What soft skills would Questlove recommend to high-school students? “I encourage you to go outside of your comfort zone,” the music superstar said. “Really get to know people and get to know cultures.” Questlove was speaking to students in his hometown of Philadelphia as part of the Aspen Challenge, a contest in which teens are empowered to solve the problems they see in their own communities. While Questlove was the hero of the day, the kids also listened intently to an array of local leaders—like Komal Ahmad, an entrepreneur who uses the principles of the sharing economy to redirect excess food to those in need; JT Reager, a NASA Jet Propulsion Lab chief Earth scientist; and Ezekiel Emanuel, a bioethicist and health care policy expert. To finish the day, Jeffrey Rosen, the president and CEO of the National Constitution Center, led the students through an interactive US Constitution, unveiling the inspiring stories behind each amendment and discussing the value of separating constitutional and political views.
A week later, 200 students and educators from across Chicago gathered for their own introduction to the Aspen Challenge. “Understand that you are the missing ingredient in the city of Chicago,” Reverend Michael Pfleger, a renowned local activist, told the students. Pfleger said that Rosa Parks once told him that she chose not to change her seat on the bus because every time she started to get up, she saw Emmett Till’s face. “So Emmett Till moves Rosa Parks. Rosa Parks gets arrested, and she moves Martin Luther King,” Pfleger said. “All that went back to a child, a teenager, who set off the civil rights movement. You have the possibilities and the potential, now. It’s inside of you. It’s about time that you let it out and show the rest of Chicago what you got.”
Stirring reminders of the contrast between Chicago’s media-stoked reputation for crime and the growing development of new businesses and buildings downtown ignited powerful questions from the students about economic disparity, structural racism, and how to make a difference.
One student asked Robin Robinson, a special adviser for community affairs at the Chicago Police Department, if the city’s institutions themselves simply need to be reimagined. Robinson replied: “What’s an institution made of? People. It’s not like you can say, ‘I’m going to change the institution and not change the people.’ I can change policies, rules, and laws, but if I cannot change your heart, nothing is going to change.”
And that was just the beginning. The students and educators from both cities—who comprised 40 teams from 20 high schools across each city—then spent eight weeks designing and piloting solutions to the challenges around them. They showcased their work in a competition; three teams from Philadelphia and one team from Chicago will present their solutions at the Aspen Ideas Festival this summer.