Putting Your Attention on Your Intention

Originally published on July 3, 2019

“What was I doing when the world was changing?”

I almost decided to stay in my hotel bed for another hour...or two. I almost convinced myself that I was still light-headed from the altitude four days into my Aspen trip but I quickly remembered that this was the day I was looking forward to the most. This day was why I was so motivated to attend the Aspen Ideas Festival for the first time.

So, I got myself dressed, took my first steps of the day into the beautifully, crisp mountainous air, and headed towards the festival shuttle from The Gant hotel.

I arrived with my friend and cohort buddy around 7:45 AM, chatted with a couple of the panelists, grabbed breakfast and a much needed coffee, and sat in the front row pushing myself to be eager to learn Why Leadership Matters at 8 AM on a Tuesday.

I struggled with leaving my bed earlier because I couldn't connect with the title of the session, "Why Leadership Matters". Over the years, I've attended countless conferences, read numerous books and articles, listened to and engaged in conversations all centered around why leadership matters.

We were all attending the Aspen Ideas Festival to broaden our horizons, make deep and meaningful connections, and ultimately become better leaders. It was quite obvious to me that leadership mattered but talking myself into going to this session was one of the best decisions I made throughout my entire Aspen trip.  

The session started with an introduction from Anne Mosle, Vice President and Executive Director of Ascend - a fellowship and policy program under The Aspen Institute. Anne led us through a few of the key reasons why Ascend was created and how the program helps visionary leaders propel their big ideas and missions forward - making sustainable, impactful, and positive change in their communities.

What is most interesting about Ascend is its two-generation approach - where ideas and solutions are created with a focus on both children and the adults in their lives. Quite often do we find initiatives that solely focus on children and rarely do we include the adults in our children's lives. We focus so much on the future and the next (next generation, next big thing, etc.), which is great, but we must not forget that the present still exists and that there are adults who need to be included as the world continues to change.

The two-generation approach that Ascend focuses on is so necessary and refreshing that it helped to capture my attention for the next 40 minutes of the session.

After the introduction, we moved into the hearts of four of the Ascend fellows and their missions.

  • Kwame Anku is the CEO of the Black Star Fund, a venture capitalist firm that focuses on early stage technology and innovation investment funding.
  • Pastor Raphael Warnock is the Senior Pastor of Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s spiritual home, the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia.
  • Katie Albright is the CEO of Safe & Sound, a nonprofit organization that focuses on preventing child abuse and reduce its devastating impact.
  • Anthony Barrows is the Managing Director at ideas42, a company that focuses on domestic poverty, local government, post-secondary education, and civic engagement.

The Fellows dove deeper into their passions and it was clear that their insight and expertise needed to be heard and shared with the world.

As I prepare to launch my storytelling company with a focus on vulnerability, authenticity, and connection, I remind myself that it is important to find and study those who are walking in their power and light and these four panelists epitomize the values of my company.

Though their fields are very different from each other, these four panelists are connected through their embodiment of what it means to put your attention on your intention.

Intent: Create Equal Opportunity

Kwame Anku works towards empowering social entrepreneurs to form and leverage connections with global communities and has a vision for 100 Black investment managers to each manage $100M innovation funds by 2025. During the session, he talked about working to radically shift the economic disparities that afflict people living in Opportunity Zones - "economically-distressed communities where new investments, under certain conditions, may be eligible for preferential tax treatment."

From an investor's perspective, your ears may perk up when you hear about opportunity zones. The problem: most investments are made towards start-up or established companies. If you're wondering why this is a problem, Anku broke down the reality of these zones.

Opportunity Zones exist in communities that are "economically-distressed", which means the people living in these communities may have great ideas but zero or minimal resources, direction, or general support to take their innovative ideas from conception to start-up to execution. With early stage funding, Black Star Fund helps to change this narrative and create opportunities where people of color and those living in "economically-distressed" areas now have an actual chance to change and make their mark on the world.

Intent: The Beloved Community

"The land of the free is the mass incarceration capital of the world."

While I wanted to record just about every word that left the mouth of Pastor Warnock, I believe this quote hit me the hardest because it's true.

"The United States, home to just 5% of the world population holds 25% of the world's prison population. There are 2.3 million people in the nation's prisons and jails - a 500% increase in the past 40 years. The land of the free is the mass incarceration capital of the world."

Pastor Warnock is on a mission to end mass incarceration in America. His approach is to bring together communities of different faiths and restorative justice.

Restorative justice by definition is a system of criminal justice which focuses on the rehabilitation of offenders through reconciliation with victims and the community at large. It is extremely necessary to acknowledge the importance of this concept as we see that former inmates often find themselves either struggling to make ends meet or back in jail. They face both housing and employment discrimination because of their records and also have to deal with being excluded from public benefits, some professional licenses, voting and more - which means people are able to make decisions about their lives without them having a say.

Warnock pushes for change, and during the session, he talked about expungement events that he and his community hosted to clear the records of former inmates. Through expunging records, communities have seen a decrease in crime and opportunities have opened up for people to get ahead and create better lives for themselves.

