Around the Institute

20 Issues and Ideas That Deserved More Attention in 2020

December 22, 2020  • David K. Gibson

It is normal, at the end of the year, for organizations such as ours to assemble a “best of” list of stories. It’s a recognition of great work and a small thank you gift to those who have supported us.

We don’t have to tell you that 2020 was not a normal year.

But even in the maelstrom of a pandemic, social unrest, and political division, the important work of individuals and programs that are a part of the Aspen Institute has continued—and it is work that shouldn’t be overlooked.

This list isn’t a “look back.” If anything, it’s a look forward. It’s a compendium of pieces about where we are, where we’re going, and how we’re going to get there.

How-to guides for the rest of the pandemic

The good news is that we can see an end. Vaccines are approved and shipping and being received by the first wave of Americans. But what’s going to happen between now and the time we can breathe easy?

  1. First, we’ve got to figure out how to distribute those vaccines. The government has created a prioritized list, but within the tiers are groups who lack health care access, including information about the necessity of the vaccines. The Global Inclusive Growth Partnership, a collaboration between the Institute and the Mastercard Center for Inclusive Growth, gathered a panel of experts for their takes on the issue.
  2. While it’s assumed that the American workplace will look very different post-pandemic, it’s not clear just how. Aspen Ideas Now explores the extra resources (and extra understanding) that remote workers require.
  3. Vaccines will help the population reach herd immunity. If you’re about to spend the holidays trying to convince a wary aunt of their safety—or planning tough conversations on other topics—the Citizenship and American Identity Program has some tips about how to have better arguments.
The next big crises

You may recall a couple thousand think pieces about the “cracks” in society that were exposed by the pandemic. They’re still there, and we can’t simply plaster over them, or else we’ll face even more dire consequences during the next crisis.

  1. The ongoing legacy of systemic racism has led to a hunger crisis across the country. Our Food and Society Program hosted a discussion with Congresswoman Chellie Pingree, Dr. John B. King Jr. of the Education Trust, and former Congresswoman Donna Edwards about the things keeping Americans hungry and poor.
  2. The pandemic has led to record unemployment which could result in the most severe housing crisis in American history. According to research from the Financial Security Program, 30 to 40 million people face eviction as moratoriums expire. Coupled with the preexisting housing unaffordability crisis, as much as 43% of rental households are at risk. Katherine Lucas McKay shares the research on an episode of Aspen Insight.
  3. Already stressed Native communities are falling further behind during the pandemic, which has exacerbated disparities in education, health, and income. Children and youth are particularly vulnerable, according to Dr. Billie Jo Kipp of the Institute’s Center for Native American Youth. In this post, she talks about the current crisis and the opportunity for change.
  4. Fifteen percent of American adults—40 million people—have outstanding student loan debt, and cumulatively owe $1.5 trillion. The problem has grown by six-fold in just the last 15 years, to the detriment of families, communities, and the entire US economy. The Financial Security Program has a few recommendations on how to rid ourselves of this tremendous burden.
Things we need to stop getting wrong

 Few infectious disease experts were surprised by the pandemic. The rest of us—underinformed and busy with other things—were unprepared. If we listen to people who are sounding the alarm about our current problems, we can act now to help mitigate the next catastrophe.

  1. It’s clear now that we’re headed for a climate catastrophe; the only real disagreement comes from those who point out that it’s already here. Society is slow to react because we fear the immediate economic impacts. That’s an old way of thinking, suggests Kate Harrison of the Energy and Environment Program. She suggests four ways to help the environment without hurting the economy.
  2. Communities of color were hit particularly hard in this pandemic, and not just because of persistent economic inequality. As Black and brown people have been saying all along, the medical community doesn’t treat minorities with the respect they deserve. Addressing inequality in the medical workforce is one way to change racial health inequality, according to two doctors who spoke during Aspen Ideas: Health.
  3. We’re doing school wrong, too often using a discipline model based on fear rather than on love and support. It’s particularly harmful to Black girls, who are systemically criminalized by school policies, and, inevitably, the justice system. Shades of Freedom, the podcast of the Criminal Justice Reform Initiative, spoke with Dr. Monique Morris to hear her suggestions for a better path forward.
  4. Hate crimes are on the rise, according to official statistics. But the official statistics are incomplete. As part of our Inclusive America Project, Ari M. Gordon of the American Jewish Committee argues that we can’t understand and reduce incidents until we conquer this massive underreporting of hate crimes.
Rethinking the future

