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How can we become more human and more humane?

Art, science and technology can galvanize people, says executive director of new ASU-Leonardo partnership

photograph of Diana Ayton-Shenker, director of the new ASU-Leonardo partnership
December 12, 2019

What do you get when you bring together art, science and technology? A powerful way of galvanizing people, says Diana Ayton-Shenker.

Ayton-Shenker is executive director of the new Arizona State University-Leonardo partnership and CEO of Leonardo/the International Society of Arts, Sciences and Technology (ISAST). She is also a new professor of practice at ASU in both the School for the Future of Innovation in Society and the School of Arts, Media and Engineering.

Originally from Portland, Oregon, Ayton-Shenker comes to Arizona from The New School, where she was named a Global Catalyst Senior Fellow. She is the author and editor of four books and founding CEO of Global Momenta, a philanthropic strategy and impact innovation firm. She served as Inaugural Nazarian Social Innovator in Residence at the Wharton School of Business, was named one of “25 Leading Women Changing the World” by Good Business New York, and was featured among “31 Inspiring Women in Nonprofit Management” by the University of North Carolina.

Ayton-Shenker has taught courses at The New School, Bard College, American University of Paris and Hunter College, where she directed the first undergraduate human rights program in the United States. Her U.N. briefing paper “The Challenge of Universal Human Rights and Cultural Diversity” has been translated into all six official languages of the U.N. and cited in more than 100 books, articles, papers and policies worldwide. She holds an LLM in international human rights law from the University of Essex and an honors BA in international relations from the University of Pennsylvania.

Question: What is Leonardo/ISAST?

Answer: We are a 50-plus-year-old nonprofit organization, effectively a think tank for cross-boundary collaboration to advance humanity with hybrid, creative inquiry and practice. We convene pioneering thought leaders and disseminate transdisciplinary ideas through publications, including Leonardo, the world’s leading peer-reviewed academic journal on arts-sci-tech, published by MIT Press. In addition to our publications, our programs include a growing network of art-science residencies and a salon series called LASERS: Leonardo Art Science Evening Rendezvous, held in over 40 cities around the world. 

Q: What excites you most about your new position?

A: What excites me most about this new position is the convergence of people and perspectives and the power of this moment in time. The convergence of people introduces new perspectives across our leadership — Leonardo and ASU; across our larger community of students, artists, scientists, technologists, scholars and practitioners; and among the people whose lives are touched by our work.

We have an incredible legacy that we inherit from Leonardo, first, from Leonardo da Vinci and that embodiment of transdisciplinary genius still inspiring us over 500 years later, and second, over the last 50 years, from Leonardo the organization and publications, building a global community of people whose transdisciplinary practice sparks genius. We’re inheriting that legacy at a time when ASU is emerging as the leader in recognizing that we need new ways of learning and living, new paths of lifelong learning and new higher education culture that aspires to action and integrity for impact. 

There’s never been a more important moment than right now to mobilize action with integrity to have impact, and I believe that doing so with arts/science/technology is one of the most influential ways that we will reach people. We need to reach people today to transform humankind into a regenerative species: becoming more genuine, generous and generative. The challenge of climate crisis and the promise of technological breakthroughs make this the pivotal moment of human history to accelerate our regenerative evolution, and to do so in a way that makes us more human and more humane.

And that is the key driving question that makes me excited about this work, that has motivated me throughout my transdisciplinary life and career, that I’m taking as my mantra for the rest of my days: "How can we become more human and more humane?" One way we answer that is with arts, science and technology. But it has to be integrated together. It can’t just be: "Look how clever we are with this gadget we made," or "Look how smart we are with this scientific understanding of something" or "Look how pretty we are or how provocative we are with art." It has to be pulling it together with integrity and impact.

Q: As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?

