AYLF Fellows, Alum, & Supporters:
I write this letter to you from a gulf of grief knowing that there is nothing that can be said to heal wounds that have been allowed to fester for far too long. I write this as once again our cities burn; a manifestation of collective rage at a system that would ignore its own brutality. I write this as people I love worry about their safety; as black and brown bodies risk violence from simply going to the store, playing in parks, jogging, or sleeping in their own bed.
What we are witnessing isn’t injustice. It isn’t inequity. It is purposeful repression.
The murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd and the weaponizing of whiteness against Christian Cooper are highly publicized racial incidents, but we know all too well that this violence occurs routinely far beyond the watchful eyes of camera vests and the media. These are not anomalies but daily realities.
The Aspen Young Leaders Fellowship – your fellowship – was birthed in the aftermath of the killing of Michael Brown in St. Louis, MO, on August 9, 2014, and the legal and societal injustices that followed. This narrative is a powerful part of the AYLF legacy and to honor it we must continue to push beyond platitudes and band-aids and instead engage in the difficult, uncomfortable work to truly build the Beloved Community.
AYLF affords us an opportunity to build a critical mass of socially-conscious, equity-driven, diverse talent in specific regions not for leadership in some ambiguous, distant future but today. The compassion, brilliance, and tenacity that each of you possess gives me hope that we can create a different future. The AYLF staff are here to work right alongside you in those efforts. This will require difficult conversations, bridging differences, being unapologetic in your identities and inherent worth, and building solidarity between and among groups. The invisible thread of humanity that connects all of us is becoming just a bit more visible with each day, and that is painful for the system. Let’s keep making it visible.
Although all of the above is true, I cannot stress enough that this is not your weight to bear alone. This is why we create community. Nor are the emotional labor and trauma of engaging in this work yours to carry alone.
As the Executive Director of Youth Leadership Programs at The Aspen Institute (and especially as a white, cisgender, gay man), I embrace the responsibility for ensuring that we are not replicating the systems that surround us within our own program and in our communities. Here is what I’m committing to you right now as actions not words to disrupt white supremacy:
- AYLF will proactively look inward first to ensure our own house is in order. We will do this by pushing beyond equity training toward justice-based training. We will also advance efforts in our broader organization to live our values of creating a “free, just, and equitable society.”
- Effective immediately, all organizations, consultants, and partners will be formally vetted to ensure alignment with our values and particularly those associated with equity and justice. No resources or expenses will go to organizations or businesses that are not aligned with these values. We will also prioritize supporting businesses owned by People of Color. This will now be explicit policy rather than just good practice.
- AYLF will increase resources to support fellows during this time through our opportunity ecosystem and safety-net programs. Whether this is to act in solidarity with existing movements or to support ongoing initiatives around racial justice, we are here to help in those efforts.
- AYLF will create space – as you determine it is needed –to engage on these topics with the recognition that some may desire this while for others it is further traumatizing. To support divergent needs, these conversations will be opt-in. Additionally, Youth Lead Now will continue to be a space to engage in these conversations with national leaders.
- Starting next week, I will set aside time to meet with fellows. I want to hear from you directly about what is on your mind as well as how you are thinking and feeling about your future and the future of the program. Let’s be in relationship with one another. I will reach out with instructions on how to schedule time should you wish to do so.
For now, I implore you to find the grace to be good to yourselves and one another. If you are angry, be angry. If you are disconnecting for self-care, disconnect. If you are ready to act, act. There is no right way to be in this moment. The weight of it may seem unbearable or it may all feel wretchedly predictable. Either way, your AYLF family is here to walk with and/or carry you however you see fit.
I leave you with this quote from activist, playwright, and author Lorraine Hansberry: “I am a fool who believes that death is waste and love is sweet and that the earth turns and that people change every day and that rivers run and the people wanna be better than they are and that the flowers smell good and that I hurt terribly today, and that hurt is desperation, and desperation is energy, and energy can move things.”
In solidary and love,
John Dugan, Executive Director, Youth Leadership Programs, The Aspen Institute