Guest commentary: Bond between Aspen Institute, Roaring Fork Valley is stronger than ever

Dan Porterfield
Guest commentary

As all of us who work at the Aspen Institute make the final preparations for this summer’s convenings, lectures and events, it’s inspiring to reflect upon the Institute’s past, present and future as a nonprofit organization that’s a proud member of the greater Aspen and Roaring Fork Valley communities.

The histories of the Aspen Institute and the Roaring Fork Valley have been inextricably linked since 1949 — what Shakespeare might have called a “marriage of true minds.” I love the way that both the Aspen Institute and the greater community in which it sits celebrate the fusion of mind, body, spirit, and citizenship. All of us are fortunate to have the opportunity to reflect upon our values, our hopes and our callings while steeped in majestic natural beauty that evokes wonder and gratitude. Walter and Elizabeth Paepcke were brilliantly prescient in their recognition that Aspen could become a civic and cultural hub that would be both a home and a home base for so many people who dream of creating a free, just and equitable society.

This summer, we will celebrate some important anniversaries of our bond, including the 20th anniversary of the Aspen Community Programs, which now offer some 70 days of accessible programming each year, including the McCloskey Speaker Series and the Hurst Student Seminars for Middle School and High School Students. The Aspen Ideas Festival also works to involve local leaders and the community by offering tickets at an affordable rate, scholarships and free passes to teachers and administrators from local schools. I hope that all residents of and visitors to the Roaring Fork Valley will have the opportunity to engage in some way with the Aspen Institute this summer. We have much to enjoy together.

I am especially excited for our convenings that will address issues critical to the Roaring Fork Valley. For example, during Aspen Ideas: Health — the opening portion of the Ideas Festival — I’m looking forward to moderating a discussion on the health ramifications of and solutions to this region’s affordable housing challenges with Pitkin County Human Services Director Nan Sundeen, Equity Project founder Nita Mosby Tyler and former Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin, a longtime advocate for affordable housing programs.

Looking forward, I’m certain that there’s more the Aspen Institute can do to contribute to community-driven solutions to some of our most pressing local problems. A few weeks ago, led by my colleague Cristal Logan, who oversees our community partnerships and programming, I held a set of meetings with local business, human services, and nonprofit leaders to get a sense of what keeps people up at night. In addition to affordable housing, some of the issues we examined were income inequality, substance abuse, family violence, and the healthful development of young people. We would be glad to join a conversation that helps the full community move toward solutions to these critical issues.

Over the course of our visit, I was impressed with innovative models such as Valley Settlement’s fleet of buses that provide bilingual preschool education and Co-Venture in Carbondale, which is helping build companies in the midvalley and supporting budding entrepreneurs with mentoring, office space and venture capital pitch sessions — among many other efforts. In fact, my wife Karen Herrling, who was here for the visit, will begin volunteering with Alpine Legal Services because there is such a need to help women with children to get protection orders. It also was quite concerning to learn that many of the school districts in the communities outside of Aspen have had to shift to four-day school weeks because of a lack of funding — surely a compromise of educational quality that will have long-term adverse impacts for students, families and the community.

The Aspen Institute is an organization that convenes thinkers, leaders and doers in order to reframe and address the most pressing issues of the day, in the spirit of promoting local empowerment and the flourishing of society. In the years to come, I believe it may be possible for the Institute to participate with the Aspen and Roaring Fork Valley communities in the work of building strategies together for the advancement of the young, the growth of the economy, and the maintenance of what Dr. Martin Luther King called “beloved communities” — places where mind, body, spirit, and citizenship can all thrive.

Dan Porterfield is the president and CEO of the Aspen Institute.