Coming down from the mountaintop

Is there a word for how you feel upon returning to everyday life after a peak experience?  I might need to sponsor a naming competition for one, because it’s certainly how I’m feeling coming off of the literal high of the Aspen Ideas Festival over the past week.  Though I’d been warned that adjusting to the altitude of Aspen can be challenging, I had no trouble adjusting on the front end.  I assimilated instantly and found myself able to breathe so much more deeply in the Aspen air, I think because the renowned “thinness” of the air was beautifully balanced by the thickness of amazing ideas emanating all around us. 

I did, however, feel lightheaded a few times due to losing my breath to the beauty that greeted me each time I stepped out of a panel or presentation and caught sight of the magnificent mountains.  The Aspen campus is gloriously green and postcard picturesque at every turn.

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I was deeply honored to be attending as an Aspen Ideas Scholar.  My fellow Scholars were an august and engaging bunch, from a wide range of fields and countries, and every conversation was edifying and enjoyable.  We were fully integrated with the other attendees at the Festival, and being amidst a thousand people invested in full-throttle engagement with ideas was as exhilarating as the Aspen air. It was like a who's who of the intelligentsia from around the world, woven seamlessly amongst ordinary folks who enjoy engaging with Big Issues of the day, from challenges to democracy to curbing mass incarceration to addressing threats of global terrorism to making higher ed more affordable and accessible and so much more.  

My biggest challenge of the week was deciding which session to go to, as there were so many interesting ones every hour.  I was heartened to know that most sessions were recorded, and many of them are already available on the Aspen Ideas website.  Now THIS is binge-worthy entertainment.

I was invited to speak on a panel on a small, simple topic: "The Power of Place: Geography, Destiny, and the Dream,” part of the Endangered American Dream track, moderated by the wonderful Jennifer Bradley, who heads Aspen's Urban Innovation program, with remarkable co-panelists Rip Rapson, CEO of the Kresge Foundation in Michigan, and Angela Glover Blackwell, founder and CEO of the powerful PolicyLink.  There’s nothing better than being on a panel with such interesting, erudite people.   

Angela beautifully elucidated 'how we got here,' Rip rendered a wonderful case story around the rise and fall and (hopeful) rise again of Detroit, and I tried to situate the role of schools and education with regard to "zip code destiny."  I emphasized that we need to fix our formulation as much as we need to fix our schools--we have a class issue more than we have a classroom issue in this country, concentrating our poorest and most vulnerable students in contexts that lack capacity to overcome the extent of adversity they face.  We need to link and leverage the broader assets of communities and bring them to bear in creating ecosystems of opportunity that extend well beyond school.  Overall, our panel tried to bring a clear-eyed focus to structural, political, programmatic AND personal aspects of what it will take to change the odds and change the outcomes for under-resourced communities--as much as we could in an hour (if only we'd had 90 minutes...)

Perhaps the most exciting part of the Aspen experience was that CityPathways was selected as a Finalist for the inaugural Aspen Ideas Award competition, sponsored by Booz Allen Hamilton. 103 ideas were submitted, the website got over 200,000 hits, and five of us were chosen to pitch onsite, so we truly felt among the chosen people.  One of the biggest treats was getting to know my fabulous four fellow finalists, from Oakland, Israel, Afghanistan, and Kenya.  Further, all the folks Booz were fabulous in providing coaching and cheerleading to get us ready for the big day. The venue was one of Aspen’s main stages—much bigger than the room where my panel had been the day before. I was VERY nervous before the pitch, compounded by my going first (the lifelong blessing of a last name that starts with B.) I feared that I would have a Cindy Brady television-itis moment, freezing up when the red light came on—or in this case, upon seeing the enormous four minute timer counting down time available for my (tightly-timed) pitch. Luckily, once I walked on, I felt more at ease, and hope I’ll remember that next time. The Q & A went VERY quickly and I wish there’d been more time to flesh out the totality of the CityPathways vision and why it matters. For anyone interested, the cPaths FAQ is available here.

After all of us pitched, the five of us were invited to stage to answer a few more personal questions, from MC Eric from Booz Allen (who struggled with my name—who can blame him?  But I will call him Derek) and from the audience.  It was a nice way to personalize it—and to give the judges time to deliberate.  The video of the full event is available here.

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I didn't win the $25,000 prize but I couldn’t be happier about the outcome.  The winner, Margaret Koli of the Human Needs Project, is amazing and doing incredibly important work creating a multi-service center for basic services and empowerment services, with a focus on workforce development for green jobs, in Kibera, Kenya, the largest urban slum in Africa.  I know the $25K will go to excellent use with Margaret.

But wait—there was a wonderful and surprising coda to the competition in that an anonymous donor was so inspired by all the finalists that s/he donated $5K for each of us--not too shabby! We also each received a lovely Aspen Ideas Finalist crystal and high-end Master and Dynamics headphones as finalist prizes (although I was disappointed to learn that the headphones aren't plugged into an endless stream of ideas...) And in truth, just BEING there felt like being a winner. 

People were very enthusiastic about the cPaths model and vision, which was validating.  We don’t yet have the support we need for a fall launch, but I’m optimistic that it will manifest. And we welcome all investments :-)

                                                                It's hard to walk away from Aspen...

                                                                It's hard to walk away from Aspen...