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Search for a spark at Asheville Ideas Fest

The annual immersive forum aims to encourage curiosity, facilitate conversation, and bring together a diverse community to find new perspectives.

Six panelists speak at Asheville ideas fest

The panel discussions aren’t just lectures — they’re a chance for dialogue.

Photo by Emmanuel Figaro

Experts on book banning, homelessness, astronomical discovery, and service industry careers walk onto a college campus... no, this isn’t the setup to a weird dad joke, this is Asheville Ideas Fest.

From Monday, June 17 to Thursday, June 20, the forum will invite thoughtful, engaged citizens to UNC Asheville to take part in discussions, panels, and workshops designed to provoke active contemplation and intentional reflection.

Pursuing a fresh perspective

In some sense, the origins of Asheville Ideas Fest could be traced to a conversation that Vice Chancellor for University Advancement Kirk Swenson had with former UNC Asheville Chancellor Nancy Cable in March 2020. Its impetus was to provide real value to the community, raise the intellectual profile of the university, and build stronger skillsets for civil discourse.

Truly, though, its philosophical roots run deeper. “I found myself avoiding conversations with people who saw the world differently than I did,” says Swenson. “And I realized how incredibly dangerous that is — not just for me but also for our country.”

The event is a chance to facilitate those conversations in a productive, significant way. It aims to encourage attendees to examine their deeply held beliefs, to engage in valuable discourse, and to experience new perspectives. The topics chosen for the panels and workshops each year focus on some pretty weighty topics — and the organizers issue a challenge to approach them with curiosity.

“We make sure that we’ve got a variety of responsible perspectives,” says Swenson. “We try really hard to avoid creating an echo chamber.”

A panelist kneels to speak to and shake hands with an audience member

Bring your curiosity, creativity, and (of course) ideas.

Photo by Emmanuel Figaro

Contemplative conversations on the calendar

This year’s fest brings together experts from fields and all walks of life. Chef Katie Button will lead a panel discussion on dignity and equity for service workers, alongside James Beard Award-nominated chef Dean Neff, Highland Brewing CEO Leah Wong Ashburn, and Community Manager of New England RAISE Betty Marcon.

Mandy Chapman Semple, managing partner at Clutch Consulting Group; addiction specialist Dr. Christopher Mills; Erika Jones-Haskins, chief of policy initiatives for the US Interagency Council on Homelessness; and Alyce Knaflich, founder of Aura Home Women Vets will explore innovative solutions for addressing homelessness.

Dr. Michio Kaku, theoretical physicist and bestselling author, will reflect on how the James Webb Space Telescope is uncovering the secrets of the universe. Then authors Wiley Cash and Ron Rash will host a lively live taping of the Our State Book Club podcast.

That alone seems like it could fill the whole schedule, but we’ve only scratched the intellectual surface — the four days will be full of conversations around free speech on college campuses, democracy + elections in the age of artificial intelligence, and moral dilemmas around land conservation, as well as workshops with panelists, networking, music, comedy, and food trucks.

A group of people sits at tables and on couches at UNCA

There’s plenty of time for networking, too.

Photo by Emmanuel Figaro

The forum is an investment. Added based on popular demand, day passes are $500. Passes for the Monday evening kick-off and all three days of sessions (plus some meals) are $1500. For VIP access, which includes special experiences and specialized food + bev, is $2000.

Many analogous events, like TED or Aspen Ideas Festival, will sell tickets for more than $10,000 — but Swenson says that they can offer this on-par forum for a lower price because much of their team is volunteer and a few speakers + businesses provide services for lower fees or sometimes pro bono because they believe in what Asheville Ideas Fest is doing.

“It’s a pretty extraordinary opportunity to attend something like this in your own town,” says Swenson.

Curious about what all is in store? Well that’s an appropriate attitude — check out the full schedule, then secure your registration.

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