A: From very early on what I wanted to do was use my voice to make a difference in the world, and that difference was about connecting us with a greater sense of human justice and dignity. A turning point for me came in 1979. I was 14 and entering a new, very big high school, where I did not know many kids. In September, I read about the killing fields in Cambodia in the New York Times, which we subscribed to and which was unusual in Portland, Oregon, at the time. I knew what genocide was, and I recognized it. I knew what it was because my parents were part of the first group of American Jewish leaders who traveled to the death camps in Europe in the early ‘70s, early enough that when they came back, they went on speaking tours to share what they saw, because no one knew or talked about it then.

I said to my parents, “I read this story, and you taught me that atrocities like the Holocaust didn’t just happen because of bad people. They happen because of all the good people who don’t stand up. And we say ‘Never again,’ but it's happening right now and we know it and I see it, so we can’t be silent about this.” So, I said, as a 14-year-old, “I want to go to the refugee camps in Cambodia and volunteer and do something about it.”

They could've dismissed me, they could have laughed. But they listened. They took me seriously. My parents told me they were proud of me. And then my dad said, “But you're a minor, so if you traveled there, you’d need an adult to help you. That would take resources away from the services they need to be providing to the people who really need their help.” My dad said, “Let’s think about what could you do now.” So, I thought about it, and I thought, well, I could talk to my new social studies teacher who’s teaching us about the world, and I could bring in the article and have her raise it. So I did and she said, “This is really important. I’m glad you brought it up, Diana, why don’t you share it with the class?”

I learned from that two really important lessons: One, I had a voice, and I could use it, and people would listen to me. And that was an incredible gift and opportunity and responsibility and I wanted to use it beautifully, from my living room to my classroom to whatever arena I could enter in the world. And the second lesson was that I had limitations and I needed to recognize what they were so I could identify the sphere of influence that was open to me and work within that arena. I thanked my father for those lessons a couple of years ago. He said, “I remember that conversation really well, but there was a third lesson that I wanted to impart to you,” which I had forgotten. And the third lesson was, right now you have limitations, but you won’t always have those limitations. So now is the time to equip yourself and cultivate the skills that you can bring to a much larger arena, a much larger sphere of influence, when you don’t have the limitations that are on you now as a 14-year-old starting high school. That was a turning point for me that maybe crystallized the work that I was here to do.

And that found expression over the last four decades through activism and public scholarship, through my practice in public policy and international human rights law, through advocacy with international humanitarian organizations and U.N. agencies, through teaching at universities and living in different countries. Throughout that process, my transdisciplinary engagement mobilized levers of change from arts, media and culture to the private sector, finance, philanthropy and entrepreneurship. Mobilizing these levers of change inspired me. And those spheres of influence for me were part of a continuum, not just a series of concentric circles but more of a constantly moving Venn diagram, yet I never saw any barrier in those boundaries as if they were discrete fields. Along the way, I found that we feel most alive when we are inspired, when we are feeling something personal and when we recognize a sense of belonging and a sense of purpose. To me that converges in this opportunity with ASU and Leonardo, because the convergence of arts/science/technology that Leonardo brings in partnership with ASU, a university that has innovation, sustainability, reimagining itself embedded in its DNA, is inspiring, and it makes us feel alive, and it invokes and invites a sense of belonging and a sense of purpose. In this sense, the ASU-Leonardo partnership promises to catalyze action with integrity for impact, right when our world most needs such inspiration.

Q: Anything else you'd like to add?

A: I invite people to join us as we build the ASU-Leonardo partnership as a catalytic force for good. I invite the community to participate in answering the questions: How do we become more human and more humane? How might we transform humankind into a more regenerative species? How do we awaken our individual and collective “inner Leonardo,” through sparks of collaborative genius? Where do we match action with integrity to have impact through art, science and technology?

Top photo: Diana Ayton-Shenker is executive director of the new ASU-Leonardo partnership and a professor of practice in the School of Arts, Media and Engineering and the School for the Future of Innovation in Society.

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