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Drawing everyone from CEOs and policy wonks to supermodel Paulina Porizkova and Talking Heads frontman David Byrne (and that’s just this year), the annual Aspen Ideas Festival, put on by the enigmatic nonprofit Aspen Institute from June 25 to July 1, delivers a week of events meant to create opportunities for deep dialogue about issues that challenge our times. Festivalgoers able to plunk down $5,000 for a full pass can enjoy four days—there are two main four-day sessions to choose from—of exclusive access to panels, presentations, and performances. But those of us with more down-to-earth budgets can still get a taste of the learnedness by buying individual tickets ($30) to some two dozen sessions. Here, our top five picks with seats still available.
The Law That Remade Sports—And The World
Why go: Who better to talk about the impact of Title IX—signed into law on June 23, 1972—than two women who have seen firsthand how the groundbreaking education legislation has also addressed gender disparity in sports? Those would be freestyle skiing phenom Eileen Gu, who won Olympic gold and silver this past February in a male-dominated sport, and entrepreneur Sheila Johnson, who owns the WNBA’s Washington Mystics.
What to expect: No matter what you think of her choice to compete for China at the Winter Games, 18-year-old Gu flat-out impresses with her smarts and poise. Seven years ago, she had already studied up on Title IX, talking about the law’s benefit for female athletes in a middle-school presentation while calling out the lingering pay gap among men’s and women’s basketball players, among others. Johnson, who also co-founded Black Entertainment Television and runs Salamander Hotels and Resorts, has toppled many barriers in her career—including being the first African American woman to have an ownership stake in three pro sports teams. Tom Farrey, head of the Aspen Institute’s Sports and Society program, will moderate this discussion.
Details: June 26, 7–8 p.m.
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The Great Friendship Reset
Why go: It may sound unexpectedly touchy-feely for a high-minded discussion at the Aspen Ideas Festival, but the subject of friendship seems to have taken on heightened scrutiny in these mid-pandemic days. Case in point: Jennifer Senior’s February Atlantic article, “It’s Your Friends Who Break Your Heart,” had many of us contemplating how and why our relationships with our closest buds end. Senior, a staff writer at the magazine, will dive into the backstory of her piece.
What to expect: Along with Senior, the panel includes two other writers and a psychologist. Eric Barker is a former Hollywood screenwriter who now has a blog, Barking up the Wrong Tree, based on his bestselling book of the same name, which upends our perceptions of success. His just-released book, Plays Well with Others, takes a similar approach to relationships. Prolific author Jen Hatmaker also runs the women’s-empowerment podcast For the Love and once hosted an HGTV reality series called Your Big Family Renovation. And Marisa G. Franco, who teaches psychology at the University of Maryland and has a forthcoming book on making and keeping friends, will hold up the quantitative end of the discussion, with friendship facts based in science.
Details: June 26, 8:30–9:30 p.m.
No Ordinary Campaign
Why go: One out of every 500 Americans will be diagnosed with ALS. Brian Wallach became one of them five years ago, when he was 37 and given six months to live. (Spoiler alert: He’s still here, and he and his wife, Sandra Abrevaya, will speak at the event.) But while the disease hasn’t yet proven deadly for Wallach, the journey the couple were thrown into—navigating illness and the failings of our health care system—was unimaginably difficult. The documentary No Ordinary Campaign details their struggles and triumphs, including the founding of a nonprofit, I Am ALS, which leans hard into finding a cure for the disease. Katie Couric will moderate the post-screening conversation.
What to expect: Some tears and anger as you watch the film. Afterward, there will be a discussion about health care that will likely be fascinating, infuriating—and full of ideas for a better system. Other speakers include the film’s director, Chris Burke; Tania Simoncelli, a VP at the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (led by the Facebook founder and his wife), which works toward equitable health care and presents this Aspen Ideas Festival session; and Jinsy Andrews, who heads up neuromuscular clinical trials at Columbia University.
Details: June 27, 6–8 p.m.
This Land Is Your Land
Why go: Will the debate over public lands—how (and whether) they should be protected in the face of climate change and over-visitation; what kinds of users should be allowed access; and even what the land should be called—ever subside? It seems unlikely, which is why listening to Chuck Sams, the first Indigenous head of the National Park Service, and Kristine Tompkins, known for conserving huge swaths of land in South America, speak about protecting wild spaces seems especially timely.
What to expect: A member of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, Sams will bring a historically overlooked perspective to his U.S. government role, through which he has said he hopes to expand access to the outdoors, protect public lands, and upgrade NPS infrastructure. Tompkins, meanwhile, a former CEO of Patagonia, has built up enormous environmental cred through an unmatched commitment to rewilding lands. She and her late husband, Doug Tompkins, bought millions of acres of land in Chile and Argentina, restored them to their natural states and reintroduced native animals, and donated the land back to the countries as new or enlarged national parks. NBC News correspondent Gadi Schwartz will moderate the discussion.
Details: June 28, 7–8 p.m.
Selma Blair: From Hollywood Ingenue to Mean Baby Memoirist
Why go: A queen of late-’90s teen flicks like Cruel Intentions and Legally Blonde, Selma Blair is dealing with some serious issues these days—specifically, multiple sclerosis (MS), which she was diagnosed with in 2018 after battling symptoms for years (she’s currently in remission). In her recent memoir, the actress shared what it’s like to live with a degenerative disease, battle alcoholism (she says she first got drunk when she was seven years old, on Passover wine), reconcile with a series of sexual assaults, and manage the highs and lows of celebrity status. She presents it all at the Aspen Ideas Festival with brutal honesty.
What to expect: Blair’s a smart cookie; she wanted to be a writer, à la Joan Didion, well before she ever started acting, so her memoir’s the real deal and not a ghostwritten project. Her work ranges from awareness raising (last year’s documentary Introducing, Selma Blair presents an unvarnished view of her physical struggles with the disease) to helping run a cosmetics company that makes easy-to-grip products. Ideas Fest doesn’t normally go Hollywood dishy, but Blair is likely to share some insidery gossip along with the weightier insights. And what about Legally Blonde 3, which was originally slated to come out this year? Someone needs to ask.
Details: June 30, 7–8 p.m.