Like many of us, I began the day on Wednesday 9 November exhausted, angry and confused. It was an early morning because we hadn’t slept well and it was an early morning because Evan and I were catching a flight to Miami to get on the ship for Summit at Sea. We considered canceling, but decided to go. We boarded the NCL Escape—an apt name for the moment. We joined the 3,000 or so Summit attendees and began the dance of figuring out how to talk with all these other exhausted strangers about what happened on election day. Most seemed to also be having a hard time transitioning in to what was promised to be three days of dialog and experiences around creativity, innovation, mindfulness and more. But even before we had words to describe it, the feeling that we were exactly where we needed to be was taking shape.
The Summit team had spent a year putting this event together; nine years, really, if you consider it the grand output of their activities to date. They realized—despite not having planned for it—they had to flip the script while the event itself was already beginning. This was an opportunity. There were 3,000 lateral thinking, forward-looking, motivated people coming together. On a boat. A bubble. A crucible. And they did it. They reset the tentpole talks and sessions to focus on what everyone needed to process—what would the this administration look like, how would it impact us and others, and how we could synthesize our thoughts into action.
We walked in the the theater for the opening plenary with hesitation and distraction. We hadn’t yet left port yet and there wasn’t going to be internet access for the duration of the cruise and there was so much news we all needed to read, so many friends and family we needed to reach out to, so much we still just wanted to understand. And then Dr Shefali Tsabary opened the session and guided us into the moment. Her words brought us together. From there Dolores Huerta and Sonia Sanchez, seasoned activists and educators, shared their lives’ work and in turn reminded us that we’ve been here before. The pendulum swings and we have to look at this challenge as an opportunity.
Over the next 60 hours we moved between sessions digging into this idea of how to move forward. Summit is delivered in a festival format—there are several concurrent tracks including presentations, discussions, experiences and entertainment continuing for nearly 22 hours each day and night. It’s a community in which all the speakers and entertainers are living among us. “It’s the maximization of the medium. There is no green room. Speakers are guests as well,” explains Jeff Rosenthal, co-founder. The attendees are mostly young, a multi-cultural and gender-balanced group of entrepreneurs and change-makers selected to attend. With heavy representation from California and New York, but with a turn out from all over the country and internationally, it seemed that the vast majority hadn’t supported Trump.
In one of the more poignant sessions—a dialog with LeVar Burton and Tracy Ann Essoglou—we were reminded by Burton that “Crisis is an opportunity for change,” with Essoglou pushing us to get out of our comfort zone, “If we code what we are, we will create what we already have.” Both advocated that empathy, even with adversaries, is the only way to start trying to create change. Some members of the audience pushed back feeling that they need to take care of their families and communities because trying to empathize with their opponents would be useless. While the discussion could have continued for hours, it ended with emphasis that we, the human race, are “one” and love is the only answer. While I personally believe this, I’m struggling to figure out how to both fight and love—how to move forward with action but without anger. It’s not easy, but it’s necessary. In another session about the future of storytelling with playwright and screenwriter Beau Willimon and film producer Stacey Sher, Willimon noted, “There’s a lot of opportunity to exploit chaos” in times like this, encouraging people to bring their best creative game in bringing their thoughts into action.
Timely politics wasn’t the only issue being discussed. Far from it. Programming was curated around tracks including Trojan Horses, Origins, Superhumanification, Black Turtlenecks and Garages, Beyond Corn and Soy, Six Degrees of Separation, Musicology, The Asia Question and Studio of Expression. There was so much content that it wasn’t easy to select only those that we could attend. Highlights from other sessions included the future of food with Caleb Harper, deep honesty with Shep Gordon, the power of curiosity with Cal Fussman, ancient psychedelic mysticism with Carmen Vicente, an entertaining comparison of what it means to be a writer between Quentin Tarantino and Kendrick Lamar, Hank Willis Thomas reminding us that “love over rules” and Fab 5 Freddy just being awesome.
For those who have been to Summit at Sea before, you’re probably wondering how the food was. “Amazing” is the answer. This year the ship’s usual ingredients and preparations were set aside for a who’s who of American chefs and their restaurants, including Dan Barber, Nyesha Arrington, Carolina Santos-Neves, Katie Bell, Haru Kishi and Jeffrey Zurofsky, The Fat Radish, Ed and Bev’s, Bodo Bone Broth and many others. The chefs visited the ship several times in the last few months, working with the culinary staff to create their dishes with the all-organic ingredients ordered for the occasion. The impressive culinary program, along with craft cocktails and considered snacks and beverages, was developed by Jeffrey Zurofsky.
Beautiful sunny days and late nights were enhanced with the ship’s waterslides, pools, hot tubs and gym. An area of the ship was dedicated to wellness, featuring a range of yoga, mediation and healing options. Art was everywhere, from Aaron Taylor Kuffner’s musical Ganelatron to Nina Chanel Abney’s murals, Sequoia Ziff’s Refugee Photo Project, and the fragile yet imposing coral reef-inspired sculptures by Nervous System on the main stage. Music and dancing rounded out the days and nights, with performances by Thievery Corporation with Perry Ferrel, Bob Moses, Quantic, Jermaine Dupri, José Gonzalez, Chances With Wolves and more.
While Summit might never again have an event immediately following a shocking, world-changing event like we saw last week, the organization will always be pushing us forward given that “the future will only be as great as the communities that shape it,” as stated in their manifesto. So what’s next? Their 2017 flagship event aspires to be the “New World’s Fair” and will happen in a campus-like setting in Downtown LA. Between now and then, though, there will be several small and medium events both on Powder Mountain at around the world.
Image credits in order of appearance: Amy Harris, Daniel Fox, Ben Henretig, Daniel Fox, Adam Blazar, Ali Kaukas, Wayne Price, Adam Blazar, Ali Kaukas