Outside Of A Comfort Zone (On The Aspen Ideas Festival)

Jose Vilson Jose

The Lonely Island featuring T-Pain, "I'm On A Boat"

The Lonely Island featuring T-Pain, “I’m On A Boat”

A young lady, no older than 25, peered out of her glasses at a mostly white crowd. Her rose-patterned blouse, peach-pale skin, and slender figure gave us no indication of what she might do or say. Then, she blurts out the following:

“Aww shit!”

Um, what?

“Get your towels ready, it’s about to go down! Everybody in the place hit the fuckin’ deck! But stay on your motherfuckin toes!”

The rest of us totally didn’t expect it. This meek woman came up rapping along to The Lonely Island’s “I’m On A Boat” like she had The Beastie Boys Ill Communication in her back pocket, her baritone hammering the Southern-rap inspired beat with an authenticity that made the couple of Black people in the audience jump and wave our arms.

The Aspen Ideas Festival, in this aspect, was just what I needed. As a scholar, I felt very blessed to attend. Seriously. It’s not every day that a male teacher of color – any of the 3% of us, really – gets to spend the weekend in Aspen with multimillionaires, some of whom hold completely opposing views to your core issues. It’s also not everyday that a huge set of people with like-minded understandings about social justice and the roles they play in their sectors comes together to serve as the counter-points and the future visionaries of a country so desperately in need of a new vision. While many of my colleagues had their concerns about The Aspen Institute as a whole, and rightly so, I saw this as an opportunity to really listen, understand, and perhaps grow by actually having conversations with people in a much different echelon than my own.

For that, I am truly fortunate.

In my experience, I’ve always felt like I had to work twice as hard and do things twice as well just to get noticed. While I believe in interdependence – “independence” is rarely possible -, I also see that the opportunities I’ve received came from working just hard enough to be open to the opportunity. Sometimes, it meant listening to a metropolitan chancellor turned billionaire’s consigliere use lefty talking points to convince everyone of his success in his district before openly asking the hard questions others won’t. Other times, it meant sitting right next to people who have no idea how their sense of entitlement or privilege comes off to someone who, by this country’s standards, doesn’t have as much.

If I wasn’t taught at an early age about scaling mountains, I probably would’ve lost my breath while hiking up. And I didn’t.

Because approaching with love often means knowing how to speak to someone’s face without giving up your sense of self or purpose. People often confuse being present with co-opting or selling out, but, for someone who doesn’t normally have access to debate, these are the only chances we get to level the playing field. How many eighth grade math teachers of color get to watch journalist Mona Eltahawy debate former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright about the Middle East? Or Gabby Giffords and Mark Penn give a talk on gun control? Or James L. Brooks speak candidly on The Simpsons and the state of television? Or even eating lunch with Annie Lennox and Mitch Besser? (Perfect execution of a bragbrag here.)

According to some, I wasn’t even supposed to be there. But, since I’m going to be there, it’s only right that I be fair.

Only in some of these moments of dissent did I finally understand my purpose being there, and perhaps for this part of my life. As much as I thought I was stepping out of my comfort zone by going to Aspen, I also had a duty to help others step out of theirs. Going to the conference gave me the space to openly question House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s false debate about good teachers versus bad teachers, Joel Klein’s shaky legacy as NYC Department of Education’s schools chancellor, and EdX’s Anant Agarwal’s dismissal of the digital divide in people who attend and pass his MOOCs.

People need to learn the agency of their voice, and the presence they can have when they execute it well.

The people who work with the scholars at The Aspen Institute were amazing hosts, and prompted me to engage as often as possible. In fact, contrary to what I’ve been told, I appreciated the scholarship and the people who gave us a chance  to take part. (It’s a rather subversive awesome thing they did, really.)

If we can’t engage, then we end up being on a rather lonely island. There is something to be said for giving someone a boat and that someone taking it to the Carribean in hurricane season and not a small lake in the middle of nowhere. Surely, they’re as grateful for giving the boat to this sailor as the sailor is for getting it, right?

In the meantime, I’m on a boat. I’m on a boat. Take a good hard look at my motherfucking boat.