Shared humanity is the big idea at Aspen Ideas Fest ‘Afternoon of Conversation’

Festival midpoint event featured taped interview with Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy

Hundreds of Aspen Ideas Festival attendees watch a taped interview with President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelenskyy during the "Afternoon of Conversation" at the Benedict Music Tent.
Kaya Williams/The Aspen Times

At the midpoint of the Aspen Ideas Festival on Tuesday afternoon, an “Afternoon of Conversation” revolved around finding shared humanity in addressing gun violence, in reporting on war and conflict, in supporting infrastructure and in fighting a war, too. 

That theme of shared humanity has been circulating at the Aspen Institute nearly since its origins, said Dan Porterfield, the president and CEO of the Institute that organizes Ideas Fest. 

Calling back to the very first Aspen Institute event in 1949 — a three-week celebration of the writer, scientist and statesman Johann Wolfgang von Goethe — Porterfield noted that today’s times aren’t so different from the mid-20th century. The questions aren’t, either.

“They cared about stitching together the humanism again, in the aftermath of war and genocide and  forced migration and nuclear devastation, and the rise of the Soviet system, and the question was, what is it that brings humanity together?” Porterfield said. “How can we create a good society? … It was a time of tumult and division, but also hope.

“That’s not unlike the world we live in today. Tumult, division — but surely, hope and optimism and determination.” 

Hundreds of Ideas Festival attendees gathered at the Benedict Music Tent for the afternoon, which featured three live, in-person discussions among changemakers and journalists and concluded with a recorded interview with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy conducted by NBC News Chief Foreign Correspondent Richard Engel. 

The three live conversations together featured nearly a dozen speakers who covered ground on gun violence, reporting from Ukraine and bipartisan infrastructure efforts. Varied subjects, sure, but the same message kept coming up: that caring for and about one another through collaboration and compassion paves the path forward through conflict, crisis and challenges. 

On gun violence, laying the groundwork and building relationships and trust is a part of the effort, according to panelists who are actively working to curb gun violence in Chicago through outreach, counseling, coaching, community building and workforce training. So is education and reconciliation, they said.

A panel of journalists, speaking on covering the war in Ukraine, emphasized that finding human connections and sharing them was the key not only to keeping audiences engaged but to telling the stories that need to be told. 

Even in conversations about infrastructure — a topic interviewer Jeffrey Goldberg joked might not sound the most thrilling — Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and White House Senior Advisor and Infrastructure Coordinator Mitch Landrieu emphasized that there’s a chance for commonality in the cause for roads, bridges, airports and internet connections. 

“The president articulates it as giving us a chance as Americans to figure out in all of this agony that we happen to be in at the moment for lots of different reasons that we can actually find common ground and do big things again,” Landrieu said. 

That’s not to say it was an entirely easy rah-rah afternoon, as speakers acknowledged the challenges and the strife of working through conflict. Zelenskyy, in his interview with Engel, said he has seen atrocities that might otherwise seem like they could only happen in films or books. 

“Before, I didn’t think people were capable of this, that people are capable of such atrocities,” Zelenskyy said. “… I just never had thought that humanity could be capable of this, and this changes how you look at people.”

Amid this, Engel asked, “How do you go on?”

Zelenskyy said what he has seen and lived through with the people of Ukraine has been a source of strength, and that there is strength in unity. 

“They cannot break us. … They cannot break our nation, and we have shown this,” Zelenskyy said. “They show they are not our equals, because people, good people, cannot act this way.” 

About the Speakers

About the Speakers

The “Afternoon of Conversation” featured nearly a dozen speakers over the course of two and a half hours at the Benedict Music Tent. 

Welcome Introduction

Dan Portierfield, President and CEO of the Aspen Institute

César Conde, Chairman, NBCUniversal News Group 

Breaking Cycles of Gun Violence: A Conversation with the Members of Chicago CRED
Jervon Hicks, Life Coach, Youth Peace Center of Roseland

Billy Moore, Alumni Coordinator, Chicago CRED

Aaron Taylor, Alumnus, Chicago CRED

Interviewer: Arne Duncan, Managing Partner: Emerson Collective; former U.S. Secretary of Education

Notes from the Front Line: Reporting from Ukraine

Mary Louise Kelly, “All Things Considered” co-host, NPR

Erin McLaughlin, Correspondent, NBC News

Erin Trieb, Photographer

Interviewer: Katie Couric, Founder and Executive Producer, Katie Couric Media

Championing a U.S. Upgrade: Crossing the Aisle to Rebuild America’s Infrastructure

Mitch Landrieu, White House Senior Advisor and Infrastructure Coordinator

Rob Portman, U.S. Senator (R-Ohio)

Interviewer: Jeffrey Goldberg, Editor in Chief, The Atlantic

A Hero Among Us: An Interview with the President of the Ukraine

Volodymyr Zelenskyy, President of the Ukraine

Richard Engel, Chief Foreign Correspondent, NBC News