In an era where confidence in traditional institutions is low, listening has become more important than ever

Americans have grown increasingly skeptical of major institutions in recent years, including the media, government, and universities. Thanks to the internet, information is now decentralized, and many people are finding alternative sources of truth and wisdom. Where does that leave traditional institutions, and how can they rebuild trust?

“We’re under a lot of criticism all the time,” said Jack DeGioia, the president of Georgetown University, during a conversation at Unfinished Live. “The most important thing we have to stay true to is our fundamental purpose, our mission.”

Dan Porterfield, the president and CEO of the Aspen Institute, a nonprofit, says the key to building trust is promoting transparency, real dialogue, listening, and partnerships. “We can’t come in with solutions. We can’t even come in with the problem framed. We have to come in with a genuine spirit of reciprocity and listen, and then develop solutions with the community,” he said.

Shamina Singh, the president of the Mastercard Center for Inclusive Growth, believes that allowing people to be their full selves is crucial. “I think that in a world where identity is becoming more and more elusive because of the decentralization of assets, places where you can bring yourself and bring your best self to work or play, or whatever that is, become increasingly important,” she explained.

Watch the full conversation below, and scroll for a written transcript. The transcript has been lightly edited for clarity. Statements by these speakers have not been fact-checked by Unfinished and represent their individual opinions.

Julia Ioffe

This is totally surreal for me. Earlier this morning, I was on a train for the first time in two years, and seeing this sea of faces is totally wonderful. Thank you so much for joining us. Thank you to my panel. We’re talking about trust today, the lack of it, the presence of it. I think it’s a very relevant topic given what we’ve all just lived through, not just in terms of the pandemic, but the Trump administration, and the politicization of facts, science, everything.

So I want to start with Shamina. Shamina, you direct social impact, you’re at Mastercard. What I’m seeing a lot of on social media is a younger generation that doesn’t…. It’s not even about not trusting certain companies. It’s not trusting capitalism, period. Right? And at the same time expecting a lot from these companies, right? Expecting them to take a stance, to be ethical, to have a certain kind of engagement with the issues of the day. What do you make of that? How do you work around that at Mastercard and in the financial industry in general? What does that look like?

Shamina Singh

Okay. That’s a pretty big question.

Julia Ioffe

You have 30 seconds.

Shamina Singh

I have 30 seconds, okay. So my quick answer is, it’s important and it’s real. So I would probably say a couple things. One is, I think that Covid had a big impact on all of it. What we saw at Mastercard — we have about 25,000 employees around the world — was that as Covid took shape around the world, sources of information became very hard to trust.

And so, what our data showed, and what I think what a survey showed, was employers became one of the most, if not the most trusted source of information around Covid, vaccination, masking, coming to work, things like that. And so I think that moment really shifted the relationship. Employer, employee, colleague, business partner, took on, I think, a new kind of relationship. And for our part, I think we had to spend a lot of time thinking through and sifting through information in a way that I don’t know how others did.

And so, I guess one portion of the response is that Covid had a big impact. I think that employers, multinational companies, if they weren’t doing it before, had to start really thinking through information they were sharing among each other, but also with employees because safety and health became the priority. So it literally became issues of life and death. And so, I think that has really had an enormous impact on the way we have worked inside the company.

The only other thing I’ll say is I think we were a bit ahead of the curve, only because the nature of the business that we’re in is connecting buyers and sellers who don’t know each other and can’t see each other. So this notion of decentralized trust, and how you do that is the business of payments, that you just heard on the other panel. So I think that, that was a little bit of the work that we had in front of us, but also the reason why we were a little bit ahead of the curve.

Julia Ioffe:

Very cool. Dan, I’m very familiar with the work of the Aspen Institute. You guys do tremendous work in educating people, educating policy makers, but also convening. How has that changed in the last two years? You work in the knowledge industry, essentially. How does decentralization jibe with that?

Dan Porterfield

Well, so the Aspen Institute is a global non-profit organization and we drive change through all kinds of ways, through convenings like this one. And we’re so proud to partner with Unfinished on this, thanks to Libby Franklin and Kitty Boone on my team, but we also have 25 or so programs that are driving change in education, in economic inclusion, in racial justice.

