Civic Action

The Future of our Planet: Let’s Engage and Inspire our Youth

November 6, 2018  • Dan Porterfield

Aspen Institute President and CEO Dan Porterfield delivered remarks at a Youth Workshop for the Institute’s international partners on November 5, 2018 in Washington, DC. Follow him on Twitter @DanPorterfield.

Thank you, Clare, for that kind introduction, and for your leadership on our Board of Trustees in cultivating the international network we have gathered here this evening. And my thanks to Jonathon, Calli, Elliot, and their teams here at the Aspen Institute for organizing both this evening and tomorrow’s convening.

And I would also like to extend my profound gratitude to Mike and Jackie for making all of this possible. Thank you so much.

It’s great to meet Ron, Andrew, and Chris—all working with the Bezos Family Foundation in different ways.

I’m so pleased that so many of our policy program directors, our Chief of Staff Jim Spiegelman, and my wife Karen Herrling are with us this evening. Thank you for making the time.

It is a great pleasure to welcome all of you—our international partners and friends—here to Washington, DC and to the Aspen Institute. We are so glad that you are here with us to talk and think together about how we can create a global network in support of the aspirations and talents of young people.

No pressure, but this is an historic moment. It’s remarkable to see gathered here leaders from all ten current international Aspens, our future #11, and so many leaders from the United States team. This is the first time that we have gathered up as one around a theme for future collaboration. It’s the ideal topic – young people – so critical to all our countries and the world—and if we come up with a promising project during these days together, we could launch a new chapter in the history of our global collaboration.

As I said, no pressure. But to say it directly, today’s young people need our help. The simple fact is that virtually no one prioritizes children and youth in the political processes of our countries. Children don’t have lobbyists and funded special interest groups elevating their voices. Every society addresses the needs of the moment and the needs of the loud, and that all too often leaves children’s needs on the sideline, which is counterproductive given that young people are the future of our planet.

The future of our planet is Pablo Sanchez Santeufemia in Spain who co-founded Bridge for Billions, a digital incubator for young entrepreneurs and change makers who live far from traditional innovation hubs, mentors, and investors. Through Bridge for Billions, Pablo and his partners help shrink the geographic distance between ideas, scale, and impact.

The future of our planet is Diana-Elena Ciobanu in Romania who founded an NGO committed to improving the standard of living in her country by supporting community-based innovations in infrastructure, food waste, and thermal insulation. Diana-Elena says, “I have always wanted to help people…It is the one thing that gives me a personal sense of accomplishment and my greatest source of faith and enthusiasm.”

And the future of our planet is Nanami Miura in Japan, who in fifth grade survived the 2011 tsunami and evacuated to a new school where she was bullied relentlessly because of her displacement. Now, as a high school senior Nanami shares her story—of loss, of change, of bullying, of resilience—and describes the damage indifference can do before audiences across her country. Nanami is a role model for young survivors looking for hope and inspiration.

Young people are the future of the planet. They are our greatest natural resource. They are the ones who have the capacity right now to be and make the change our world needs.

Our job, as caring adults, is to see and hear them, to engage them, to involve ourselves with them, to listen to them, and to invest in them. And, for goodness’ sake, our job is to solve some of the problems in our world that we should have dealt with long ago so that they don’t have to deal with them later.

Some of you may know that I was educated by the Jesuits in both high school and college at Georgetown University—and the approaches that make that Order a global force of learning and youth development had a lasting impact on me. The Jesuits were founded in the 16th century by a former Spanish soldier, Ignatius of Loyola, and are active, of course, in most of your countries. Much of the work I’ve done with young people my entire life—in prisons, with opportunity youth, with homeless and undocumented youth, in the developing world, and with college students—come from that formation.

There are three concepts within Jesuit thought that I’d like to invoke today in order to organize my remarks. Of course, the Jesuits introduced these and many other important ideas in a religious context, but, this evening, I’m speaking in purely secular terms.

The first concept is the notion of Cura Personalis: “Care for the whole person.”

By whole person, we mean that each of us has intellectual, physical, emotional, spiritual, political, sexual, familial, cultural, and social dimensions to our identity. Especially when working with the young, we need to remember the range of their forming identities. As educators and citizens, I believe we are called to understand the human person as a unique collection of assets and capabilities and yearnings and hopes and questions and gifts.

