Civic Action

Where Tradition and Disruption Meet Progress

November 10, 2018  • Dan Porterfield

Aspen Institute President and CEO Dan Porterfield delivered remarks at the 25th Annual Awards Dinner on November 8, 2019 in New York City. Follow him on Twitter at @DanPorterfield.

Good evening, everyone, and thank you for joining us for the Aspen Institute’s 35th Annual Awards Dinner.

Let us first thank all who planned, prepared, and served this meal.

I’d like to express my gratitude to all attendees, to our many Dinner Vice Chairs and, most of all, our extraordinary Dinner Chair and Trustee, Mercedes Bass.

Each year, we convene in New York City in the fall to honor distinguished leaders whose words and deeds are an example for all.

The Aspen Institute believes that leadership rooted in enduring humanistic values is essential to the future of our society.

We believe that each of us can make a difference and all of us should try.

And this is why we are here tonight celebrating and honoring Bill Browder and Sarah Jessica Parker—two citizens of the world doing work that both protects and inspires.

We all know that this an anxious era in which many people feel cynical, fearful, powerless, and stuck.

What can make a difference? The work and the values of the Aspen Institute.

We find leaders and foster their growth.

We frame problems and uncover solutions.

We create networks of leaders and help groups achieve together.

We confront issues others find too hard and advance ideas that will take us to impact.

We use the tools of reason and evidence-based debate so that we can have not fewer arguments but better ones.

We invest in the young and a future theirs to help make.

We work at the crossroads where left and right meet center; where the public and private sectors meet civil society; where science and social science meet humanism; where tradition and disruption meet progress; and where idealism and realism meet aspiration.

We support the great organs of a working democracy—like the vote and the free press and the independent judiciary—which seem so easy to sustain…until they aren’t.

And we believe in the idea of human dignity—the twin notions that every single person all across the world has equal value and that no one is more human than anyone else.

The Aspen Institute an iconic force of good with a bold future of service to humanity—so needed now, more than ever.

There are many reasons to support this Institute. The worldwide rise of tribalism is one. The erosion of the middle class is a second. The warming of the planet is a third.

But the best reason to support us is the trust that we have earned. To illuminate, let me close with a story.

Last week, we teamed up with Bloomberg Philanthropies and The Atlantic to host the sixth annual CityLab conference, this year in the turnaround city of Detroit.

During CityLab, I met a young son of Detroit named James Feagin who offered profound insights about community renewal during a discussion led by our colleague, David Brooks.

A few days later, Mr. Feagin sent me an email. And I’d like to read a couple of highlights now:

From the moment I was first exposed to the institute a few years ago via a project with MIT Media Lab, I’ve been in love with everything about it. Never could I have imagined I’d be able to engage the way I have.

First came a morning talk with Peter Reiling at Forward Cities, then a scholar nomination for Aspen Ideas Festival 2017, then this magical past week in Detroit.  

I could go on and on about how this relationship has impacted the way I think about the world, and my work, but for now I’ll just say thank you for creating something so beautiful that can allow a young brotha from the Eastside of Detroit feel like he’s made it to the world stage, all while simply working to make his city better.

My relationship with the Aspen Institute has allowed me to engage with some of the brightest minds on the planet and think at greater scale about the challenges that drive me, both locally and beyond. Thank you so much.

Sometimes being told “thank you” makes you want to work harder to be worthy of the honor. For me, this thank you from one of Detroit’s “drum majors for justice” is one of those times.

Let us continue to be that force which works with and for others, our path forward lit by the lamp of justice, hopeful and hard-working, inspired by those we accompany, determined to leave this fragile world—in every way that we can know—ever more advanced and ever more a place of freedom because of our endeavors.

Thank you.

It is now my pleasure to introduce someone known well to many in this room—a “singular sensation” and an inspiration to all who work for equity, justice, and opportunity—one of the guiding lights of the turn-around that has revived the City of Detroit—the president of the Ford Foundation, Darren Walker, who will present the Aspen Institute Public Service Award and then engage our honoree in conversation.

Thank you, Darren.