This article was originally printed in the Fall 2016 issue of IDEAS: the Magazine of the Aspen Insitute.
In July, about 350 leaders representing 35 countries landed in Aspen for the inaugural Resnick Aspen Action Forum, a place for leaders from across the Aspen Global Leadership Network to engage with each other and increase their social impact. “Now more than ever, society is challenging us to ensure that ‘liberty and justice for all’ is more than a rote phrase,” says Peter Reiling, the Institute’s executive vice president for leadership. “We spur our Fellows and others to combine their talents, resources, and platforms to address injustice head-on around the world.”
The AGLN operates 14 different fellowships, from South Africa to the United States, which give leaders in various fields—such as finance, health care, manufacturing, and tech innovation—the chance to apply their entrepreneurial skills to critical social problems. Over the course of two years, Fellows meet four times to dig deeper into the challenges of socially responsible leadership in a globalized world.
The Fellows did not want their exploration to end when those two years did. “There was a growing need for a place to convene after that initial Fellowship experience,” says Tom Loper, the managing director of the Forum. The AGLN managing directors wanted to support the goal of a life-long journey to engage the Institute’s growing community of 2,300 international leaders. And so the idea for the Forum was born in 2009 with the first of several gatherings, originally planned to be held every two years.
Quickly, however, there was a huge demand for an annual event. In 2013, Institute Trustee Lynda Resnick and her husband, Stewart Resnick, began to provide $1 million annually to double both the size and frequency of the Aspen Action Forum. With their support the Forum flourished, nurturing leaders’ commitments to improve the lives of people across the planet with projects that tackle crucial topics like energy efficiency, college literacy, and medicine. Then in 2015, the Resnicks provided a historic $15 million gift as a term endowment to ensure the continuation of the event through 2030. The Forum was renamed for them to reflect their generosity.
“It is inspiring to see such a unique gathering of global leaders committed to real and tangible action,” says Lynda Resnick, the vice chair and co-owner of the Wonderful Company. “Stewart and I are so pleased that this platform will help create ripples of hope and opportunity around the world for generations to come.”
This year, the Resnick Aspen Action Forum was called “Leading Toward Justice”—a theme crowdsourced from across the AGLN. “Given the tragedies and inequities we see on what seems like a daily basis around the globe,” Loper says, “there is no better time for the Institute to host a global gathering of leaders focused on this theme.”
Each year, about 70 percent of the Action Forum attendees are AGLN Fellows, and the remaining 30 percent include Fellows’ spouses or partners and nominated or sponsored participants. Because the Forum brings together leaders from such a wide variety of fields, the programming embodies a diversity of topics, ranging from health and science to business leadership or human rights. “We try to blend the head and the heart,” Loper says.
The format is true to the AGLN Fellowship experience—personalized, highly interactive, and geared toward action. This year’s 350 participants engaged with each other in four structured formats: topical discussions, text-based seminars, “Action Workshops,” and skills workshops. Throughout the year, Reiling, Loper, and the rest of the Action Forum team received hundreds of topic suggestions for discussions and selected 42 to offer Fellows and participants, including “Race in America: Can we talk?”; “The Future of Talent and Work”; and “Social Enterprise: The View from an Investor.” Moderated, text-based Socratic seminars prompt participants to reflect on their values as socially responsible leaders. In the Action Workshops, participants serve as advisers to one another, helping their peers overcome specific leadership challenges. That could mean redefining a business plan for a Middle East Fellow building an innovative social-media platform, say, or making the case for an investment in arts education in Honduras. In skills workshops, participants with expert backgrounds take the floor. This year’s offerings included “So You’re Thinking of Running for Public Office,” presented by Kristin Gisleson Palmer, a Rodel Fellow and a former New Orleans city council member, and “Building a Brand,” presented by Pauline Brown, a Henry Crown Fellow and the former North America chairman of LVMH Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton.
