A Scholar’s Perspective Exploring Nuance
Woven among the crowd like the magenta panels flowing nonchalantly from conference room ceilings, the Scholars brought a pop of color, brightness, balance, and expansive energy to the Aspen Ideas Festival. Following an opening reception soaked in Hurricanes, through brief introductions the vast and varied levels of experience, expertise, and exceptionalism of this unique group were revealed. There was a rocket scientist. There was an organizer working to support refugees and immigrants. There was an author. There was an academic working to combat the effects of structural racism on birth outcomes for women of color. There was a filmmaker. There was a woman expanding reproductive rights and access by designing tampons out of bamboo. There was a common unifying purpose of people working around the world to foment equity and opportunity for communities and individuals that don’t have the privilege to spend four days thinking about thinking. As stated during her introduction, one woman noted that the few of us gathered under that tent “seemed to be doers,” and our goal was to figure out how to make the ideas we were learning actionable — figure out how to bring them back and apply them to community-based solutions.
The Festival provided me with much more than ideas. It provided me with conversations. And not just surface level, “wow, these mountains are beautiful,” or “what did you think about the opening comedy night?” kinds of conversations. They weren’t just conversations with attendees, either. They seemed to spring eternal with everyone I encountered, and also seemed to parallel the big ideas being discussed at Doerr-Hosier or Paepcke. From my taxi driver that was craving boudin from his days working for oil companies in Louisiana to my Uber driver that looks forward to the random rider he meets for the first time yet recognizes their soul like a childhood best friend. From the driver of the bus from Snowmass to Aspen that expressed his concern for the psyche of the thousands of workers whose jobs would be rendered useless in the near future, particularly those in retail. To the driver of the shuttle service from the airport to The Gant that discussed how the urban/rural divide impacted his knowledge/understanding of nearby towns where he grew up in New York. From the man in the checkout line at City Market that used his discount card to help me out with my groceries. To the fellow Black travelers at the airport Sunday morning that gravitated towards each other to discuss the contrasting positive energy of seeing Lizz Wright’s performance at a tribute to Ella Fitzgerald with the inauspicious feeling as holiday weekend revelers descended upon the city that we were transported into a scene from Get Out that hit the cutting room floor (beware of any teacups). As disparate as they may have been, every conversation engaged with the themes of connection, community, and the collective American spirit (or, in all cases, the lack thereof).
My vocal participation wasn’t always necessary at the Festival itself as the sessions provoked mental conversations that were anything but one-sided.
As a creative, how can bending, breaking, and blending concepts, imagery, and art forms produce fresh ideas and catalyze innovative change? What’s the difference between boredom and solitude, and can we engage in both mindfulness and mind wandering? How can leaning into boredom catalyze creativity?
If some of the founding fathers owned slaves (shout out to John Adams), are they overrated? How does the powerful simplicity of Cory Booker’s anecdote that Stokely Carmicheal used to say “Constitute. Constitute. I can only say 3/5 of the word” impact one’s assessment of their legacy?
What can we learn from high school students in Philadelphia and Chicago that designed, implemented, evaluated and presented robust solutions to major systemic issues such as food waste, balancing emotional health alongside nutrition and physical exercise, and bringing teenagers and police officers together to foster mutual trust and understanding? How can we listen more to our youth and provide them with opportunities to wow us with their abilities?
How do we create brave spaces instead of safe spaces? How do we deal with the nebulous dust cloud of hate that has arisen from the toppled statue (Take ’Em Down) of a post-racial America as it’s chimerical foundation and façade magnificently crumble?
Will embracing a carbon dividends plan that boasts benefits for the bottom 70% of Americans and unites the likes of both Exxon Mobil and The Nature Conservancy be a key step in the fight against climate change? Where do we stand with the future withdrawal from the Paris Accords, and were they even enough to ensure a hopeful future for today’s toddlers and benefit all nations (developing included) equitably?
How can we provide training and new skills to truck drivers, radiologists and other workers whose jobs are threatened by artificial intelligence in the almost immediate future? And what does A.I. really mean? Do we realize that many things we already use on a daily basis, from Amazon’s Alexa to GPS, is a form of A.I.? If it’s already so integrated into our lives, why do we fear it so?
How do we deal with the awful sinful cancer eroding our democracy that is the criminal justice system? Many can’t even see the suffering of someone living 20 minutes away. So what does it take to eradicate the poverty of empathy in our country when it seems as though Ralph Ellison’s concept of invisibility is coming back?
In between overdosing on cold pressed juices and pistachios, these thoughts swirled into a maelstrom throughout my head. This eddy of information confounded me and honestly overwhelmed me as I thought through all of the intersecting issues I want to work on at once. And STAT! But although my system may be overloaded, it has also been rebooted. Instead of being scared of the daunting social, political, and systemic issues that are at a heightened level of concern in the current chapter of America, being in this space provided the opportunity to connect with multiple, highly competent and passionate people fiercely committed to turning ideas into new realities. As a scholar through the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the prescription of my eternal contact lenses is a 20/20 vision of a Culture of Health. Whether through a documentary or a tweet, my objective is to discover, devise and deliver upon varied ways to improve the health and well-being of my local and glocal community. And regardless of the explicit focus of each session, idea, or conversation, the recurring motif was the creation of true, meaningful connections. And even more, as David Brooks so eloquently posited, connections based in and surrounded by love. Ultimately, that is the basis of our Culture of Health.
It seems like such a simple takeaway from such a complex and cerebral set of days, yet if it were so simple why don’t we see examples of these connections more readily in our everyday interactions, news, and current events? Connections that overcome fear and establish blind trust. Connections that focus on how you can give rather than what you can get. Connections that, as ephemeral as they may be, open your eyes to the lived experiences and realities of people that are radically different than everything you know, everything you represent. Connections that expose your deepest vulnerabilities and embrace your authentic, even lowest, self. These are the building blocks of a collaborative society that values the next person’s health and well-being as much as their own. From the 10-year strong festival goers to the budding friendships forged climbing Ute Trail, connections were abundant at the Festival. As I travel farther and farther both literally and figuratively away from Aspen, I will work to sustain and fortify my new connections (like the chance encounter on a shuttle ride with my brother’s wife’s line sister from my husband’s home town). The future conversation and challenge I pose to others from my experience is how to create brave spaces to incubate connections that astronomically benefit the most vulnerable on individual, community, and societal levels. That’s my big idea.
Iman Shervington is the Director of Media & Communications at the Institute of Women & Ethnic Studies and an RWJF Culture of Health Leader.