Beyond the Shadows: My Journey as an Aspen Young Leaders Fellow

January 5, 2024  • Dante Apaéstegui, Aspen Young Leaders Senior Fellow and Seminar Facilitator

The Aspen Young Leaders Fellowship (AYLF) catalyzes the power of young people as changemakers by partnering with them, their families, and their communities to take action on their ideas for social solutions. AYLF is a place-based, multi-site program that nurtures a cadre of diverse youth committed to addressing the most compelling social, political, and scientific issues facing their communities.

Photo by Hector Torres

As we navigate the heart-wrenching challenges facing our world, let us remember the critical importance of creating spaces for young people to see each other, build bridges, and find purpose in leading positive change in their communities.

I walked into Ackerman Hall in Newark, New Jersey, saw my name on a crisp white table tent, smiled, and sat down. Looking around the large square table, I did not yet realize the power, influence, and growth that could come from such a simple place, my first day in an Aspen Young Leaders Fellowship (AYLF) seminar. As I reflect on my experience as a Fellow, and now a Facilitator, I am filled with profound gratitude for the transformative experience and invaluable lessons that have shaped my growth. Seeing our faces, hearing our voices, speaking, celebrating, and questioning our diverse lived experiences enabled me to recognize the interconnectedness and interdependency in the community we built for ourselves around that table, and in our world beyond the seminar room. 

I’ve come to analogize my AYLF experience to Plato’s famous allegory of the cave, a simple story, rich with a multiplicity of interpretative meaning. The story is about a group of people chained to a wall in a cave. As the light of the outside world permeates the cave and creates shadows against a blank wall, the prisoners — unable to see anything except the shadows — perceive them as ‘real’ and not as mere reflections of the reality outside. One prisoner who has either been freed or escaped, returns to share the truth of the world with the others. It is imaginable that of those descending, some inspire and liberate, others patronize and oppress. All the people in the cave can do is listen, scrutinize, and act. The text itself is immediately reminiscent of the type of readings we engage with in seminar: it openly invites one to converse with its ideas. As a young Fellow, I found each reading to be an invitation to think about the ideas in the text, to feel empowered to create, critique, and change ideas, and to embrace visions of justice and equity meaningfully applied in our community. It was as if each author—Dr. King, bell hooks, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Cezar Chavez, Le Guinn— were walking down the cavern having seen the light, the truth of the matter, and urging us to think of and share in their ideas on life, peace, justice, and society. 

Each dialogue was an invitation to be a nonconformist, to intentionally step away from the dogma, our presuppositions of the world, and see not what ought to be, but imagine what could be. 

After I graduated and became a Youth Facilitator, I had the privilege of guiding and mentoring Fellows in the program. We worked together to develop innovative solutions to some of their community’s most pressing challenges. Being able to lead discussions has been one of the most rewarding experiences because I know how impactful it was for me. Now that I am a Facilitator for the first Miami cohort, it has been no different: the role allows me to apply the critical pedagogical values my peers and I — as Fellows — dedicated ourselves to employing. My vision of leadership is all about empathy, collaboration, and equal empowerment. As we work through these texts, Fellow and Facilitator, we both find our voices, learn from each other’s critical awareness of self and world, and in concert, we strive to make a difference. 

The Aspen Institute’s commitment to global engagement is a cornerstone of its mission, and through my association with AYLF, I had the privilege to realize this commitment firsthand by being nominated, and selected, to attend the Aspen European Leaders Seminar in Lampeter, Wales. This opportunity to engage with diverse cultures and perspectives among brilliant and passionate European entrepreneurs, academics, journalists, lawyers, and other professionals, enriched my understanding of global issues and further confirmed the conviction that we are inextricably interconnected in our global fight for peace and liberation. It reinforced my belief in the importance of forging international connections to address the world’s most pressing challenges.

I am deeply grateful for the opportunities I have been given, the invaluable lessons I have learned, and the lifelong connections I have forged. My experiences at the Aspen Institute have fueled my passion for leadership, and I am more determined than ever to be a force for good in this world. My conviction inspired me to attend law school for the sole purpose of becoming a people’s lawyer. AYLF is again generously supporting my pursuit, and I am grateful to be the recipient of tuition assistance through its “opportunity ecosystem.” This support not only eases the financial burden of a law school education, it also underscores AYLF’s commitment to supporting young local leaders. The opportunity ecosystem is a testament to the program’s dedication to fostering a diverse community of changemakers, regardless of one’s economic background.

This journey has truly been an extraordinary experience. The program and all the people involved embody the Institute’s mission to create a more just, enlightened, and equitable future. In truth, it was never the meeting room, the table, the spiraled notebooks, or the cache of being a Fellow that made this all worthwhile. For me, it has always been the people and the vision they ardently hold for a just and equitable world. 

My experience as a Fellow, Youth Facilitator, Facilitator, beneficiary of AYLF’s Opportunity Ecosystem, and an International Visiting Fellow in Wales has been an incredible odyssey of self-discovery, leadership development, and community impact. AYLF’s unwavering commitment to inclusivity, youth empowerment, and global engagement has left an indelible mark on my heart and has inspired me to dedicate my life to fostering positive change in our ever-changing world.