Nearly every day at the Forum featured a public panel centered on Leading Toward Justice: empowering girls and women, leveling the playing field for educational opportunity, and thinking about how business leaders can promote justice. The Forum also included a special session on “The Path to Justice” with the Equal Justice Initiative’s Bryan Stevenson (please see page 58). But the rest of what the participants discussed stays confidential. “We see this as a space where people can reflect without fear of judgement,” Loper says. And after this year’s spate of unexpected civic violence, participants were looking forward to an “intimate, soul-tending experience.”
To that end, art installations at the Action Forum were designed to help participants connect with the Forum’s theme. Janet Echelman, a Henry Crown Fellow and an internationally recognized artist, suspended a model-sized replica of one of her aerial sculptures, which are intended to be inviting focal points for civic dialogue, in the Doerr Hosier building. Visiting artist and National Geographic photographer Aaron Huey displayed boldly colored posters and graphic art designed to help grassroots-advocacy groups focused on criminal justice, Native American rights, and other issues spread their messages via art. Forum participants could tear off posters from perforated pads to take home.
AGLN Fellows are not only socially conscious and creative; they inspire positive change. That’s why the Forum was the ideal place to announce the four John P. McNulty Prize finalists for 2016. The prize is awarded to AGLN visionaries who are having significant impact on their communities and the world in innovative, scalable, and replicable ways. The winner will receive $100,000 for his or her project, and the remaining laureates will each receive $10,000. This year, ventures included creating jobs in rural South Africa, empowering women in the Himalayas, demobilizing gangs in Panama City, and revolutionizing prenatal care in South Carolina.
Dialogue and reflection (and, of course, hiking to Maroon Bells) are not the only things to come out of the Forum. The emphasis throughout the event is clear: turn thought to action. Each Fellow makes an Action Pledge—a public commitment to a socially good project—that is visually represented on campus. Since the first Forum in 2013, more than 800 pledges have been made, and the AGLN tracks their progress. Fellows write their pledges on a leaf that is then added to trees in an art installation.
True to the diverse nature of the Fellows, the 2016 Action Pledges addressed many kinds of issues. Arvind Malhan, with the India Leadership Initiative, pledged to provide classes in English and computer literacy to more than 5,000 underprivileged rural children in India by 2020. Emile Cubeisy, with the Middle East Leadership Initiative, pledged to identify, train, and empower 80 public-sector servants in Jordan to design positive policy initiatives for their communities. Adela Mendoza, with the Liberty Fellowship, pledged to develop leadership skills among 20 talented Hispanic South Carolinians so they can take charge in an array of fields by 2018.
And this year a major collaborative pledge was inspired by sessions at the Forum itself. A group of about 30 Fellows, most of whom had participated in a daylong “Deep Dive” called “Race in America,” created a Truth and Reconciliation Collaborative Action Group. The group, whose members range from education experts to public officials, made an Action Pledge to start a national process to address the repercussions of slavery and systemic racism in the United States. Fellows from South Africa and Rwanda shared significant lessons from which their North American counterparts could learn.
“We are at a time in America where we couldn’t just be left with readings and discussion,” says Nike Irvin, a Henry Crown Fellow. “After the course of the week, we felt that truth and reconciliation could be approached strategically—and we have the right layers within the Action Forum circle to take it all in.” Though still in the planning stages, the group aims to have its pledge culminate in an annual day of reconciliation, when diverse groups can come together for dialogue, healing, and civic engagement to develop a pathway forward. The process will be gradual. “Of course we want things to happen tomorrow,” Irvin says. “But this is daunting and large, and the legacy of American slavery is long and very deep.”
More than half of Forum participants were female this year, and 40 percent were from abroad—but even from so many different countries and disciplines, they all have one thing in common: a deep commitment to use their unique talents for social good. “We may be small in numbers compared with the challenges we face and the changes we want to see in the world,” Echelman says. “But if we act collectively, we have the power to make real change.”