One aspect of the whole person that’s often understated is that all people are embedded in relationships not only with our families and our immediate communities, but with people all across the world in disparate contexts and circumstances—people we have never met but somehow their lives, and ours, are interconnected and interdependent. The notion of the whole person means, to paraphrase Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., “I can never be all that I am meant to be unless you are all that you are meant to be.” It’s up to us to cultivate that other-oriented sensibility in the young and to celebrate that magnanimity of spirit when we see it. All of this is part of the asset-based approach to working with young people that I believe we all share.

The second concept is called the “composition of place,” which was St. Ignatius’s method to help him see clearly all the circumstances in a situation so he could make the most free and grounded decision.

We compose the place when we look at a circumstance impacting our lives, or someone else’s, as comprehensively as possible.

Composing the place turns stillness into an active exercise of introspection that raises our attentiveness to each other and increases our awareness of the potential alive inside us. It can mean listening to one another, seeing and bearing witness for one another, using our ability to reach out and touch and to breath deeply so we can fully grasp the present and begin to grapple with the opportunities and challenges before us.

I’d like to propose that we attempt to “compose the place” for young people in the world today.

There are enormous dynamics—positive and negative—relevant to youth development that are pretty much consistent around the world. They include, for example:

  • The earlier and earlier onset of puberty.
  • Increasing feelings of isolation, loneliness, and social pressures—in the United States, this includes rising rates of opioid addiction and youth suicide.
  • A feeling of greater connectedness through technology, but also exposure to lies and hate through media and even addiction to electronic devices.
  • Physical issues, like both obesity on the one hand and the tyranny of thinness-obsession on the other
  • The needs and challenges faced in all cultures by girls. You can frame this in terms of particular issues, some in one culture, some in another, but in truth what it all comes down to is the power imbalance that still limits the lives of girls and women in ways we most address.
  • The critical importance of education for longer term empowerment and economic security.
  • The reality that young people are going to be employed in a world of work where the jobs are changing fast and almost every young person is inheriting a growing, greying world that expects them to support the retiring generation.
  • The question of identity and changing notions of who is a person and how one’s gender identity, culture, and sexual identity are lived today. New openness, new fluidity, new questions.
  • All the dynamics associated with globalization and exponential technological change—from fear of job loss to political polarization, and from the greying of many societies to the clash of cultures, now in closer proximity to one another.

Many of society’s most pressing challenges cross borders and require us to remember how mutually-dependent we are—like climate change, terrorism, the spread of infectious disease, and global economic instability. The butterfly effect has never been more true.

There’s so much we need to learn. That’s why, as Jackie and Mike know, research that helps us compose the place for youth is key. Information sharing is critical. Learning to apply research in promising ways is essential. We need to understand what youth in various countries are experiencing and learning and have freedom of exchange and partnership. We need to compose the place for our young people and care for the entire person—every person.

Our agenda together should be grounded in research, cultural respect, a positive mindset, and be future-focused. Together, our many Aspens should explore the development of a multi-national youth agenda and treat that agenda as one of our highest priority items—a “preferential option” if you will.

This is the third concept I’d like to invoke: the notion of a preferential option for young people.

When I was a student at Georgetown University, some of my Jesuit professors taught us about the concept of a “preferential option for the poor”—the notion that, from a Catholic perspective, we should prioritize the needs of the poor and the vulnerable, rather than coming to their needs last. This was a new idea proposed by theologians who believed that people with privilege—of class, of race, of political power, of wealth—should work to share resources and a place at the table with the marginalized and the defenseless.

I’m speaking, again, in secular terms, not religious ones, when I say that our countries and our institutions should reflect upon the value of creating a preferential option for young people—by that I mean an active choice to compose the place of the young in such a way that we see them holistically and consider their needs early and not later—at the top of our agendas, not last.

It means that we should include young people in decision-making intentionally, not as an afterthought.

It means that we should invest more and not less in the talent of the young.

It means that we should develop a youth agenda in research and public policy and system reform.

And it means that we should muster all the political courage it takes to fix those problems today that will disrupt the lives of today’s young people tomorrow.

