Around the Institute

Breakthroughs in the Borderlands

July 24, 2019  • Daniel R. Porterfield

Aspen Institute President and CEO Dan Porterfield delivered the opening keynote for the 2019 Resnick Aspen Action Forum on July 24, 2019 in Aspen, CO. Follow him on Twitter @DanPorterfield.

I’m Dan Porterfield, President and CEO of the Aspen Institute. Welcome to the 2019 Resnick Aspen Action Forum.

We just heard ten AGLN Fellows make pledges ranging from preventing China-phobia to promoting primary health care in Lagos, and from creating tomorrow’s cybersecurity leaders to propelling Atlanta Public Schools students into lives of opportunity.

How inspiring! In spirit, they remind me of a bold border-crossing action pledge made 57 years ago by a young American president:

“We choose to go to the Moon! We choose to go to the Moon…We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard; because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one we intend to win, and the others, too.”

Last week the world honored, yes, the achievement of putting human beings on the moon—and, more broadly, we honored the universal, unquenchable human fire to do and make the most with our lives. And that is the fire of creativity that we rekindle each year at this Forum.

If John F. Kennedy were alive today, this is where he’d want to be. And I think he’d love this year’s theme—Borders: Within and Around Us—because he knew that every great breakthrough begins at the borderlands between the imagined and the enacted, between sadness and a solution, between the realism of the old and the restlessness of the young.

There are many visionary Kennedy-esque, moon-shooting, border-breaking leaders right here in our midst to whom we owe a great deal of thanks for making this year’s Forum possible.

Thank you to the Aspen Institute’s Leadership Division, especially David Langstaff,

Tommy Loper, and Olivia O’Neil, and their entire team.

Thank you to all of our sponsors, including:

  • David Rubenstein
  • Mike Klein and Joany Fabry
  • Margot and Tom Pritzker
  • The team from Mastercard, including Shamina Singh, Hai Ling, Parag Mehta, and Jenny Urizar.
  • Paul Hastings LLP— especially Meg Sullivan.
  • The Skoll Foundation—including CEO Don Gips, Sarah Borgman, and the five Skoll Awardees who are here.
  • The Bezos Family Foundation: Mike, thank you for being here, and welcome Bezos Scholars!
  • The John P. and Anne Welsh McNulty Foundation—thank you, Anne, for being here, and for the announcement this week of the 12th cohort of McNulty Prize Laureates who we’ll hear from later today.

And, of course, please join me in thanking the sensational couple whose vision and generosity make this possible: Lynda and Stewart Resnick. We’re especially excited this year to have 10 Resnick Fellows from the Central Valley communities.

You can feel the energy in this room. A record turnout: Nearly 500 participants!

247 are AGLN Fellows—our most ever—and more than 40 percent are here for the first time.

Our participants come from nearly 30 countries.

More than half are women.

And, more than 120 are youth.

Welcome to all of you and thank you for being here.

I’ll start with a short reflection on this year’s theme, and then share a few updates on progress we’re making as an Institute since last year’s convening.

First, on Friday, we had hoped to see a production of the extraordinary play, Borders by Henry Naylor. However, in a moment of life imitating art, we just learned that the actor who was to play the character Sebastien will not be here because, ironically, he was denied a visa to enter the United States.

This experience is a reminder that borders and boundaries can prevent the dialogue, contact, and breakthrough that enable growth.

Sometimes we stand before a border forced to make a choice we really don’t want to make, which places our own powerlessness in stark relief.

However, I like to think of borders not as absolute, impermeable barriers, but rather as borderlands—meaning, the terrains that lead up to and encompass the border itself.

Credit: JR

This is the Mexico-US border, and all these fellow human beings are sharing a meal in fellowship and solidarity at a table that connects the two borderlands and is adorned with the eyes of a Dreamer.

Such borderlands are places of fused culture and critical insight and self-discovery and envisioned transcendence.

Even when borders seem like impenetrable walls, the borderlands are places of possibility.

To illustrate how this point manifests itself on a personal level, let’s reflect upon those individuals who stand with self-awareness on their inner borderlands leading up to a seemingly strict border of personal identity, and then have the guts to choose affirmatively to blur or bend or cross or erase those lines.

