The word “conservation” is a common one, and conjures up visions of protected land- and sea-scapes, species being walked back from the brink of extinction and using sustainable approaches to manage precious natural resources. It makes sense that these kinds of images come to mind; they fit the mold of conservation as many of us know it.

DDCSP scholars
All scholars from the 2018 and 2019 cohorts celebrate the end of a successful summer with DDCSP staff.

But what if we thought about conservation in a broader and more inclusive way, acknowledging that humans and ecosystems are inextricably linked? What if we placed more value on traditions and cultures as they intersect with the land, water and sky, in a way that meets the needs of interdependent species — both human and nonhuman? What if conservation included other ways of knowing about the natural world beyond what science tells us, placing primacy on the lived experience of individuals? What if conservation meant the protection and appreciation of not only wild places, but also urban ecologies?

This is the paradigm that Doris Duke Conservation Scholars Program at the University of Washington (DDCSP@UW), an EarthLab member organization, operates within — and pushes the boundaries of — when training emerging student leaders. A fundamental rethink of intentions and approaches to conservation underpin the program’s core curriculum, and for some, that can be a radical departure from the field as it has been popularized to date.

“Conservation practices and priorities have been solidified in the academic realm, and advanced largely within nonprofit and government entities,” says Melissa Mark, director of conservation programming at DDCSP@UW. “Priorities are informed by science, but western science is just one way of knowing the whole world. Truth is, there are multiple different ways of honoring and knowing the world around us.”

student in estuary
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William Walker (2019) digging for clams as part of a monitoring project at the Padilla Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve.

The program launched in 2013 with funding from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation (DDCF), who partners with universities across the U.S., including the University of Washington. “The Doris Duke Conservation Scholars Program was created to support the growth of a new generation of diverse conservation and environmental professionals,” says Sacha Spector, program director for the environment at DDCF. “For us, this is a vitally important part of fostering a conservation movement that welcomes the contributions of perspectives of all corners of society, and as a result, is relevant to everyone’s life.” DDCF’s giving to UW over the years has totaled more than $10 million, earning them Presidential Laureate status.

Over the years, the program at UW has evolved based on feedback from participating scholars who have pushed to think more critically about what conservation is and what it means, and who does it and what it looks like. In turn, the program strives to broaden the idea and work towards creating a field that is more just and inclusive, both in theory and practice.

“Our scholars are redefining what environmental conservation is and how it’s practiced. Historically it has been perceived that people are outside of the ecosystem we operate in, and not a part of it; but people are part of that system,” says Mark. “Bringing peoples lived experience and knowledge into conservation, honoring indigenous knowledge; it doesn’t need to be validated by research, it’s valid on its own.”

students journaling near lake
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Scholars Guadalupe Estrada (2019) and Simren Rai (2019) taking notes and sketches in their nature journals.

Over 200 students apply each year from all across the U.S. and its territories, and the process to create each cohort is unique in that it aims to assemble a vibrant group with a wide array of interests and life experiences. Some students are from areas of study seen more commonly in conservation — science, resource management and environmental studies — while others bring a new lens through art, political science and media studies. The ultimate goal is to help emerging leaders develop and contribute the understandings, skills and perspectives needed to transform conservation efforts into ones that are more  inclusive, equitable and effective.

“We look for any students who are interested in conservation,” says Mark. “We ask them what their own personal vision of inclusive conservation might be. A big part of each student’s growth comes from the interdisciplinarity of the cohort so that everyone can help each other’s learning.”

The program spans two summers, and scholars receive a stipend and their food and lodging is paid for, support that is critical for many students. A typical year looks different for each student, but together during their first summer they critically analyze the intersections of biodiversity conservation, cultural identities and environmental justice by engaging with conservation practices across a range of ecological and cultural landscapes of the Pacific Northwest. The summer is designed to expose scholars to a wide range of conservation issues, the complex physical and cultural landscapes that conservation solutions emerge from and work together to untangle the societal frameworks and forces that drive conservation.

students assisting at a farm
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Scholars from the 2017 cohort assist with tending crops with farmers at a BIPOC-owned urban farm.

By the second summer, the cohort focuses on deepening skills, knowledge and networks within the conservation practice. They design and implement a collaborative internship project with conservation professionals, building upon the analysis of the first summer, to explore career pathways and cultivate a community of practice.

Each year, DDCSP@UW partners with a variety of organizations that host internships across a range of conservation topics and practices. Among the internship projects this year, scholars are working on restoring landscapes to preserve Indigenous foodways (Swinomish Tribal Community), researching opportunities for ecosystem services markets (Forterra), assessing impacts of forest fires on key species (UW Harvey Lab), assessing contaminant levels and options for remediation in Seattle community gardens (UWB Malone Lab), promoting Indigenous histories in protected areas (The Nature Conservancy) and monitoring urban wildlife (Beavers Northwest).

Having the space to explore new pathways of conservation, think freely and openly, and do so with a cohort of peers from across multiple universities, locations and backgrounds creates a tight-knit group of scholars. “There is a sense of belonging to something important, of having people understand them, and the students really value connection. Their lived experiences are often devalued, and this program helps give them agency in their own lives and its trajectory,” Mark says.

Former scholars work in a wide diversity of settings today, including as the public science coordinator for the California Native Plant Society, as an environmental and development planning specialist for US AID and providing youth education and agricultural expertise for urban community gardens. The diversity of their early careers is as diverse as the group of scholars. 

For more information about DDCSP@UW, check out their student profiles and the internship opportunities available to them. Applications for the 2022 cohort open in November 2021.