The Aspen Institute Doubles Down on the Next Generation

Its new Youth and Engagement Program is involving teens and young adults in civic discussion and problem-solving sessions.

By Barbara Platts May 24, 2017 Published in the Summer 2017 issue of Aspen Sojourner

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Last year's inaugural Young Adult Forum during the Aspen Ideas Festival.

The youngest generation often attracts unwarranted attention from those who came before. Luckily, my generation—millennials—will soon cede our spot in the limelight. Up next are the centennials (also known as Generation Y). One way to counter the negative scrutiny that millennials received? Involve teens and young adults in civic discussion and problem-solving early on. That’s the tactic the Aspen Institute set in motion with its new Youth and Engagement Program.

Rajiv Vinnakota, the program’s vice president, says it helps to have all of the Institute’s young adult–related programs under one umbrella. “We are really working with a much broader, diverse set of young people, both with those programs and also with the new ones that we are creating,” he says.

One of those programs is the Aspen Young Leaders Fellowship, which launched this year in St. Louis, Missouri, and Newark, New Jersey, and focuses on developing leadership qualities among youth in midsize cities and rural areas. Also under the umbrella are Teen Socrates—a current issues forum—and the Bezos Scholars Program, which has provided Aspen Ideas Festival scholarships to high school juniors and teachers for more than a decade.

And then there’s the Aspen Challenge, which started in 2013. During annual competitions, groups of students are tasked with coming up with potential solutions to a world issue within eight weeks. The top teams then showcase their work at Ideas Fest and also get a scholarship to attend the fest’s second session.

Katie Fitzgerald, Aspen Challenge program director, notes that the students presenting at Ideas Fest often ask the most poignant questions. “We believe that they deserve a spot at the table,” she says. But having young people engage with adults is only part of the process. Fitzgerald adds that it’s also vital to get them to interact with each other. One way to do so: the Young Adult Forum.

Launched in 2016, this one-day symposium during Ideas Fest convenes participants ages 14 to 24 from across the Western Slope, and several from around the country, to discuss current events. Last year, some 250 attendees started the day looking reserved, bored even. But when an enthusiastic emcee played a popular rap song, the energy level rose and audience members began to interact. The wide array of speakers included Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, an Afghani female rapper, and a former US acting solicitor general. By session’s end, attendees seemed inspired to tackle issues ranging from racial and gender inequality to Supreme Court operations.

This year’s forum (June 28) will last longer and offer more opportunities for interaction, notes Fitzgerald, including a reading-based seminar and a networking dinner. For the centennials who attend, it’ll be an invaluable chance to be heard. aspenideas.org/youngadultforum

Calling All Millennials:

This year, the Aspen Ideas Festival is also offering a "Millennial Pass" to provide 18-35 year olds the opportunity to engage at an affordable price. For $99, passholders can attend morning and evening sessions, including Spotlight Health, over the course of the ten days (June 22-July 1, 2017). A second release of the limited run of passes will be available during Aspen Ideas Festival public ticket sales starting Friday, June 16. aspenshowtix.com

For the complete 2017 Aspen Ideas Festival schedule visit aspenideas.org.

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