Asheville Ideas Fest offers ‘intellectual vacation’

The event will feature renowned speakers and intimate civil discourse

Guests pair up for conversation during a panel discussion at the 2023 Asheville Ideas Fest. This year's event is scheduled for June 17-20. (Photo courtesy Asheville Ideas Fest)

You might be able to tell from the name, but Asheville Ideas Fest is not your average summer conference. It’s a gathering of some big names — and some names you may not know but should — designed to create a conversation and a sharing of differing viewpoints.

“It’s something I refer to as an intellectual vacation,” said the event’s co-founder and executive director, Kirk Swenson. “We try to get people thinking about the biggest issues of the day and then spoil the hell out of them.”

Previous speakers at the Ideas Fest include Dr. Sanjay Gupta, a neurosurgeon and chief medical correspondent for CNN; PBS News Hour Co-Anchor Amna Nawaz; author and Newberry Award winner Kwame Alexander; Kizzmekia Corbett, a lead researcher at the National Institutes for Health Vaccine Research Center; Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jon Meacham; Thomas Friedman, foreign affairs columnist for The New York Times; and many more.

The idea behind the event is to offer thought leaders speaking on topics about which everyone may not agree. But at Asheville Ideas Fest, the disagreements don’t devolve into shouting matches or arguments; rather, it’s more of a civil discourse.

“When you disagree about something,” Swenson explained, “you might get mad, but then you could ask, ‘What is it that makes you see this differently?’ It’s better than immediately thinking someone’s a moron because they disagree with you.”

For instance, one issue discussed at the 2023 Ideas Fest was the Second Amendment. “We had a gun rights advocate, we had a person whose mother was killed in the Emanuel shooting in Charleston,” Swenson said. “And after our discussion, we found that 85% of our audience agreed where we need to be as a country when it comes to gun rights. We tend to focus on where we disagree, but we need to be more focused on what we agree on.”

Ideas Fest is all about “leaning into those conversations and learning from them,” Swenson said.

The conference spans three full days of speakers, Q&As, workshops and entertainment. In the mornings, there are panel discussions because, Swenson said, “lectures are boring. We want a conversation.”

There are ample opportunities for the audience — never more than 400 people — to ask questions of the panelists.

The afternoons include workshops that are designed by the morning’s speakers. In the evenings, there is a keynote speaker and entertainment.

Last year, for example, actor and storyteller Bryan Terrell Clark performed Broadway standards with the Asheville Symphony Orchestra during a sunset concert at the Grove Park Inn.

“We try to create wow moments, but really we’re focused, too, on a-ha moments,” Swenson said. “Asheville Ideas Fest is really rooted in creating opportunities for that civil discourse.”

The program for 2024 is still being finalized, but there will be three main themes for each day of the conference.

First will be thriving communities and cities. “What are the challenges these communities face?” Swenson said. “What makes a city fair and equitable?”

A live taping of “The Waters and Harvey Show” from the 2022 Ideas Fest featuring a discussion on the renaissance of historically black colleges and universities. (Photo courtesy Asheville Ideas Fest)

The keynote speaker will be Keisha Lance Bottoms, who served as the mayor of Atlanta from 2018-21 during the COVID pandemic and protests following the death of George Floyd. She will be talking about the lessons learned during those historic events, Swenson said. The thriving communities topic will also tackle homelessness, using the city of Houston as an example. “They have made real headway on that challenge,” Swenson said.

Celebrity chef Katie Bottoms is also scheduled to appear and will talk about her “different approach to compensation for service workers,” Swenson said. “She’s created a system that is more equitable and creates a career path.”

Alexander will return this year and speak on book banning. “He’s launching a national conversation on banning books, and he will launch that conversation at Asheville Ideas Fest,” Swenson said. The conversation will also include W. Kamau Bell, host of “The United Shades of America,” and, Swenson hopes, an potentially some combination of educator, parent or school board member who can speak to why some books have been taken out of schools.

Day 2 will focus on exploration of the unknown, with physicist and author Michio Kaku leading a panel titled, “Looking Beyond Our Galaxy: How the James Webb Space Telescope is Helping to Unravel the Mysteries of the Cosmos.”

The third day is set to focus on democracy, Swenson said. “We’re heading into election season, so we know that will be a big topic for us,” he said. “This will be the first presidential election in the age of AI, so we will have a discussion on that.”

Religion and politics will also be a big point of discussion during Day 3 with host of “The Run Up” podcast, Astead W. Herndon, joined by a rabbi, a professor on religion and democracy, and an author and researcher speaking on Islam.

The keynote for the third day will be Amna Nawaz, who will be doing a live taping of an interview with two key political leaders, who have not yet been confirmed to appear. “They are from states where bipartisanship thrives,” Swenson said. “They’re very purple states, where the parties have learned to work together.”

The 2024 Asheville Ideas Fest is planned for June 17-20, and is limited to 400 attendees. To learn more, visit

“I’m super proud of what we’ve created,” Swenson said. “I think it’s not only important for the Asheville area, but it’s important for the world.”