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In conversation with Dan Porterfield

  • 12 min to read

Aspen Daily News editor Curtis Wackerle sat down on Friday morning with Dan Porterfield, who is entering his second year as president and CEO of the Aspen Institute, as the Aspen Ideas Festival got off to a start, now in its 15th year. What follows is a printed version of their conversation, which has been edited for clarity and length.

CW: You are appearing in conversation Sunday evening with former Aspen Institute President Walter Isaacson. What are you going to talk about?

DP: We are going to talk about civil society. How do we define the context today of civil discourse, civil society? And what are the responsibilities and opportunities of institutions to make a difference — universities, nonprofit organizations, foundations. Is there a new era for the independent sector to try and solve problems, bring the country together and promote values of free expression, respect and inclusion?

A major answer to that is to work to establish a cultural norm that each person deserves the benefit of the doubt, that each citizen has something to offer and that the positions that seem to divide are not more important than the humanity that unites us. And that we should model the active, respectful, loving engagement of one another whether we agree or disagree.

Critique and criticism is good. We need not fewer arguments but better arguments — arguments ground in reason and respect for one another and, if possible, in the joy of give and take that allows one to see a position you have in relationship to another’s position.

CW: You have a chance to demonstrate that in real life through the programming, speakers and engagement here at the Aspen Ideas Festival.

DP: It’s a model that allows for the notion that genuine dialogue is an act and an art of citizenship through which we come to appreciate how much more we have to learn and how much more others have to offer. I think that really is the spirit of Aspen as well — this notion of humility and engagement with one another as equal citizens with equal dignity, who have the good fortune to be in a place of natural beauty that reminds us of the gift that is existence and the beauty of the world that we are a part of, if we can allow ourselves to see it.

CW: For all the inequality and all the socio-economic issues that are in play here, I have always found that we are all the same on the hiking trail.

DP: That’s interesting — to create experiences that give us that affective feeling of bonding and of community. We have those experiences in nature, the awe and wonder of nature does exactly that. We also can have that experience in art. And we can have that experience in empathy, in the experience of pain, in the experience of joy. But we have to cultivate it because life and society is complex and we all get caught up in our own self regard, so I think the combination of civil discourse, natural beauty and reflection offers the opportunity for the discovery of self in relation to others.

CW: How is the Paepcke-era vision the Aspen Institute was founded on 70 years ago — nourishment for the mind, body, spirit — relevant today?

DP: Aspen has always stood for this triad of mind, body, spirit. And I would like to add, respectfully, one other element to that which is citizen. I don’t mean citizen as legal status, [though that is important], I mean citizen as engaged in a social relationship with people, some of whom we know, most of whom we don’t. But we are still in relationship to those with whom we share a community, a country, a state, a planet.

I think there is another way to think about the Walter and Elizabeth Paepcke experiment. They gathered people together to this place with its openness of opportunity to create community and to create a society within the society. The idea I believe we can trace all the way back to their understanding of why they were doing that is that we as people should be working to create a society that is free, just and equitable. Those are really big themes but we should have really big and lofty themes to unite the best work our mind can do. We should be pushing ourselves as human beings, to try to understand our greatest calling as people who happen to inhabit this planet for the time we are alive. And that is to leave behind a civilization, societies and communities that are better than the ones we were born into. And that sounds lofty and noble, but why should we have lower goals than that?

What is beautiful about the Aspen Institute is that 70 years from that big bang that the Paepckes catalyzed, you can see the trace elements of their thinking in the way the institute has grown. I don’t think they could have ever imagined that we would have over 60 programs serving the public good all around the world, all around the United States, in all sorts of local communities; that we would be putting our ideas into action, testing out the possibilities of difference making, not only talking about them. Nor do I think they could have envisioned communities in dialogue as diverse and inclusive as they are today, compared to where they started. But all those elements are there. They understood the power of evidence-based, reasoned dialogue, grounded in core readings. They understood the power of engaging the private sector in the act of thinking about social responsibility and how to create, in partnership with civil society and government, a working society. They understood the power of values-driven leadership, which is the opposite of transactional leadership or power-based leadership or self-regarding leadership. They understood the power of convening and that a convening that was important and powerful would create collisions of the mind that could open one to new ideas.

[The Institute is working in more than a dozen countries all over the world where people value open society.] To me it’s very inspiring to think about how that idea from 70 years ago has continued to expand, be adopted, appropriated, made relevant over and over. And I don’t think small ideas get embraced and then refined that way. It’s only big ideas.

CW: The Ideas Fest held three workshops on Saturday at the library in partnership with Pitkin County that focused on the health effects of an affordable housing crisis, mental health for first responders and how people cope with climate change. What do you hope will come out of these discussions?