For example, I admire the way Mayor Pete—an Aspen Institute Rodel Fellow—put it in a recent speech about his decision to come out:

“On leave to serve in Afghanistan, I was seized with the awareness that I could be killed in action at the age of 33…with no idea what it was like to be in love. I knew that I had to be who I am.”

This forum is an opportunity to ask: What interior borders would you like to accentuate or think through or cross past—and can that self-understanding help you take action to break down barriers that exist for others?

My belief is that the answers to that question come from the borderlands, which is why our focus here on borders is so promising and so productive.

Now, I’d like to give you a brief update on some major happenings and new directions at the Institute, some of which are emerging from our own organizational borderlands.

First, this year we have strengthened our understanding of the most inspiring and empowering attributes of the Aspen Institute’s identity.

Guided by Lynda Resnick, we’ve undertaken the most in-depth strategic positioning research in the Institute’s history. Many of you took part through interviews, focus groups, or surveys. Thank you.

Strong brand research helps an institution understand how it is viewed and valued by its diverse stakeholders. Ultimately, the brand identity we sustain guides the promises we make, the goals we set, the organizational culture we build, and the way we talk about ourselves in the public space.

Lynda and I are finalizing a report we’re making to the Institute’s Board of Trustees next week, and we wanted to give you a sneak peek at a few findings that we think you’ll find energizing:

  1. First, 95 percent of AGLN Fellows who responded to our survey said they have a positive or extremely positive view of the Aspen Institute and would recommend us to others—this is the highest among all stakeholder groups. Thank you.
  2. Second, there was widespread support for the Institute’s historic vision of a free, just, and equitable society, and for our longstanding practice of open and inclusive dialogue.
  3. And third, most striking to me, was the call for action—for solutions, progress, results, and impact. The historians of the future may say that the Resnick Aspen Action Forum was the first systemic expression of this yearning within our community to make real, sustainable differences in the world.

The Fellows of the AGLN are the path-breakers who embody the Aspen Institute ideal of Action Inspired—and you’ll see this emphasis grow in the years to come. Thank you.

Second, this year we’re actively strengthening the Leadership Division of the Institute—to enhance our success building networks of values-driven leaders who make positive change.

All the enhancements I’m about to describe come from the values-driven leadership of a particular individual, David Langstaff—an experienced moderator who rode into Aspen on a unicorn when we had a leadership vacancy in May of 2018, asked questions and listened, partnered with our champions Margot Pritzker and Bill Mayer, and then began taking smart steps to create a culture of teamwork.

To summarize just a few of the actions David has led:

  • To protect the moral center of the AGLN, we’ve increased our commitment to the training, expansion, and reach of the Aspen Institute moderator corps and at this Action Forum we will recognize at various moments three icons of moderator excellence: Keith Berwick, Skip Battle, and Ben Dunlap.
  • To avoid the mistake of resting on our laurels, we’ve launched an evaluation of the ways we capture and communicate our impact as Fellowship programs and as a network, while also developing the tools and frameworks for future measurement and evaluation.
  • To widen our reach, we’ve incorporated our youth leadership programs into the division with tremendous vision by John Dugan and many colleagues. And I’m especially pleased that our Aspen Young Leaders Fellowship—sparked by Henry Crown Fellow Scott Bush—had an outstanding year in Newark, St. Louis, and the Mississippi Delta.
  • To build clarity of staff roles and sustainable funding, David has created two new roles: Our first director of development, Sasha Borowsky, and our first chief of staff, Maribel Duran.
  • And, to extend our ability to run the best leadership network in the world and to better accompany Fellows on lifelong journeys of growth and service, David created the new senior role of Vice President for the AGLN to work directly with all of you and blow open the doors of opportunity for you within the Institute as a whole. And then he conducted a national search and recruited into that role a highly-accomplished attorney, professor, and public servant; a Liberty Fellow; a moderator extraordinaire: John Simpkins.

All of this organizational work speaks to the third development since last year: We’re lifting our aspirations.

One way we’re doing that is through the launch of a valuable new AGLN fellowship: the Civil Society Fellowship, in partnership with the Anti-Defamation League, which was developed by Henry Crown Fellows Jonathan Greenblatt and Nike Irvin, who is here today.