We work with the Center For Inclusive Growth at Mastercard. We work with Georgetown University on college access. We have 13 global Aspens based in other countries, Aspen Germany, Aspen India, Aspen Mexico. And we also have a major set of leadership development programs that find talented 40-year olds who are already climbing a mountain and help them climb their next one. Seven of our fellows ran for president in 2020.

So it’s a big global nonprofit, but it’s not about “the future is decentralized.” For the Aspen Institute, the present is decentralized because all of these different types of change-making I just described, reflect different assumptions about how society should be organized, or about what’s the most important lever to pull for change?

What I think is exciting is being part of a complex organization that can harmonize all these different talents and methodologies, all of these different regions and places where we work. We’re on the ground with Native American youth. We’re working in the C-suite on inclusion with major corporations. And I think that is a better positioning for change-making in the long haul, than being so centralized that you just do one thing.

Julia Ioffe

And does this predate the pandemic?

Dan Porterfield

Absolutely. It was basically hardwired into the organization 70 years ago when we convened after the Holocaust and said, “How do we save civilization?” And the answer to that question at that time was to involve the private sector in change-making. And now 70 years later, like a big bang, we’ve added so many more programs, but the trace elements of that commitment to putting people around the table who may disagree profoundly in order to find the gold that can come from serious engagement, that’s as true today as it was when we started.

Julia Ioffe

Jack, I want to get to you. Trust is such a kind of important issue these days in terms of higher education. You’re the President of Georgetown. Even before the pandemic, there was a hot debate, and now with all the questions about what is taught in schools, in colleges—what comes out of colleges and how it affects society—It seems that people both look to institutions of higher learning, but also are really scared of what comes out of that. So how do you navigate that?

Jack DeGioia

Nothing to be afraid of, that’s the most important thing I can say.

Julia Ioffe

I’m not scared. I love it, but a lot of people are.

Jack DeGioia

Well, I think the dynamic we’re all wrestling with right now, and we all represent sort of elements of civil society, the civil society institutions that help sustain and nurture our societies, and each of us have different roles. University’s role fundamentally, all of us throughout the last millennium, we have three fundamental responsibilities at the university.

We support the formation of our students, the inquiry, the scholarship and research of our faculty, and we contribute to the common good of the communities in which we participate.

In response to your question, it’s that middle piece inquiry which is so crucial because the one thing that society expects of universities is that we will be the place you look to for whatever constitutes truth, and in whatever moment, that’s what goes on in universities. And we get to that by building a whole range of… The fancy sort of academic term is epistemic communities, communities of knowledge.

And those you would recognize from your days in school, are departments and schools. And in those epistemic communities, what is grasped, understood, and taught is the best we know right now. It’s the best account we can give of what we think is the truth.

Now, part of the challenge we wrestle with is the truth is always provisional because we’re always interrogating it, we’re always critiquing. Whatever body of knowledge, we take as what is understood today. And it’s that dynamic, that if we don’t protect that, if we don’t protect the ability of our faculty, our students, to pursue that truth and to be able to engage in it in an untrammeled way, we’re not doing our part for society.

That’s the role we play, and if we do that with integrity, we’ll be able to make our contribution in this moment.

Julia Ioffe

So this is a bit of a darker question for the three of you, but you are at three big establishments, and I don’t mean that in a pejorative way at all, but established, big, important institutions. And for the last few years, in part, because of the decentralization afforded us by technology like social media, like being able to work remotely in the last two years, and the political developments of the last few years, institutions have been under attack. The idea of truth has been under attack. The ideas of trust have been under attack, right?

How do you deal with that as an institutional player, when trust in institutions is so low?

Dan Porterfield

Transparency, real dialogue, listening, partnership. We partner with almost everyone, and sometimes people say you shouldn’t partner with them or them or them, but we really believe that enormously successful and important long-term—

Julia Ioffe

Sorry to interrupt you. What’s an example of people pushing back on your partnerships?

Dan Porterfield

Well, sometimes we bring together political people that have wildly different views of the world, and we will put them around the table and provide a context in which they can talk to each other. And some would say, “Well, why should you do that?” And the answer back is because there are no solutions for our future if we don’t put people that see the world differently around the same table.

