The Aspen Ideas Fest always brings together some of the best and brightest minds in the country. I find the discussions thought-provoking and insightful. This year, I was privileged to hear the likes of Hillary Clinton, Tony Blair, Al Gore, David Patraeus and many more of today’s leaders and notable figures. They all had great ideas about policies and issues, but I noticed one important thing – the people who would be most impacted by the policies being discussed were not in attendance. Like so many areas of America, the Aspen Ideas Fest has a diversity problem.
The topics were diverse enough. There were discussions about the growing economic divide, the value of college and who can go with rising costs, violence among African-American boys, and how rising healthcare costs are impacting middle class and poor Americans. All of these are worthy topics. However, do you think there was a college student struggling to pay tuition in the audience? Or a family struggling to pay tuition? How about African-American young men directly impacted by prejudice and violence? A middle class person who is struggling to stay afloat as the cost of living rises and their paycheck remains the same or becomes unstable? Or a family that filed bankruptcy over healthcare issues or chose to ignore a chronic illness?
The conference involved a group of wealthy elites talking among other wealthy elites about problems that don’t really impact them. Just about everyone speaking, with a few exceptions, came from a privileged and narrow point of view with minimal experience navigating these issues in a real-world environment. Having a wider audience, even through internet chat or video feeds, would have brought a broader set of perspectives and questions to the ideas being proposed. Elites talking to elites isn’t exactly breaking new ground for the common man.
Of course there were topics that were fit for the crowd, such as predicting the 2016 Presidential Candidates, which was largely agreed to be most likely Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush. But there’s still room for surprises, of course.
Tony Blair talked about the long struggle ahead of us in the Middle East. At the time of the conference, Israel and Palestine were not firing rockets at each other and ISIS was just beginning to spread. His words became grounded in reality just a few weeks later as conflict continues to escalate in the region and cause growing protests around the world. Yes, we are in for a long and difficult struggle.
Despite the lack of diversity, Aspen Ideas Fest is still, well, full of interesting ideas. It remains one of my favorite conferences of the year. I just can’t help but wonder if everyday Americans even know what’s going on at this event. Important topics are being discussed here, and I’d love to see a more representative audience engaged. Maybe that’s a topic for next year.