The Civil Society Fellowship will bring together community leaders, activists, and problem-solvers from across the political spectrum. It’s like our other new program, Weave: The Social Fabric Project, which David Brooks leads—in that it reflects our growing emphasis on investing in local leaders who roll up their sleeves to bring people together and get things done.

I’m pleased to tell you that our inaugural class for the Civil Society Fellowship had more than 200 nominations for 20 spots—there’s a societal hunger for excellence in this area and our future Resnick Aspen Action Fora will be even better because these colleagues will join us.

Another way we’re lifting our sights is by creating projects and initiatives that invite and require collaboration across the Institute—reaching for larger impact and garnering bigger investments—as a complement to and elevation of our programmatic work.

Let me give you an example. Led by David Langstaff and the leader of our Policy Programs, Elliot Gerson, we’re building a cross-Institute initiative to address the question: “In an era of accelerating change, how do we promote inclusive opportunity and economic growth for all?”

You’ll see this theme throughout the Forum, including during a peer consultancy on Thursday with Henry Crown Fellow Shamina Singh, who leads the Mastercard Center for Inclusive Growth, and during a topical dialogue on Friday featuring the Finance Leaders Fellowship and our policy program on Financial Security.

The larger point is that we are all members of an Institution with unparalleled assets—our networks, our talent, our more than 60 programs, our Trustees, our partners, our 11 global Aspens, our locations, our convenings and platforms, our methods of making change, our inspiring story of origins and the Bauhaus aesthetic we experience on this majestic campus—and so it’s time for us to work across our silos—our borders, if you will—to develop bigger and more aspirational concepts that will allow us to exercise our full powers.

Looking ahead, there’s a third way I hope to see us reach higher—and it emerges out of our bold AGLN ventures and the inspiring work of Fellows like our McNulty Prize Laureates and Braddock Scholars, some of whom are here today:

  • Like Hope Azeda, a McNulty Prize Laureate who founded the Ubumuntu Arts Festival, which supports peace-building by providing a platform for performing arts that deal with the social trauma of violence. And we’re so pleased that Hope will share her art with us a little bit later as a way of concluding this plenary session.
  • And like Cody Friesen, founder and CEO of Zero Mass Water and a Braddock Scholar, who, with his team, has figured out how to extract water from air, using nothing more than a solar electricity-powered panel, and is working to make clean water affordable and available across the planet.
  • And like Lisa Skeete Tatum, Founder and CEO of Landit, and also a Braddock Scholar, who through her technology platform is increasing the engagement of women in the workplace and enabling companies to attract, develop, and retain the most promising and talented employees.

There is tremendous power in the entrepreneurial bent of our Fellows—and in the unique support the Aspen Institute provides. I love the way the McNulty Prize puts fuel in the engines of Fellows’ ventures to help them go faster and farther. And I love the way the Braddock Scholars program provides mentoring and community to successful creators as they embark upon the long journey to scale.

If we think about that yearning people have for the Aspen Institute to help make a disproportionate difference, there may be no more sure strategy than supporting the aspirations of our already highly-successful Fellows by creating new resources to help you grow your enterprises and impact. That’s why as we enter a process of Institute-wide strategic planning in the coming year—where we will identify major, new cross-cutting initiatives—we will put the theme of “finding and scaling entrepreneurial solutions” on the front burner.

And that’s what the AGLN and the Resnick Aspen Action Forum are all about—setting and chasing after Big Hairy Audacious Goals—”not because they are easy, but because they are hard. Challenges we are willing to accept and unwilling to postpone.”

And such goals require us to take the risk of change—crossing the borders of imagination, the borders of expectation, the borders of received wisdom, the borders of self-interest, the borders of achievement.

Ultimately, the border crossings that you make and the moon landings that you create represent breakthroughs that future generations will look to for inspiration—and as you take your great steps forward for humanity, there will be one other benefit that human beings only get when we dare to do something great:

It’s the new perspective that comes from the realization of our greatest aspirations.

Credit: NASA/JSC

To quote the poet T. S. Eliot:

We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.

Thank you and let’s make this the best Action Forum yet.

It’s now my pleasure to welcome to the podium John Simpkins.