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The Aspen Ideas Festival: Media Darlings, Grace and Humility

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The Aspen Ideas Festival brings together over 280 provocative thinkers and doers, including world leaders in culture, business, science, and politics. They come together to present, ponder, and discuss their ideas with, for the most part, a sophisticated audience of individuals, including me.

For the last few years, I've played the spouse role as my husband heads to Aspen, Colorado for an annual medical meeting in July. But this year, I got to attend a gathering of the minds, too. Shortly after our arrival in Aspen, I met Kitty Boone, VP, Director of Public Programs, Director of the three year old Aspen Ideas Festival and Jim Spiegelman, VP, Director of Communications, The Aspen Institute. The timing was perfect. In an effort to resolve a technical snafu in communicating with The Huffington Post, I earned a press pass and entry to the Festival as a HuffPo blogger. Kitty and Jim's grace and humility in welcoming me matched the tone of the entire production.

It's like a weeklong summer camp for your mind -- lectures and roundtable discussions across a vast array of topics presented by an illustrious group of speakers. And in all sincerity, there's not a lot of pretense. Just ideas, 7,930 feet above sea level, surrounded by beautiful Aspen trees with leaves that twinkle in the wind, (and yes, they really do twinkle) sun-drenched views of the Roaring Fork River and all the Fiji Water and Pom Iced Tea you can drink.

The six-day festival is engineered by the Aspen Institute in partnership with The Atlantic. It's an outgrowth of the 57 year-old Institute's mission statement and dedication to "fostering enlightened leadership and open-minded dialogue and renewal, a place for lifting us out of our usual selves, as we strive to gain a greater understanding of our humanity." And so, sticking with my personal new year's resolution for self-preservation, I stopped being mother and wife for a few days, scratched my own intellectual itch and took full advantage of all the festival had to offer.

The festival engages participants (speakers and attendees) in a variety of programs, seminars, tutorials and events - sunrise to sunset and then some -- along fifteen different program tracks such as China: The Emerging Superpower, The State of the Environment, America's Children, Arts and Culture, and Science and Society. And discuss, they do. Inside, outside and along side the lecture facilities. There's almost no down time. There were early morning breakfast talks in the mountains and late night performances and talks around town. I only snuck away at meals and some evenings to join my family.

Most people, in order to participate in the Ideas Festival, need to register, in advance, for a hefty fee. That said, sincere efforts were made this year to reach a broader, younger audience. A number of sessions were open to the public, many at no cost, while others required tickets, often available at the door. The website provides easy access to anyone in the world, with broadcasts from Aspen Public Radio. Some of the sessions are viewable and available via the Ideas Festival website and YouTube. What's more, 50 fellows, young leaders in the world's non-profits attend and for the third year, 12 high school juniors and their principals, sponsored by the Bezos Family Foundation (as in Amazon founder Jeff Bezos), attended the Festival.

My experience wasn't about networking or making friends. I felt no inclination to talk with Anna Deveare Smith as we crossed paths on one of the bucolic wild flower lined walkways, even though I think she is one of the coolest people in the world. What was I going to say -- I admire your work? I loved your tender introduction to toughness á la Brent Williams, Bull Rider? Brent is a guy Anna spoke with for four hours, subsequently met and now portrays on stage. She performed "Bull Rider" in an afternoon conversation interlude and again for a live taping of Public Radio International's Studio360 with host Kurt Anderson. We, too, crossed paths but didn't speak. It so happens, I also didn't speak with General Colin L. Powell, even though I happened to be seated RIGHT next to him in a session called "Citizen Journalists: Will Web 2.0 Journalists Change the Nature of Journalism as We know it? I politely sat trying to listen to the panel but I couldn't help but wonder what he's writing. What he's reading? The Washington Post? On-line? Blogs? Will we ever know why the United States didn't have a plan in place for Iraq before we sent troops?

So, you get the point. It's a rare opportunity for ordinary and not-so ordinary folk to mix with big names and big ideas to engage and talk about the world, to delve deeply into subjects with people who are passionate about the issues of the world within which we live.

But with big ideas comes the big question. What can we do? To protect our planet? To keep our children safe from terror? To allow them to grow up in a world where they embrace and are embraced by their fellow humans? In a land where no child is left behind in school, where no one is denied health care and where art is allowed and encouraged to flourish? And shall I remind you that we live in a country where people don't vote, where so many are disenfranchised?

What can I do? To begin, I'll use compact fluorescent light bulbs (CFL's) to save energy and, in the long run, money. I'll follow the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch in an effort to support fisheries and fish farms that are better for the environment and for my family. I'll encourage my children to join me in citizen service, Bill Clinton's term for "community service." In learning about areas I hadn't known about before, I feel better equipped as a mother, as a wife, as a citizen. I'm inspired to know more. To do more. The idea is that, it's not about ME. It's about my family. It's about the world in which we live. It's about learning to get along with each other. With grace and humility. What will you do?

For in depth coverage and articles about the Festival...

The Atlantic @ Aspen blog
... Dispatches from the Ideas Festival

2007 Audio/Video Library... Quick Clips