Julia Ioffe


Dan Porterfield

And I’d rather be helping to construct that table, very much inspired by what Jack said, than be pretending that solutions will come if I go off in a corner and just talk to the people that all agree with me.

And it’s relevant to be sitting between a leader in the private sector who has done remarkable work to drive change through the Center for Inclusive Growth. And full disclosure, we have a relationship where you funded the Aspen Institute to work on inclusive growth. And on this side,  to be sitting next to somebody that leads a great institution that we partner with, and to say yes, of course. You hear the private sector and the academy get attacked all the time. Cynicism is easy. It just doesn’t solve problems. What actually solves problems is rolling up our sleeves and finding a way to work together.

He’s creating tomorrow’s citizens to be able to function in the public square because they go to his campus and they learn how to… they try out being citizens. She’s investing in companies around the country that are trying to break through the gridlock that keeps everyday people from having access to technology and opportunity.

So if somebody wants to attack higher education or the corporate sector without any other regard for what they’re actually doing, I’m willing to stand up and say, “Slow down. Let’s look at this more holistically.”

Shamina Singh

Thanks for that, Dan. I do think though, in terms of how we look at it, I think at least at the Center For Inclusive Growth, so we were formed probably seven years ago because there was a commitment from the CEO and the Board to say, there are a lot of assets at a company like Mastercard beyond capital, data, data analytics, technology, a network that includes 3 billion cardholders, and millions and trillions of transactions that happen in a second.

There’s a lot of stuff, and I think that the sentiment for the creation of the center was to say, “Look, there are assets out there that we need to make sure that we are being conscious of, responsible with. So interrogate the assets and turn them to social impact.”

And I can say that with a straight face, because actually, when I joined the Aspen Institute as a fellow, I came out of the public sector. I came out of a space where that was the premium. And one of the things that I think we’ve done at Mastercard, which may be different and maybe a surprise to folks, is that our largest shareholder is the Foundation. So when Mastercard became a public company, it took 10% of its stock and created the Mastercard Foundation. And as the company grew, the Foundation has grown.

So now the Mastercard Foundation is valued at about $40 billion and is doing work around the world, mostly in Africa. But we’ve sort of propagated that as a potential model, as you talk about capitalism and things like that, to sort of say, there are things within the capitalist structure that companies can do that are different from the model. Ours, back in the day, before it was popular, was to make our largest shareholder a Foundation.

But the other piece of it is when you’re in a company like Mastercard… Again, I’m focused on the stuff that I know I’m involved with, so I can’t speak for the capital-P private sector. You’ll have to get Josh Bolton for that. But I think for us, because we deal in data, we had to produce data responsibility principles in the absence of government regulation around those.

So I think we also made a conscious choice to say, “It’s not going to be the wild west for us.” We actually have a responsibility because we are working in the payment space, where you have to trust that once you buy something, you get something. And if you don’t like what you buy, you can return it. And all of that happens because you do trust a system that’s going to happen. That system was built by humans.

Because that system was built by humans, in this case at Mastercard, we sort of said, “We can’t wait for government or bad things to happen around… We are actually the leaders in the space.” So we did create a framework for data responsibility that recognizes that you own your data, you control your data, and you should benefit from your data.

And that again, goes completely outside of what you’re normally hearing in a lot of the space. But it also shows that, again, in this kind of structure, companies led by people can make decisions that increase the chance for a race to the top, instead of a race to the bottom.

And by the way, you can still make money. You can still make a difference. So I guess I don’t buy into the notion that these things are mutually exclusive because we’re actually living in a place where they’re not mutually exclusive.

Jack DeGioia

And for us, we’re under a lot of criticism all the time. And the most important thing we have to stay true to is our fundamental purpose, our mission. And we have to protect a set of practices that enable universities to be universities. And there are two in particular that are of crucial significance.

The first is to protect speech and expression, and we don’t limit speech either on the content of the view or the person expressing the view. And we get a lot of criticism for the folks that come and speak on our campuses, but what that protects is opinion, and our nation was built on the principle of protecting opinion.

