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Welcome Remarks: 2022 Aspen Ideas: Health

June 22, 2022  • Daniel R. Porterfield

Aspen Institute President and CEO Dan Porterfield delivered the below welcome remarks at the 2022 Aspen Ideas: Health opening session on June 22, 2022 in Aspen, CO. Follow him on twitter @DanPorterfield.

I’m Dan Porterfield, President and CEO of the Aspen Institute. Please join me in thanking all 10 presenters of Big Ideas. I guess my big idea is that all of you and convenings like this one play a decisive role in the building of a free, just, and equitable society, which is the mission of the Aspen Institute. 

There’s no substitute for dialogue, debate, facts, science, research, inclusion, collaboration, questions, and, yes, principled disagreement, in the service of building a more perfect world. 

That’s what democracy is all about and it’s what the Aspen Institute is all about. 

Let me begin by thanking Ruth Katz, Natalie Johnson, Elliot Gerson, the Aspen Ideas: Health team, and many from across the Institute for their tenacious work to bring us together safely. One time, William Butler Yeats wrote a poem celebrating the greatest leaders in Ireland. He called them “those passionate, public serving kind.” Google that line today, and you see a picture of Ruth Katz. 

My thanks to our underwriters, our partners, our speakers, our guests, and our trustees like Mt. Sinai CEO Ken Davis—who is one of the greatest public servants I have ever worked with.

We’re all here to protect public health and promote the public good, globally, with honest factual information.

We’re here to understand and address the social determinants of health inequities.

We’re here to empower communities to frame and solve their own problems and learn together as a trusting, beloved community.

We’re here to raise health equity on the national agenda even though there are so many other things to worry about in a world wobbling like a top.

There have been too many devastating lessons to count through these tragic times, with more than a million pandemic deaths alone in this, the richest country in the history of countries. But pessimism, cynicism, fatalism, finger-pointing, and not-my-problem-ism are not the answer.

The answer is for all of us in public health, medicine, business, education, philanthropy, government, the arts, and all communities to come together in a can-do spirit of pluralistic, humanistic optimism.   

The next few days will give us a chance to examine some big issues, like:

  • How misinformation influences our health.
  • The intersection of gun violence and public health.
  • The impact of the climate crisis on our health.
  • How to prevent the next pandemic and promote global health.
  • The intersection of these and other crises.

It’s also a great privilege to welcome you knowing that we have two former HHS Secretaries in the house—Alex Azar, and my former boss and mentor, Donna Shalala.

Donna served for eight years—every single day of the Clinton administration. Some of the greatest lessons that I’ve learned came from four years helping her and supporting her vision. 

And so, I have to confess, knowing Secretary Shalala would be here, I got a little nervous. This is the first time in 30 years that I’ve ever spoken in front of her. 

So, to think this through, I reached out to David Letterman, to see if he had any advice for me. I told him a little about lessons learned from Donna—and two days later, an email appeared in my inbox with a few ideas about what I might say to you tonight. 

So, straight from David Letterman, here are The Top Ten Words of Wisdom that HHS Secretary Donna Shalala shared with her staff.

Number 10: Make sure the table is inclusive so that everyone can help frame and solve the problem.

Number 9: Always include the civil servants in the work that the political appointees are entrusted to carry out. It will lead to better policy and better practice.

Number 8: Check your egos and your privilege at the door. This is about serving the public good. 

Number 7: The best solutions demand that we work across the aisle. 

Number 6: Fund and practice prevention. 

Number 5: Invest in science and build systems to measure and track results. 

Number 4: Think about systems. Our policies shouldn’t be one-offs. They’re interrelated and their impact is integrated.

Number 3: It’s important to make steady, incremental progress—and to be ready to take a big step when it’s possible.

Number 2: Our policies need to be about children, youth, and families. Adults need to help protect them.

And, the Number 1 word of wisdom imparted by HHS Donna Shalala to her staff: When it comes to public service and public leadership, make a difference every single day… and have fun. 

Thank you, Secretary Shalala. These are the kinds of lessons that last a lifetime—and that jumpstart a great conference as we all seek to save lives, save futures, and expand health equity. 

Thank you all for being here.