DP: This year we have placed more emphasis on what is the next chapter of the Aspen Institute’s relationship with Aspen, Colorado. I think part of what our role should always be is to catalyze conversation, elevate voices and seek to surface issues that are important. I think the institute can also take a role, as long as it is a nonpartisan role, to try to gauge the direction of progress and try to nudge, encourage, support and evaluate efforts to make progress happen. I don’t know what we could do alone on the affordable housing crisis, or for that matter on needs of immigrant families and vulnerable people who are here. One thing is just to do something by getting involved. My wife just started working at Alpine Legal Services. What she’s doing is rolling up her sleeves and encountering the things that are part of people’s day-to-day lives. At a minimum there is that, but maybe there are ways to be structurally a contributor. Maybe we hold more symposia in the fall and winter on campus to bring people together. Could be that we partner with organizations like the Aspen Community Foundation to pitch in and respond to some unmet needs. I think it could be possible, if people in this community wanted it, for some of our policy leaders who work in Washington, D.C., and work on issues either in other communities or on a national level, to be resources here on things like community college excellence or expanding opportunities for youth to participate in recreation, or thinking about the future of work, the potential of portable benefits. These are all things we are doing out of D.C. and what I am hoping we will be able to create in the coming years is some regularity for our colleagues working on these issues through a policy lens in D.C. to be present and partners to the community here.

In April I held a series of meetings with members of the local business, government and nonprofit communities, and went out and visited a number of different efforts to make a difference. The themes that everybody mentioned were affordable housing; everybody mentioned the needs of immigrants, including the business community, who very definitely mentioned with great concern the people who are their employees being able to work and take care of their families. Those were predominant issues. And also when I was engaged with people with their lens looking toward the young, there was tremendous concern about level opportunity, about schooling that was not necessarily leading toward college opportunity, about some areas going to a four-day school week. So there is a lot to work on.

CW: What are you finding most striking about the broader community as you get to know it here?

DP: The broader community is passionate about Aspen, Colorado and the surrounding area. I love that — there is a sense that the community spirit is so strong. I have lived in big cities most of my life, so I like the intimacy, the connectedness, the pride of place, people knowing one another and the connection of people here with the environment. If you are in Washington, D.C., there’s a river, there’s the sky, but other than that, it’s not like being out in the natural world, the world that has been here for millennia. To be able to reflect and build a community that is in relationship with the natural environment, I like that a lot.

CW: How should we be thinking about or grappling with some of these socioeconomic, inequality divides that feel very prominent here?

DP: I don’t have one answer and I am not an expert, but in general, I think we should be looking to foster what I will call inclusive growth. And by that I mean the society we are a part of is blessed to have had some technological developments in the last 20 years that offer astounding opportunities for communication, for health care and for people in previously disconnected parts of the world to be in relationship with others, and that’s very exciting. At the same time, those very same developments threaten in all sorts of ways. They disrupt cultural norms in some places. Climate change is directly related to industrialization, to population growth. And then the communications revolution makes it ever more clear what the divide is between those that have opportunity and those that don’t.

When I think of the concept of inclusive growth, I think of the notion that we can build local, regional, state, national and global economies that expand in a way that allows those that have been more on the margins, more left out of opportunity, to join, to opt in. I think that one of the opportunities of our time — this is not Aspen specific — is to see how we can use education, economic development and the information technology revolution to make it possible for more communities to be able to have economically sustainable livelihoods in ways that give them the feeling of local autonomy. We should want for there to be more opportunities for people to make their living through culture, to make their living through the development of enterprises that use technology to connect people here to people elsewhere, to turn carbon reduction into a way of making a living. To invest young people in the opportunity to get an education that orients them both to the jobs that exist but also to the skills needed to adapt when those jobs change because of technological development. My belief is there should be a framework of seeking economic growth in a way that includes more people, more communities. The role of government, I believe, should be to provide a safety net that a), prevents people from being left behind if their basic needs aren’t met and b), addresses problems that can’t be solved at the local level at the national or global level so that people can have richness of life in their own communities.

CW: This is your second Aspen Ideas Festival as president of the Aspen Institute, after coming from your previous job as president of Pennsylvania’s Franklin & Marshall College in June 2018. Besides the obvious difference of it not being your second or third week on the job, what are you most excited to have a greater mastery of as you approach the festival?

DP: Last year, as I was going through the festival experience, I was meeting people, but I didn’t know anybody. I didn’t actually have a friend. So now I made a lot of friends last year that I can actually sit with. It’s like a new kid in school, wanting to have someone to sit with and to talk. So I am looking forward to seeing a lot of people again that I met last year. I’ve been back to Aspen four times since then, so also, I feel much more like I know where things are. And I’m listening and thinking, now seeing the festival through the lens of knowing Aspen a little better, what can we do next year that builds on what we did this year with Pitkin County Library?

