One of the things I love best is to hear stories about what inspires other people, what motivates them, and how their lives have changed. Very often they’ve also changed the lives of others too. This summer I was invited to Chautauqua as a speaker and guest to offer my story of transformation. But I found that I was the one transformed. Where I found it was even more unexpected.

Eleanor Roosevelt, left, on a porch at Chautauqua: “You must do the thing you think you cannot do,” said Eleanor.

Last July I arrived at Chautauqua Institute and settled in on a wide porch where the restaurant served evening dinners. Established in 1874, Chautauqua is a reminder that summer holds time for families to attend a resort where lectures and sailing mingle, where new ideas and gardens bloom, all while enjoying a beautiful setting. Chautauqua is nestled in the western hills of New York by a lake bearing the same name and a stone’s throw from Lake Erie. I was there to share some stories about what motivated me to become a pilot and how that led me to create projects for space. I gave my speech, but what followed was a surprising discovery—the porches at Chautauqua are everywhere and are the heart of the Chautauqua experience.

At the end of the day events have covered a wide range of topics and their meanings on: religion, justice, democracy, science, music—each held at one of the many pavilions for outdoor gatherings The porches there are where the conversations continue, where everyone becomes a speaker, invited to sit for a while or longer, and snack and sip what the hosts of the porch serve (and who are quite generous with the contents of both). Chautauqua is a village of well-tended gardens with houses of all styles, including many stunning Victorians. And almost all have porches. I had the honor to be invited to Chautauqua to speak to a thoughtful audience but was even more honored to be invited to be a guest on a few porches to hear from many others who arrived there too, to enjoy the camaraderie, to reflect, to listen, and to exchange dreams. The common theme: what are the most important contributions will we make in our lives?

The porches are the heart of Chautauqua

The porches of Chautauqua taught me that they are the real stages for community conversation, inspiration, and change. For more than 140 years, Chautauqua has hosted speakers and famous guests: Amelia Earhart, Teddy Roosevelt, FDR and Eleanor, Ella Fitzgerald, Bill Clinton—and the list goes on. I like to image them arriving on the porches there too. Giving rise to more ideas and dreams and their most important contributions.

We need to reflect and determine what our most important contributions are. And to gather to discuss them. At no other time are porches more needed than today.