Facing our current situation with honesty may be the first step in creating a better tomorrow, but we also need to reconsider how we think about the future. Some of the biggest problems society faces are a matter of framing and of accepting a flawed model of the way things work.

  1. The pandemic disrupted sports, and not just in the high-profile professional sense. It gutted youth sports, which were already facing challenges, and that missing generation could be a mortal wound. Or, says Tom Farrey, executive director of the Sports and Society Program, it could usher in local, quality, and affordable sports—a model “less vulnerable to financial and other disruptive shocks, and more aligned with the needs of communities.”
  2. In all of the angst, we can’t forget about art. The Institute’s Arts Program brought together two notable artistic thinkers—Oskar Eustis of the Public Theater in New York and actor, playwright, and professor Anna Deavere Smith—for a discussion on the role of art in an uncertain world.
  3. For half a century, the biggest single measurement of a business’s health has been profits, couched in the descriptor “shareholder value.” The quest for ever-higher numbers has damaged workers, the environment, and our legal system, and it’s time for CEOs to make good on some recent promises, says Judy Samuelson of the Business and Society Program.
  4. It’s a truism that history is written by the winners — but it’s also true that our present is written by the powerful. A lack of diversity in the publishing industry has left viewpoints — and entire communities—outside the realm of popular discourse. Aspen Words and Aspen Digital brought together a host of publishing professionals looking to change that.
Hopeful news in the face of despair

There is hope on the horizon, but humanity will be dealing with the overlapping traumas of the pandemic for a long, long time. Still, good things are happening and will continue to happen.

  1. Small businesses were hit hard this year, and those owned by people of color particularly so. Sometimes, though, just a little bit of financial help can keep a business going. This year, the Institute’s Business Ownership Initiative helped create the Entrepreneur Backed Assets Fund, a partnership of three foundations that purchased $8.75 million in loans from microlenders, allowing community-based lenders to make that money available again.
  2. When the world faced a pandemic, community-based leaders were able to step in quickly and efficiently. The Aspen Global Leadership Network has been nurturing classes of fellows for years, and in this trying year, they were supported by a pledge of $1 million from the John P. and Anne Welsh McNulty Foundation—resulting in direct and monumental impact.
  3. The point of international exchange, one would think, is to have participants visit new cultures, and broaden their horizons by crossing horizons. But in a time of global quarantine, it has become clear that the most important exchange is one of ideas. The Stevens Initiative provides training, mentorship, and resources to young leaders around the world, and they didn’t let a little thing like a pandemic slow them down.
  4. Child support payments, like many things we do as a society, are often ineffective and aligned with the wrong goals. When the pandemic hit and brought with it job loss and family isolation, the various programs were revealed as irretrievably broken. The Institute’s Ascend program is pushing for policies that place the consistent support of children first—and finds that many states are already enacting policies that promote financial and family health.
  5. On a final note, here’s an essay in USA Today from Fred Riley, executive director of Weave: The Social Fabric Project, who believes that there’s still hope that America will become a better place. He looks back to earlier times of tumult and asks where people found strength—the answer is in each other. “This is a holy time, a sacred time, for our country,” he writes. “With so many societal issues laid bare, each of us is called to reexamine our roles, our beliefs, our values and, most important, our actions.” And then, we will rise together.

    Civic Action
    Three Steps We Can All Take to Create a More Civil Society
    December 14, 2020 • Aspen Global Leadership Network