Minds on Fire: Inaugural Asheville Ideas Fest fueled moments of awe, appreciation, and fresh perspective

Think back on the last time you had a mental lightbulb go off. What flipped your switch? What circumstances give you goosebumps, epiphanies or a-ha moments? Maybe you stumbled upon a stunning vista or found focus in a yoga session. Perhaps you listened to a new podcast, stepped into a hot shower — or stepped out of your comfort zone completely.

There’s a reason some of the greatest ideas of our time have been hatched during unexpected moments in the great outdoors — and in good company. The different people and diverse perspectives that we surround ourselves with are instrumental in how we perceive the world, and how we grow and evolve as human beings.

Intentionally curating and facilitating more of these moments? That was the ultimate goal of the very first Asheville Ideas Fest, dreamed up by Nancy Cable, Chancellor of University of North Carolina Asheville, and brought to life by her team over the course of several days in June. Aiming to be the preeminent festival of its kind in the Southeast, the five-day event brought locally and internationally celebrated speakers, thinkers, artists and chefs together to rub elbows with attendees over memorable experiences — all against the inspiring backdrop of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

“We’ve gotten to a point in our society where we’re losing the ability to see the world through different eyes,” reflects Kirk Swenson, Vice Chancellor for University Advancement for UNC Asheville. “The climate right now feels very ‘us versus them’ — whether due to political ideology, religious differences or other roadblocks.”

Swenson led the team that coordinated the festival from day one, working closely with Chancellor Cable, university contacts, and brand partners like The Cliffs. “We tried to create an environment that is very open-minded and receptive, and expose people to a variety of different viewpoints on important topics — give them a chance to really engage with those ideas.”

Curious what those ideas covered? A diverse and dazzling range of subjects were explored, from the future of medicine and emerging engineering technologies, to the myths surrounding democracy and best practices in navigating important discussions. “Across the schedule, you’d see a melding of two types of content: intellectual and creative. A lot of the experiences are really a crossover event, so to speak — a balance of ideas and entertainment. They were bookended by energizing outdoor experiences in the morning, and uplifting cultural events in the evening,” says Swenson.

A phrase heard throughout festival events again and again was “civil discourse or civil dialogue,” something Swenson believes is growing scarce in our society. “Our goal was to place people in the right frame of mind, physical space and intellectual space in order to facilitate those meaningful conversations, to better understand one another and engage with different ideas. This is an intentionally non- partisan gathering, and we’ve not shied away from what I consider some of the major hot-button issues our world is facing right now. We take a reasonable, measured approach to those conversations that will challenge all of us in a positive way.”



Sure, you could listen to TED Talks all day and achieve a similar level of enlightenment — but that’s not what the festival set out to accomplish. The social element, and act of discovery, is what Swenson hopes will draw attendees back year after year. “It’s a chance to gather with other intellectually curious people, and expand your social group in a positive way. It’s also a chance to see places and spaces in Asheville that you’ve never been to, or are rarely open to the public. For example, enjoying an Asheville Symphony concert up in the outdoors haven that is Grove Park Inn, looking out over Mount Pisgah. Those are the real ‘wow’ sort of experiences we’re providing folks.”

Getting an endeavor of this scale off the ground wasn’t easy. It began with philanthropy, when Chancellor Cable engaged a small number of university friends who offered resources. From there, her team began reaching out to partners like The Cliffs, who became crucial in helping bring the event to life and make the activities stand out. “Highland Brewing, for instance, very quickly came on and said, ‘we love this idea, what can we do?’ They brewed a special-release beer just for the festival, which we served at the opening event,” adds Swenson. “The UNC campus is certainly the home base, but our partners have made it possible to really immerse guests out in the community and see some unique, cool spaces in Asheville.”

Imagine: you just absorbed an eye-opening talk from a celebrated historian like John Meacham — and now you’re tasting a limited-edition craft beer with him. That closeness and easy camaraderie sets the stage for lasting connections. “This is a small, intimate setting, not a massive gathering — and there are opportunities for follow-up conversations with our speakers and performers, because they’re going to stick around for the whole thing. That means you might belly up to the bar one night and find yourself standing next to awarded author Fareed Zakaria, with a chance to ask questions and continue the conversation post-panel. Those types of casual interactions are what will continue to make this event so unique and special,” reflects Swenson.



To live here is to love it, and the Ideas Fest team couldn’t agree more. “We were eager to share this region and lifestyle with others — to give them exposure to the best of the outdoors here, and invite them to get out and hike and bike, or paddle our waterways; to taste the amazing craft beers being made here; and experience our exceptional cuisine,” says Swenson with a smile.

That element of Southern hospitality is just one of the university’s reasons for acting as home base. “We want to cultivate and raise the intellectual profile of the entire region we all call home,” insists Swenson. “We have an incredible creative class that exists here too, from music and art to theater. When we think about what Asheville is historically known for, compared to what it is currently known for and what we want it to be known for, I believe that this festival played an important role. This is a place with a really rich history — not just a destination for bachelorette parties. It has long since been a gathering point for intellectuals, artists and visionaries in an incredible setting, and we want to help reclaim that legacy — and commit to that purpose — so that the future of Asheville remains bright.”



Research is clear on this point: Time spent in active outdoor pursuits prepares us for meaningful intellectual pursuits. In theory, it’s often called the “Transformative Power of Awe” — a belief that seeking out more awe-inspiring moments can influence our openness and optimism for the future. It’s also a driving component of what makes the Ideas Fest a total departure from the hotel ballroom, powerpoint-heavy conferences of the past.

“Each day at the festival began with programming designed to tap into those active outdoor pursuits, whether it’s kayaking along the French Broad River or sunrise yoga. In fact, the last day of the event was specifically reserved for those kinds of experiences — wrapping up the week by celebrating the beauty of this place,” adds Swenson.

“When someone asked me, ‘What is the festival, really?’ the answer is simpler than you think: it’s intellectual recreation. There’s a strong conceptual component to the festival, but when combined with these other sensory experiences — from food and music to the great outdoors — it became so much more. It became ‘smart fun.’”

Swenson believes the festival experience will resonate with participants long after it ends. “I want people to walk out of here feeling like they’ve experienced the beauty, talent and openness of this region on a deeper level — and like they’ve forged a community with the other participants and our speakers. I hope they find themselves thinking differently about some of the leading issues of our time, and excited to share those fresh perspectives with others. If you had a chance to experience it, tell others about it. And mark 2023 on your calendar — it’s only going to grow more incredible,” he says.


This story was featured in Cliffs Living Magazine. To read more stories like this one and learn more about The Cliffs, subscribe here.

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