“I am because you are. You are because I am.” Hope Azeda, the daughter of Rwandan refugees and the founder of the Ubumuntu Arts Festival, invoked the words of Nobel Peace Prize winner Desmond Tutu at this year’s Resnick Aspen Action Forum, speaking movingly about recognizing each other’s humanity and using art as a tool for social transformation. At the Forum, Azeda was announced as one of the four McNulty Prize laureates—recognized for bringing together performers from Rwanda and around the world to explore the trauma of conflict and resilience through art.
As extraordinary as Azeda is, she was a lot like the other 350 members of the Aspen Global Leadership Network who gathered in Aspen in July for the sixth annual Action Forum. Entrepreneurial leaders from business and civil society came from more than 25 countries to discuss making an impact. This year’s theme, “Fearless Leadership,” signaled that at a moment of unprecedented change around the world, the AGLN community can grapple with the need for courageous leadership in the face of uncertainty.
Human-rights activist and Central America Leadership Initiative fellow Felix Maradiaga—in conversation with Times of India diplomatic editor Indrani Bagchi and New York Times columnist David Brooks, now the executive director of the Institute’s Weave: The Social Fabric Initiative—talked about leaving his comfortable corporate job to protest the Ortega dictatorship in Nicaragua. “If I had less fear,” he said, “I think my heart would have more room for love, more room for compassion, and more capacity to have honest conversations with those that disagree with me.”
Engaging in such open conversations is core to the Action Forum experience. In seminar rooms, fellows had the opportunity to unpack and share their own perspectives on texts by Kirstin Downey, Pablo Neruda, Malala Yousafzai, and others. They discussed the future of work in the age of automation and how to build a culture of health and wellness. They went to skill-building workshops on topics like design thinking, the power of play, and using business as a force for good. During free time, many gravitated toward the central tent, “the Hub,” where a large chalkboard was soon scrawled over with ideas fellows wanted to discuss, including concrete ways they could offer help with the ongoing crisis in Nicaragua.
Reflection and dialogue are key, but the Aspen Global Leadership Network focuses on activating fellows to move from ideas to action. Banners all around campus displayed the Action Pledges fellows made—specific, public commitments to address societal challenges, such as fighting the rise of fake news in India, using theater to develop workforce-readiness skills in South Carolina, and helping families escape predatory lending in Chicago. More than 1,200 pledges have been made since 2013. Attending the Action Forum for the first time, Azeda said she felt energized learning about the work of other fellows. “Everyone I talk to is doing something miraculous in their own communities,” she said. “It gives me a ray of hope that change is actually possible.”
On the final day, Di-Ann Eisnor, a Henry Crown fellow and the director of Growth at Waze, and Urania Callejas-Vidaurre, a Central America Leadership fellow and the director of innovation at the creative agency Boombit, created a new platform to mobilize AGLN fellows into collective action for humanitarian aid and support, beginning with Nicaragua. “Networks strengthen the activity of all the different partners so we can have collective impact,” Aspen Institute CEO Dan Porterfield said during the closing session.
This year’s Action Forum also placed emphasis on the next generation of leaders. Nearly 100 youth ages 10 to 18 from 20 countries participated in a youth camp, engaging in text-based dialogue and developing strategies to create change in their communities. Salvador Gomez Colon, a fellow from Puerto Rico, spoke about the need to act when you see a problem: “You can’t expect anything to be changed if you’re not willing to do it yourself.” Annabel Lee, a fellow from China, emphasized service: “To be a leader, you must do something for the people that you believe in.”
The 14 AGLN fellowships don’t offer a how-to manual on leadership. The model is based on the foundation of active citizenship, beginning with the premise, said Interim Executive Vice President for Leadership and Seminars at the Institute David Langstaff, that “we are all human beings, we care, and we have the privilege of education, success, access, and resources.” Fellows, he added, share a commitment to improve the world and a strong sense of responsibility to engage— “which requires courage combined with action.” In other words, fearless leadership.