CW: In 15 years of the Ideas Festival, what do you think has been accomplished?

DP: I think I’m a good person to ask that question because I am not so much inside the tent that I only see it from within. So I would say that one thing that has been accomplished is the concept of a festival of ideas has taken off. There are many imitators, which is great — or collaborators, I should say. Secondly — and this was something that we did at Franklin & Marshall — is the notion of common hours, where we don’t schedule classes for an hour and invited big speakers in. I think the idea of the speaker and the community coming together was popularized by the Aspen Ideas Festival. College campuses are a great place for this idea to take hold.

I also think what’s been accomplished is the Ideas Festival represents the opening of the doors and windows of the Aspen Institute to the broader public, which then created more imagination for how else can we do that with our programs. I think there was an era in the Aspen Institute’s history where it was relatively closed. I don’t say that critically, just that was how they worked, more behind closed doors than in open space. This really opened it up. This was one of Walter Isaacson’s great legacies and I think it’s made the institute a much richer and more socially engaged entity.

I would also say that the consequence of success is that many people know the Aspen Institute only through the Ideas Festival. In that sense, the Ideas Festival is an opportunity and a little bit of a challenge for those that work at the Aspen Institute because we have this great people-serving entity that works in all sorts of places and all sorts of ways. I think it’s important for us to think of the Ideas Festival as a way to introduce people to the work of the Aspen Institute as a whole.

CW: I want to ask you about a critique of the modern nonprofit and philanthropy movement that has been leveled at the Aspen Institute specifically, and that is referred to as “the Aspen consensus” by the writer Anand Giridharadas who participated in programs here. His critique of philanthropy in society today is that you challenge people to do more good, but never challenge them to do less harm; and that we have a system that celebrates the mitigation of the problems that are created by its very existence. So I am curious what your response is to that and what do we do here that challenges people to do less harm?

DP: I think that is an important critique and I think we should be reflective about anything that we do. The reason that I chose to leave higher education where I had been for 20 years and work at the Aspen Institute is because I had a lived experience of knowing how much good the institute does in so many ways. For example, the Aspen Institute runs something called the American Talent Initiative, where we have recruited 120 top schools to open their doors more widely to low-income students. We have set a national goal of what those schools together could do to enroll 50,000 more low-income students collectively by the year 2025. Two years into it we are at 7,291 more low-income students attending public flagship and Ivy League institutions. Why does that happen? Because the Aspen Institute is funded in such a way that we have a college excellence program that goes out and works with higher education to open the doors more widely, to recruit people to make a commitment and make real gains. Or, differently, we have this program called Ascend that has framed a concept called the two-generation strategy to poverty prevention. [Ascend program leader Anne Mosle] works with governments, with employers and with philanthropists to create strategies that allow family members and children to be ascending together, to focus on the family together. The program convened over 300 people together in D.C. from red, blue and purple states — all these different leaders gathered around the idea of how do we do poverty prevention in a way that treats the family as a unit.

This is real work, these are real people that are being impacted every day by the Aspen Institute’s reach on the ground — not just ideas in the sky, but bringing people together to set goals and make a difference. That is the only way I know to work, to try to make demonstrable difference in a way that pulls people together. I can’t do that just on the idea of, “hey everybody, let’s just do that.” I need philanthropic support in order to empowers great leaders. I need resources to give leaders a chance to create social good at the grassroots and community level. We have a program that is focused on Native American youth and it’s exceptional the way that Erik Stegman, who leads that program, has encouraged Native kids to be able to think about having a future together. So it’s fine to make a critique that I wish a philanthropist was doing different things in their business and there is a place for that to be made. My place, however, is to take the resources of a philanthropist and put them into the hands of Erik Stegman so Erik Stegman can get a couple hundred Native kids to be really thinking they have an opportunity, or to get 7,291 more kids into high-graduation-rate schools so they can get the education they need to be a leader in their communities. And I think the missing part of that critique is the value that can be made for the one and the many when philanthropy is deployed for the purposes of creating greater opportunity, greater empowerment, greater inclusion and that is what we are committed to doing every single day. It’s good to have that critique, that’s the role of social critics. My role as a change maker is to find the resources to put in the hands of people who want a make a difference so they can do that.

The Aspen Ideas Festival continues through Friday.

Curtis Wackerle is the editor of Aspen Daily News. He can be reached at curtis@aspendailynews.com or on Twitter @CurtisWackerle.