Building Bridges in Polarized Times

July 27  -  July 29, 2019

The 2019 Aspen Conference on Engaged Communication Scholarship will focus on how communication scholars and scholarship might help in “building bridges in polarized times.” As the political, economic, cultural, and racial divisions in our world appear to be ever widening, this year’s conference invites participants to engage theories, methodologies, and practices that foster connection, understanding, and mutual respect. Leading scholars and practitioners will examine the communicative roots of polarization and division and help us imagine how our scholarship may productively disrupt polarized positions and groups. Key questions that will inform the conference include:

  • What kinds of communicative practices invite and sustain polarization within organizations and communities?

  • How can we intervene into polarized conversations and facilitate health and well-being within organizations and communities?

  • How can institutions be created that help bridge divisions within organizations and communities?

The 2019 conference will also introduce a case study to be more deeply examined in 2020 when the Aspen Conference will temporarily relocate in order to take a “field trip” to the site of the case.

Please consider submitting a project in process or just join us in July to participate and share your ideas!


The 2019 Focal Case:

Efforts to Counter Human Trafficking in Colorado and Pueblo

Colorado’s counter-human trafficking efforts will be the focal case for the Aspen Engaged in 2019 as the conference centers on how communication scholars and scholarship might help in building bridges in polarized times. A team of four Coloradans whose professional duties center on countering human trafficking at state and local levels will provide an overview of their multisector, collaborative efforts and some of the challenges therein. Conference attendees will be invited to interact with the case presenters and each other regarding theories and methods that can help illuminate both the successes and setbacks encountered by counter-trafficking practitioners, and practices that foster connection, understanding, and mutual respect in such work—as these are applicable to other complex societal problems as well. Scholars and practitioners will co-examine the communicative roots of polarization regarding HT, and bridge-building in some counter-HT initiatives in CO. Doing so will spark conference participants to further envision how scholarship may productively disrupt polarized positions and groups.

In 2020, the Aspen Engaged conference will be held in Pueblo, CO, as counter-HT leaders from Pueblo interact with conference attendees to co-develop analyses of pioneering counter-HT initiatives in that city which are bridging polarizing debates and common gaps in coordination between state agencies and local actors.

In the U.S., human trafficking is defined by federal law (and most states’ law) as labor or sex induced by force, fraud, or coercion, and the commercial sexual exploitation of minors. The victims of this crime include US citizens as well as foreign nationals, males and females, adults and children. Multiple facets of the crime (i.e. causes, impacts, public perceptions, and responses to it by governmental agencies and nongovernmental organizations) are entwined with disparities between—and discourses about— race/ethnicty, gender, and class. Public discussions of HT are often polarizing as they intersect with discussions about other hot button issues including immigration, economic opportunities (or the lack thereof), sexual mores, consent/agency, school curricula, law enforcement priorities, harassment, and discrimination.

Colorado is a national leader in initiatives to coordinate statewide and city-level efforts to end human trafficking across the state, provide legally-mandated services to survivors, and prosecute perpetrators. These efforts have been mapped, catalyzed, and tracked statewide by the nongovernmental Laboratory to Combat Human Trafficking in 2012 and again in 2018, and by the Colorado Human Trafficking Council, the creation of which was mandated by the CO legislature in 2014.  

Keynote Case Presenters

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Amanda Finger, MA, is the Executive Director and co-founder of the Denver-based non-profit, Laboratory to Combat Human Trafficking, which has focused on anti-trafficking efforts since 2005. She was an Adjunct Professor for two years with the Institute for Women’s Studies and Services at Metropolitan State University of Denver, teaching Human Trafficking and Women’s Health Issues. Her professional background includes health advocacy in Washington, DC, Congressional campaign organizing, serving as a Legislative Aide for the Colorado General Assembly, and field research on human trafficking and forced migration in Johannesburg, South Africa. Ms. Finger holds a Master of Arts degree in International Human Rights with a Certificate in Global Health Affairs from the Josef Korbel School of International Studies, University of Denver. Ms. Finger holds Bachelors in Arts degrees from Kansas State University in Political Science and French; a Secondary Major in International Studies; and a minor in Women’s Studies.
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Maria A. Trujillo, MA, currently serves as the Human Trafficking Program Manager at the Colorado Department of Public Safety, Division of Criminal Justice, Office for Victims Programs. In this role Ms. Trujillo overseas and coordinates the efforts of the Colorado Human Trafficking Council that was legislatively established by the Colorado General Assembly through HB 14-1273. Ms. Trujillo joined the division in December 2014 after spending the previous six years in Houston, TX as the Executive Director of the non-profit organization, United Against Human Trafficking (UAHT), whose mission is to prevent and confront human trafficking by raising public awareness, training front-line professionals and empowering the community to take action.

