How Aspen Future Leaders Are Driving Climate Action

Nikki DeVignes is intimately familiar with the positive ripple effect that can come from supporting young people in the early stages of their careers. She started at the Aspen Institute as an intern over ten years ago, and has built her career around empowering young people and giving them the tools they need to effect positive environmental change.

She now serves as the director of the Future Leaders Climate Initiative, a program launched in 2020 as part of the Institute’s Energy and Environment Program aimed at uplifting the young voices that will shape climate change conversations going forward.

“The impetus to launch the initiative was around the fact that–particularly within the energy and environment space–it’s hard to find CEOs, executives, and leaders that are people of color. So we were thinking: What can our program do to help build that pipeline? Especially as we’re thinking about who tends to be disproportionately impacted by climate change. It’s often communities of color, and they need to be a part of the climate conversation,” DeVignes shared. “So the Future Leaders Climate Initiative was really kind of our way of trying to address those issues within our program, as well as create a space for young leaders because at the time, we didn’t have anything for young leaders in our program.”

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Future Leaders Kristy Drutman (far left) and Isaias Hernandez (second from left) speak on a panel at Aspen Ideas: Climate about how young climate activists are flipping the script on climate doom-and-gloom. Photo by Daniel Bayer.

The Inaugural Future Leaders Climate Summit was scheduled to take place March 26–29, 2020 in Chicago, convening 100 young leaders from around the U.S. for three days to discuss climate policy, communications, advocacy, and individual action with climate and energy experts. Two weeks before the event, the World Health Organization officially designated the COVID-19 disease as a global pandemic, and a few days later, the United States government declared a nationwide emergency. 

The in-person gathering was canceled, but the team remained steadfast in their commitment to creating a space for young people to engage in climate conversations. Pivoting to a virtual format, the first Summit was rescheduled for August 2020 and featured speakers from a wide range of professions who were involved in climate action.

Four years later, the program has grown significantly both in size and scope, receiving massive amounts of interest from young people who are eager to further their work in the climate space. The 2023 program hosted over 200 Future Leader Climate Fellows, more than double the amount from the first year. But beyond the increased number of young people involved, the initiative has grown in its purpose as well.

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Aspen Ideas: Climate gathers thinkers and do-ers whose actions are critical to addressing our collective future around the realities of a changing climate. Photo by Daniel Bayer.

Amy Glassman, senior program associate for the Future Leaders Climate Initiative, has played an instrumental role in the program’s expansion. “We’ve grown it beyond just the convening. That’s the biggest change–that it’s not just your typical Aspen gathering where everybody comes together, has productive conversations, then leaves with some inspiration. That part is still there, but we’re adding on more engagement opportunities throughout the year,” she said. “We’ve started to really get to know the leaders individually and are finding people who really wanted to be involved and made that effort to continuously stay plugged in with us and find ways to be leaders within their cohort.”

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2023 Future Leaders Alice Zehner and Lilly Heilshorn pose for a photo at the opening reception of Aspen Ideas: Climate. Photo by Daniel Bayer.

Last year’s Future Leaders Climate Summit played a significant role on the path to reimagining the initiative’s programming. 

“We had some individuals last year who got to meet with Vice President Kamala Harris during Aspen Ideas: Climate and have a frank conversation with her about the things that they’re working on and the challenges that they have. One of them got really vulnerable with the Vice President and shared her story of climate anxiety–how it’s dictating family planning and the sense of security coming into adulthood, what you thought your life was gonna be like and what you don’t think it will be anymore because of the changing climate. They had this really great conversation, and it ended up spilling over to the main stage at Aspen Ideas: Climate, and turned into this much bigger and broader conversation,” Glassman explained.

Vice President Kamala Harris - Aspen Ideas: Climate

“And so coming out of the Summit, it was sort of a turning point in my opinion. We went from just a convening to wondering: where do we go from here? How do we continue to meet the needs of these young people beyond the Summit? How do we make this a better, broader, more meaningful experience that goes beyond Miami?”

Fast forward to April 2023, just one month after Aspen Ideas: Climate. The same group of Future Leaders were invited to the Vice President’s home in Washington, DC to celebrate Earth Day. The group attended the event to talk with high-level leaders and policymakers about climate anxiety and the mental health campaign they had launched with the Institute’s support.

Through their connection to the Institute, Future Leaders have also gone on to appear at other high-profile events like Bloomberg CityLab, the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s PastForward conference, and more. “We started to realize that we have this formula for a really meaningful experience with a more robust presence throughout the year, and we’re looking at the whole year as an opportunity to make an impact on these young people as opposed to just one event doing it all for us,” Glassman said.

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2023 Future Leader Calli Obern presents at the Tech Expo about Capture6’s water positive carbon removal technology. Photo by Daniel Bayer.

“I never go a week without getting text messages because someone needs help to prepare for an interview, or could use some words of encouragement because they’re trying something new, or they need a connection to someone in our network. We can help facilitate that connection. We’re seeing a lot more of them leaning into us and using the power of the Aspen Institute to help them get where they’re going.”

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Future Leaders Sasankh Munukutla, Miguel Toral, Shayan Chowdhury, and Ruipeng Yukiyama at Aspen Ideas: Climate in 2023. Photo by Daniel Bayer.

The Future Leaders Climate Summit will take place March 9–11, 2024 during Aspen Ideas: Climate. Learn more about the program and follow along on Instagram.

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