The Aspen Institute: Leading Its Way to Santa Barbara

By Amélie Dieux   |   August 22, 2023

On a beautiful morning not long ago, the Aspen Institute held a meeting at the Santa Barbara Club. The institute’s ex-vice president, Charlie Firestone, was on hand to cheerily meet and greet the attendees and introduce the panel, before diving into the meeting’s rhetorical raison d’être; might the storied think tank find in Santa Barbara a future outlet for its mix of enlightened leadership and non-partisan dialogue on society’s most vexing issues? 

Dr. Samuel Kimbriel, MPhil and PhD in philosophy and politics, was the guest of honor, and helped lead the discussion. He is the author of Friendship as Sacred Knowing: Overcoming Isolation – and the founding director of the Philosophy and Society Initiative program at the Aspen Institute. With the assistance of the institute’s West Regional Director Ryan Fleury, Dr. Kimbriel discussed the topic: Should a Society be Structured More Around Freedom or Meaning?

The nuanced nature of this subject truly lends itself to the Society of Fellows created by the Aspen Institute, an international nonprofit organization founded by Walter and Elizabeth Paepcke in 1949. Created in the wake of World War II and ultimately based in Washington, D.C., it was in the heart of lovely Aspen, Colorado, that this institution began its journey. After 74 years of difficult and conscientious work, the organization today boasts a network of 15 different partnership locations around the world – an international presence whose conferences and programs fortify the institute’s mission to culturally collaborate around addressing modern society’s most pressing issues. The Aspen Institute inspires global leadership, collective action, and a broad reframing of our relationship to society as it continually betters itself, even as we better ourselves individually.

The institute has more than 45 programs whose collective goal is to promote “a free, just, and equitable society.” Programs mentioned in Dr. Kimbriel’s remarks include Aspen Words, Science and Society, Aspen Digital, the Energy and Environment Program, and many more on a variety of sometimes counter-intuitive topics like sports, food, finance, youth, education, and business. 

For example, the “Aspen Institute Education & Society Program” inspires educational leaders to take action and emphasize equity for students of various ethnic backgrounds, as well as families from financially strained environments. The program also asks participants to consider how best to redirect modern educational priorities, so that focus more attention on safety and building trust within the system.

The Aspen Words Program seeks collaborative solutions through the institute’s literary center, where writers are inspired to connect and share stories with communities – both local and global – while being guided and assisted by leading lights of the literary realm. The Aspen Words Program compels a clearer understanding and appreciation of up-and-coming generational perspectives on the whole, illuminating humanity’s inherent complexity through the sharing of literature.

And for those wanting to explore alternative energy resources, the Aspen Institute Energy & Environment Program asks creative thinkers to review, study, and share – nationally and internationally – various sustainable energy approaches of great value to the planet, on both an individual and societal scale. For example, decarbonizing various global transportation systems could reduce the consequences of fossil fuels, affording a more sustainable lifestyle overall as our ecosystem is restored to a healthier and more manageable balance. 

The Aspen Institute provides a value that is crystal clear to anyone dearly invested in change, and in making a measurable impact on the world. By providing a platform for boldly promoting an exchange of nourishing ideas and profound conversation, the institute incites purpose-driven dialogue between people who are similarly motivated, but of widely varying backgrounds. The institute seeks to enrich the world with meaningful and positive impact through its many influential and empowering initiatives – both close to your home and across the globe.

The meeting of the Aspen Institute’s Society of Fellows at the Santa Barbara Club featured Dr. Kimbriel opening with an intriguing topic for discussion;that of the tension between Freedom and Meaning as competing core concerns when building out a society; “Should our freedom or our meaning lead us?”

The attendees were of various backgrounds and ages – a mix which provides strength to the institute and bolsters its longevity. In their collective response to Dr. Kimbriel’s question, those present demonstrated both a philosophical and experiential understanding of our culture. 

The panel agreed at the beginning of the conversation that America as a whole has – due to its unique history – run the experiment of Freedom more than any other country. America’s diverse population, decentralized economy and government, and massive geographical spread made defensible by two insulating oceans, have resulted in its strength and successful positive impact nationally and internationally. 

However, the panel also noted the limits of experimentation, arguably fueled in modern society by the predominant thinking of the younger generations. One begins to notice a sense of purposelessness, an un-anchored drift as the mishandling or abuse of freedom’s promise is seen through various communication networks and platforms, creating an overwhelming feeling of isolation in the workplace, in our educational institutions, and even revealing limitations in social environments in recent years. The younger generation’s social skills have been challenged and their ability to interact socially has been inhibited. 

Regarding Dr. Kimbriel’s question of Freedom or Meaning leading us, the challenge that the group faced was ultimately that of differentiating interpretations of “Meaning” between individuals with wholly different life experiences. The concept of “Freedom” is likewise subject to the variety of cultural and personal experiences among people seeking to find consensus on a definition of the term. Such approaches on the subject were regarded as worrisome for our society – a concern amplified by the panel adding their own perspectives on the pros and cons of government, education, religion, foreign policies, and the overall mental health of all ages. 

The group stated that younger generations seem to be losing those social skills critical to their personal development in our modern times, which could lead to uncharted territory. Among the concerns was the balance between citizens and their government, where differences in defining the terms “leading” and “meaning” can convey either a nation unified at the foundation, or confrontation and division. 

The panel agreed that America has utilized the experiment of freedom adequately, and we are now experiencing the power of freedom and information. We are experiencing the repercussions and consequences of this endeavor as well, nationally and internationally. The group confirmed that a sense of individual purposeless and isolation has become stronger. As a result, societies are daily facing a hazardous and unsustainable present… and possibly a decaying future. The panel concluded with the idea that spiritual purpose should also be integrated into our collective development – with the caveat that this too may open the door to a degree of conflict, since both spirituality and its implementation are inherently complex. 

But for the most part, the meeting led to an uncanny engagement between deeply held notions of respect, trust, empathy, and happiness. These key words are central to realizing that change can occur when impactful programs are thoughtfully applied in real life. This in turn creates a bond within the group – the natural desire to be part of something greater than ourselves. The Aspen Institute offers these opportunities to better quality living through its many programs. 

A Harvard Study of Adult Development on the universal question of happiness revealed that half of our happiness is related to the complex matter of genetics, but it also showed that happiness is decided by the quality of human relationships. Knowing when to let go of a pernicious personality can help to bring about happiness in our life, and to understand that what matters most is that life is precious and fleeting. Healthy relationships and respect for individuality are our greatest need if we are to move forward in today’s emotional and social structure. Being lifted up by like-minded people creates wonders in the life of others and ourselves.

This brings us back to the Aspen Institute and their establishing a future here in Santa Barbara, where such a move could not only benefit people who are doing prominent work, but could also inspire them to something better and greater than themselves; to help resolve the many issues of our modern day society through direct action. It is a time to not only revisit the symptoms of societal decay, but also to investigate healing methodologies. 

We can only ask ourselves now: what can we do to better unify our community here around “Meaning and Freedom” as we presently understand those terms? What small deed can we do to enhance the lives of others and ourselves in
Santa Barbara?  


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