A staggering reality that Warnock enlightened the audience to was that the majority of those incarcerated are there on nonviolent drug-related offenses. What's striking about this is that Black and White people both use and sell drugs at similar rates.

Language and media in our society truly has the power to create a narrative for communities and oftentimes that narrative is inaccurate and says that people of color have to be controlled. When we look at the 1980's during the "war on drugs", the images and language represented battle zones, a true war was the created narrative. War means enemies and combat zones which just so happened to be inner city communities filled with people of color who were being arrested and taken from their families as entire communities were destroyed. Today, we have an opioid crisis and it's not a war - but has been declared a public health emergency.

Warnock pushes us to imagine change. He and the Ending Mass Incarceration Movement arm us with the necessary tools to recreate expungement events and change the conversation within our communities.

Most importantly, Warnock leads with love. "You can't lead the people, if you don't love the people." Warnock ended his message in the session with a charge for us to be courageous in our communities, recognize that we cannot allow this human nightmare to continue, and that if we love our people and communities we must change the conversation.

"You are a divine being put on this earth to make it better."

Intent: Changing lives & Educating the Community!

Katie Albright leads Safe and Sound - a nonprofit organization that partners with local nonprofits to pioneer an approach to prevent child abuse and reduce its devastating impact. Truly epitomizing the two-generation approach of the Ascend program, Albright is working with her team to positively impact and change the lives in her community. Safe and Sound focuses on the children in a home, as well as the adults in their lives to address abuse which can stem from low-income households and from being a single parent.

One of the most basic levels of humanity is caring for the next person and understanding that they, too, have worth and value. Albright exemplifies caring for the next person as she views and recognizes child abuse as a community issue that affects everyone.

"When one child is hurt, our entire community is degraded. Child abuse diminishes a child’s future and negatively impacts our entire community. It is a key underlying issue to many of society’s challenges:

  • Underperforming schools
  • Homelessness
  • High rates of incarceration
  • Drug and alcohol abuse
  • Lack of workforce vitality
  • Unemployment
  • Strained government & community resources"

Albright's urgency in her passion for her work became even more significant when I took the time to research Safe and Sound, after the session. In my research, I've learned that abused children are 59% more likely to be arrested as juveniles, 200% more likely to be unemployed, and 77% more likely to require special education.

The most staggering statistic I came across was that in the Bay Area alone, the lifetime cost for a year of abuse victims is $2.2 billion. As we push to imagine the change that Pastor Warnock talked about, Safe and Sound recognizes that $2.2 billion could send 20,000 children to college. Could you imagine a community that has the ability to turn the current narrative on its head to create a better world?

The work of Safe and Sound in the San Francisco community has led to drastic declines of child abuse in the city but there is still more work that needs to be done and Albright is continuing the work, leading with education and action, and is driven by her passion to change lives.

Intent: Create Social Impact

Anthony Barrows is the Managing Director at ideas42, a company that focuses on domestic poverty, local government, post-secondary education, and civic engagement. ideas42 uses behavioral science to create and design scalable solutions for sustainability, health, wealth, and justice for social good.

Barrows discussed how he's working towards making stories of growing up in poverty less of an anomaly. His vision is to help create effective programs that aid in child welfare and human services. ideas42 provides behavioral science research, data, and insights that have the ability to create more effective programs that people can benefit from.

What was most interesting to me was when Barrows talked about implicit bias and how ideas42 is working towards improving life outcomes for people. Through studying, learning, and using behavioral insights, we can account for the "quirks of human cognition" which include how our unconscious has the very ability to drive our everyday decision making. Our unconscious beliefs can have a deep impact on if and how people get what they need in life.  

For the most part, society focuses on what is in front of our faces. We fight for and against what we can see. If an issue arises, we handle it the best way we know how. When we aren't aware of underlying factors, we don't take them into account for how we live our lives. Implicit bias is an eye-opening concept that helps us to ask the right questions and create better solutions.

By simply making people aware of things such as implicit bias, we can better lead our communities. Using behavioral science to understand our human quirks helps to make significant change throughout the world and impacts millions of lives (ideas42 has impacted 28 million lives since the company's creation ten years ago.)

Ascend Fellows

Each of these amazing leaders are making a powerful difference in their communities. They are only four of the 80+ Ascend Fellows changing the world. I am grateful for each of the leaders taking the time to share their community impact and happy that the Ascend Program exists. This program literally provides the platform to put societal and community issues at the forefront of our discussions and minds.

Ascend expands our individual and collective thinking around how to best tackle the problems in our society. The two-generational approach allows fellows to be inclusive of all those affected by various issues and helps to create a support system and resources for families (children & adults alike).

Ascend is led by and works with leaders who take action. Every part of Ascend confronts what is deemed as acceptable but harms and holds back so many people. I'm a firm believer in the authenticity that Ascend and each of the fellows are living in and am wholeheartedly grateful for the work that they are doing in our communities.  

Most importantly, I am happy that I left my hotel room to find out Why Leadership Matters.


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