africa to “have a better impact on our communities.”
The Aspen Institute’s effort to engage teenagers and young adults extends as far locally as it does globally.
This year’s festival was the first to feature a “millennial pass,” allowing pass-holders between ages 18 and 35 to participate in a variety of Ideas programming for $99.
Most of the sessions accessible via the pass are early in the morning and in the evening, explained Katie Cassetta, so young local professionals can squeeze in sessions before and after work.
The 27-year-old brainchild behind the millennial pass, Cassetta said the pass “kind of seemed like a no-brainer.”
“We love ideas, but we love when they’re followed up with an action plan, and young people have the energy and the time to follow through on those ideas,” said Cassetta, an Aspen Ideas Festival coordinator. “It’s great to have these bold conversations, but if there aren’t young people in the room to hear those conversations and be inspired by them, I don’t think we would be doing our job at the Institute.”
“That, for me, was the motivating factor,” behind the inception of the pass, which was offered to the public twice — first at the Aspen Young Professionals Association’s nonprofit event May 31, and then via an online sale June 16. In 30 minutes, all 100 millennial passes were sold, according to Cassetta.
Claire Sacco of Aspen, who works in marketing, was able to score one.
“(Monday) morning, I felt incredibly lucky to be able to hear Cecile Richards of Planned Parenthood talk about the new administration and the future of her organization and women’s health rights in general,” the 27-year-old Sacco said. “I am incredibly thankful that the Institute created this pass and am grateful that they encourage young people to participate in their programming.”
In fact, Sacco said, “It is one of the reasons that I continue to live and build my life in Aspen.”
While Cassetta anticipated this level of enthusiasm locally, she did not expect young people from outside the valley to buy passes and flock to Aspen solely for the festival.
“When the pass was designed, it was for locals,” Cassetta said. “The fact that people are coming from across the country, sleeping on friends’ couches, getting a week off work … is a surprise to me.”
As Isaacson prepares to leave the Institute later this year, he can look back on a division — which he made his mission to introduce prior to his departure — that’s growing.
“Today we find youth at the heart of the world’s most important social and political movements. It is young people who provide meaningful input on how we reshape society, and they are the ones putting new and exciting ideas into action,” Isaacson said. “Given the convening power of the Aspen Institute, it is critically important to engage young people in our work and build new opportunities to empower them.”
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