And the second practice in university life is academic freedom. Academic freedom allows any member of our community to follow the truth wherever it may lead them. We call it disinterested truth. We want to ensure that our folks can go wherever the inquiry leads them. Academic freedom is the necessary precondition to pursue the truth.

If we can protect those two, regardless of the kind of context we’re in at any given moment, we’re doing our role, we’re serving our purpose.

Julia Ioffe

So last question with the time we have left, and I want to open it up to all of you. Again, on this question of trust, I think some of the distrust, as we’ve seen in the last few years, comes from communities who feel that they have not been represented in these institutions, don’t see themselves reflected and included in these institutions.

And Shamina, it’s in your title. Jack, at Georgetown, you’ve been doing some very interesting stuff to reckon with the history of the university. Can you guys talk a little bit about how representation and inclusivity, and working towards that reinforces, I hope, trust in your institutions?

Shamina Singh

It does reinforce trust, but it also reinforces competitive advantage. And so, I think that in a world where identity is becoming more and more elusive because of the decentralization of assets, places where you can bring yourself and bring your best self to work or play, or whatever that is, become increasingly important.

And I think that’s also the competitive advantage of innovation. And so, you’ll hear a lot of tech companies talk about innovation. Innovation is diversity of thought, view, place, privilege, all of those things. And so, I would sort of say, the reason that I operate in this space is because I’m a thinker, a learner, and a doer, and where innovation is happening is where I’m interested. Where innovation is happening is also what I’ve learned over the years, is about diversity as your competitive advantage. And again, it’s creating an environment where it’s a race… The “unfinished line” is a race to inclusion.

Dan Porterfield

Two answers to that. So again, we have 75 programs at the Aspen Institute. We’re on the ground with Native American youth all around the country. We’re working with millions of, out of work, out of school, 16 to 24 year olds. We’re developing family centered strategies to address generational poverty, the parent and the child together, and more.

There are all kinds of grassroots work happening through the Aspen Institute’s programs, and that requires, fundamentally, co-creation with the communities we are a part of. We can’t come in with solutions. We can’t even come in with the problem framed. We have to come in with a genuine spirit of reciprocity and listen, and then develop solutions with the community, that can then empower the community.

And one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen is when it works. So for example, in our Native American youth Program, there’s a young man named Trenton that I met, who took part in leadership development for two years with us. And at the end of that, he one time told me, “When I got into this stuff with you guys, I thought that not voting was a sign of rebellion. And now I know it’s a sign of surrender.” And getting communities to engage with our processes, our democratic processes, getting more inclusion in those processes is critical work for all of us, and it’s quite joyful.

The other side which should be thought about is that in a decentralized system, let’s say my organization, when you want to make change, you sometimes have to move more slowly than the outside forces would wish. So after the murder of George Floyd, we did a lot of work looking within at our organization, and how could we build a comprehensive initiative on DEI and anti-racism, that would respond very much to our need to reform some of our internal practices?

And we had some great leaders in our programs running all this stuff on the ground, but because we’re decentralized, it wasn’t a matter of a management edict. We had to take the time to really engage our people. I think that makes us better for it, but we had to work… We had to bring everybody along as opposed to just issue a mandate.

Jack DeGioia

I know where we’re out of time.

Julia Ioffe

It’s alright. Go for it.

Jack DeGioia

So I’ll just say this. We have to live the same commitment to truth that I was describing earlier as our purpose as an institution, in our own self-understanding and in our own recognition of our own history and our heritage.

We were founded at Georgetown in 1789. We’ve been through eight months before the Republic itself. So we’re 232 years into this, and we’ve grown up with this nation in the City of Washington. Not all of our history is something that we’re proud of, and we’ve had to ensure in each generation that we shine a very bright light and understand what does that mean, and what it means right now to be exploring questions that we have explored over the last decades.

Right now, in the context that we’re working, that self-reflection is ever more meaningful, it’s ever deeper, it’s strengthened and we benefit from extraordinary scholarship and art, some of which is right here in this conference. We benefit from the context that we now operate in, that enables us to see ourselves with greater truth in this moment, than we have ever before.

Julia Ioffe

Thank you. Thank you everyone. Thank you Shamina, Dan, and Jack. I think we’re done.