A “preferential option” for youth means we should engage, inspire, educate, equip, and empower young people and help them replace the tired and isolating “isms” of division and difference with fresh ideas founded on equality, fairness, and respect for the dignity of each person on our fragile planet.

We can do this. The Aspen Institute and its global partners can do this. As a non-partisan convener, we are well-equipped and well-positioned to develop a powerful youth agenda.

We are creating this youth agenda by listening to young people, like we did at the Young European Leaders seminar, inaugurated last year in Italy and organized by the Aspen Initiative for Europe, Aspen Institute Italia, and Aspen Institute España.

It brought together 25 leaders from 16 countries all under the age of 35 and hailing from diverse professional backgrounds to discuss citizenship and identity, to debate welfare and war, and to imagine the future of Europe in a changing and interconnected world.

We are creating this youth agenda through efforts like our recent Project Play Summit, which Tom Farrey and our Sports & Society Program organized; the Ascend program’s two-gen strategy for supporting families holistically, which Anne Mosle leads; the Aspen Young Leaders Fellowship, which John Dugan is leading, to focus on helping youth turn their passion into purpose; and so many other efforts, from the Center for Native American Youth to the Education & Society Program; from the SEAD Commission to the Stevens Initiative, and from the Aspen Opportunity Youth Forum to the Aspen Challenge and Bezos Scholars—and so much more.

We have a collection of resources that is unparalleled, and with your leadership, our best days are ahead of us when it comes to making transformational impacts for children, youth, and families.

And why again does this matter?

Because young people are this planet’s greatest natural resource. Each young person has human dignity, and no one is more human than anyone else.

We hear and see the power of the young every day in our home countries. As I conclude these remarks, I’d like to share with you one recent setting in which this power became powerfully present to me.

It was at last July’s Resnick Aspen Action Forum…

We heard the power of the young in the words of Salvador Gomez Colon, who survived Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico and immediately got to work raising funds for solar lights and hand powered washing machines so his community could begin to recover some semblance of normality.

“Age is just a number,” said Salvador. ““It shouldn’t define your maturity, responsibility, or potential to do good and take action.”

We also heard the power of the young in the words of Araceli Ramirez from Dallas who told us, “You can do anything in this world” and Augustus Harris from Philadelphia who said, “when you are passionate about something, go for it.”

And we heard the power of the young in the words of Kayla Schaefer and Olivia Wesch from Parkland, Florida and Ke’Shon Newman from Chicago standing up and speaking out against gun violence in their schools and communities.

It was powerful to hear young people who have experienced very different manifestations of gun access and gun violence reach for common ground and common cause that day. Each heard and validated the others’ experiences.

And yet the panel veered off into a disturbing direction for a surprising reason. You see, the moderator—a famous and older journalist—showed absolutely no empathy with his questions and comments. He kept asking these brave youth why they presumed to think, as mere teenagers, that their ideas would have any impact on gun policy in this country. I think he was trying to come off as fair-minded and tough, but to me, and many others, he just looked cold and cynical.

At the end of the discussion, however, we saw the antidote to the cynicism of an older generation. As the journalist was leaving the stage, three teenagers from rural Colorado ran up and hugged Kayla, Olivia, and Ke’Shon. There were tears in their eyes but smiles on their faces. You see, these teenagers had suffered in yet another way—losing five peers in their school over the prior 18 months to gun-enabled suicide.

Three groups of teens came together that night—rural, urban, and suburban. They shared their pain and their fears. Each was a survivor of trauma—and each chose to confront the trauma by giving voice to it and hopefully making something regenerative out of tragedies that harmed their hearts but not their goodness.

They said they wanted change. I say this: If those teenagers can have the courage to step forward and join hands, then tomorrow we can put our hearts and minds and voices together to in support of new efforts to empower the young.

Tomorrow, we will convene on topics like the latest research on early and adolescent brain development, civic and community engagement, how to measure leadership development, technology and education, and more in order to advance this conversation. We will share best practices from our US youth programs and from our international young leaders’ programs.

Developing an action agenda grounded in research and best practices culture by culture is not just the right thing to do; it’s the smart thing to do. The future of our planet depends upon it. Thanks for listening.