When Faith Webster applied for a leadership program on a whim two years ago, she didn’t know that it would have lifelong impact. As a member of the Aspen Institute Young Fellows Program in St. Louis, she joined 20 students, all between the ages of 16-20, for two years of training on civic engagement, local issues, and leadership.
The Aspen Institute, a leading global think tank, established the program in 2016 to “develop the next generations of local, purpose-driven leaders nationwide.” St. Louis joined Newark and the Mississippi Delta region as the first areas selected by Aspen to launch the prestigious program, which included an intense application process; Faith was selected from an applicant pool of 350 area students.
Aspen gathered the students nine times over the course of 15 months for intensive, all-weekend training sessions, including a trip to Washington, D.C. over the summer. According to Faith, “everything had a purpose – whatever Aspen included in our learning for the weekend, you knew it would help you.”
The cohort began their program by exploring their own concept of identity, including aspects rooted in race, gender, and ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds. Students built upon that foundation by unpacking some of the country’s founding documents, reading and listening to presidential speeches, and learning about policy issues in the St. Louis region. “We were encouraged to explore our passions along with developing leadership skills by learning about and discussing different leaders, social movements, and policy.”
The program culminated in individualized social enterprise projects. Faith’s project addressed the lack of equity in the St. Louis Public School System. She conducted in-depth research, met with community leaders, and developed a curriculum that would ultimately teach kids in under-resourced areas leadership and personal identity skills, imparting much of what she learned at Aspen to others. She adds that Aspen encouraged students to think big in their discussions: “They never tabled an idea,” she says. “You could do whatever you were passionate about and Aspen gave you the support and resources you needed to be successful.”
The cohort celebrated their graduation at an event this fall. While excited about the doors the program has opened for her, Faith adds that she will miss the camaraderie of her cohort. “I view us as a family now,” she adds. “And I’m excited about opportunities here at Crossroads and in college to create similar spaces that encourage our ideas and dialogue.”