Prior to her time at UAHT, Ms. Trujillo lived in Washington, DC where she worked for an international development organization called Health Volunteers Overseas. While living in DC she also obtained her master’s degree in International Communications at American University. Ms. Trujillo also holds a BA in International Relations from Claremont McKenna College. Ms. Trujillo has served as a speaker and expert technical advisor on the issue of human trafficking at the national, state and local levels, including being invited to the White House to participate in a stakeholder meeting to advise the government on their federal strategic action plan to address human trafficking. Ms. Trujillo has also been recognized for her work combating human trafficking as a “Circles of Change” honoree by Building Bridges for Peace (2012) and a “Table Talk” honoree by the University of Houston’s Friends of Women’s Studies (2015).

Keynote Speakers

The conference centers on how communication scholars and scholarship might help in building bridges in polarized times. A number of scholars, including Drs. AnnJanette Alejano-Steele, Kirsten Foot (author of Collaborating Against Human Trafficking: Cross-Sector Challenges and Practices), and Laurie Lewis (author of the just released the 2nd edition of Organizational Change: Creating Change through Strategic Communication with a new book out soon on organizational listening), will offer presentations which lay the theoretical groundwork to help us engage with the case.

AnnJanette Alejano-Steele, PhD, is an associate dean in the College of Professional Studies at Metropolitan State University of Denver. Her health psychology expertise is focused on local and global multicultural issues, including reproductive health access for low-income populations, and comprehensive health services for victims of human trafficking.

Alejano-Steele has been teaching at MSU Denver since 1996, where she is tenured in the Departments of Psychology and Women's Studies. Alejano-Steele served as interim chair of the Department of Social Work and was director of Gender Institute for Teaching and Advocacy from 2006 to 2009. She created and coordinated the Human Trafficking Academic Response Team, which consists of ten academic departments designed to provide wrap around academic services for survivors of human trafficking as a form of long-term survivorship.

Alejano-Steele serves on the steering committee of the victim services-focused Colorado Network to End Human Trafficking and on a key investigative taskforce led by the State of Colorado Division of Criminal Justice. She also serves on a national working group focusing on trauma-informed care for the Office of Women’s Health, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

She is co-founder of the Laboratory to Combat Human Trafficking (LCHT) and co-author of “The Colorado Project to Comprehensively Combat Human Trafficking,” a groundbreaking three-year LCHT study that examined how the state is responding to trafficking. She is currently coordinating a national project on promising practices in human trafficking.

Alejano-Steele received her doctorate in psychology from Michigan State University, NIH-supported postdoctoral work in psychology and medicine from the University of California, San Francisco.
Kirsten Foot, PhD, has expertise in practice-based theories of collaboration, organizing processes, and the evolving relationship between technologies and society. Her current research focuses on coalition-building and multisector collaboration in efforts to counter human trafficking. Her award-winning book Collaborating Against Human Trafficking: Cross-Sector Challenges and Practices (Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, 2016), examines the systemic tensions—including differences in financial resources, status, race, gender, beliefs, and values—that often hinder cross-sector collaboration in the fight against modern slavery, and offers insights and tools for re-thinking the power dynamics of partnering.

In previous projects she has analyzed worldwide trends in counter-human trafficking efforts, established a measurable relationship between narrative themes and network structures in the U.S. and U.K. fair trade movements, articulated the core practices of web campaigning, developed innovative online research methods, and studied the development of an international conflict monitoring network in the post-Soviet sphere.

In addition to conducting engaged scholarship on issues that require interorganizational and cross-sector collaboration, she has consulted for several multisector counter-human trafficking initiatives, including the Colorado Project, the Los Angeles Regional Human Trafficking Task Force, the Washington Advisory Committee on Trafficking, and Washington State Task Force Against the Trafficking of Persons.
Laurie Lewis, PhD, teaches and conducts research in areas of organizational change, stakeholder communication, interorganizational collaboration, and civil society organizations and community communication. She is a recognized expert in communication processes during organizational change.

The author and editor of several books, including “Organizational Change: Creating change through strategic communication,” Lewis's research has appeared in Human Communication Research, Communication Monographs, Academy of Management Review, Journal of Applied Communication Research, Journal of Business Communication among others. She currently serves as co-editor of the International Encyclopedia of Organizational Communication. She has served as associate editor for Management Communication Quarterly, and has served on the editorial boards of Human Communication Research, Communication Monographs, and Management Communication Quarterly and Journal of Applied Communication Research. She is an active member of the National Communication Association, International Communication Association, the Academy of Management, and the National Coalition of Dialogue and Deliberation.

Lewis has consulted and done training for a number of for-profit, nonprofit, and governmental organizations including Center for Disease Control—Center for Global Health, Habitat for Humanity, USAID, Internal Revenue Service, Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary, Community Action Network, Frito Lay, Merrill Lynch, and Kraft Foods among many others.