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International Truths About Sustainability

Sustainability in the human age, across disciplines, cultures, and borders.

Photo of Kirsten Rowell
18 16

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Can you imagine young professionals who represent the trans-national, trans-disciplinary, and trans-cultural experiences needed to address the global and local sustainability needs?

Can you imagine them being trained to work across these divides to solve issues of equity, sustainability, and environment?

Can you imagine them having the training to speak beyond their disciplines and culture groups to targeted audiences on a human level?

We are working with these students.  The brightest undergraduate students from under-represented groups in their home countries, all working full time on sustainability issues.  The aim of this project is to tell their stories, in their voices. The work we are proposing is modeled on our previous work developing the Doris Duke Conservation Scholars program in the US (video example above). The focus is on building personal narratives that link issues of the Planet (from conservation to environmental loss) with issues of Prosperity and Peace (exploring the roles of power, privilege, agency, and identity in shaping our relationships with each other and with our planet).  In this previous work, we built a program to serve under-represented groups in the sciences within the US.  We brought students together in 8 week intensives to study and debate the intersection of environmental and social issues in the US, and we worked with each of them to develop and tell their stories to public audiences, and place those stories online. Initially the story telling was crafted as an identity building tool for the scholars, to support their confidence within a predominately white and affluent field. However, the impact on others outside of the program was even greater – those who have had similar histories, and those who have never considered or have never been exposed some of these narratives and perspectives. Within a year, the videos we made of our scholars have been viewed thousands of times in classrooms, boardrooms, and smartphones across in over 60 countries.

And yet the issues of power, privilege, agency, and identity that lock the minoritized out from the narrative of sustainability are not issues confined to the US.  These are international issues. 


Explain your idea

The International Fellows Program (IFP) will launch in 2018 to confront this challenge. This new program will reach out to the most passionate, talented undergraduate student-scholars from around the world. We will be bringing together compelling voices from under-represented groups engaged in sustainability conversations in their home countries. These students will work together over three years to learn about, compare and debate the most pressing challenges linking planet, prosperity and peace in their home countries. In this proposal, we are seeking support to tell their stories.

We are building from the same team of mentors, story-telling coaches, and multi-media communicators that we used to support the Conservation Scholars Program, and adding global sustainability experts and global science capacity building experts from Future Earth and START. With this team in place, and support in place to run the program and support the undergraduate scholars, we can write a new, international narrative linking Planet, Prosperity and Peace.

Working with each fellow, we will develop their own personal story and film their story in front of a live international audience of sustainability professionals. We are working with the Belmont Forum, Future Earth, the Future Earth Media Lab, and the International Sustainability Union. The Fellows will present their stories in front of a live audience of sustainability professionals each year, at the annual International Transdisciplinary Sustainability Conference (starting 2018). We will distribute these stories on the web, working with our partners in the Future Earth Media Lab. We have found that many of these stories need very little help to distribute, because they speak for themselves and spread like wildfires through social media. We know the power of these stories from our previous work.

The perspectives of these international, under-represented students on social justice and sustainability, served up live to an audience of highly influential people in sustainability science and innovation, has the potential to change minds, shift programs, and build a more inclusive vision for sustainability.

Beyond this punctuated event, the videos themselves will become a resource for classrooms and boardrooms, and an inspiration for under-represented individuals around the world struggling to find their own way and make their voice heard as they seek solutions to our most difficult sustainability challenges.

Who Benefits?

The most powerful direct impact of this project will be on the individual scholars. The empowerment that comes from the process of crafting personal stories linking the personal, social, and environmental challenges into wholistic stories of sustainability is a transformative process. In an exit interview from our previous program, one fellow from Middlebury College said:

“It was the first time in my life that someone had come up to me and genuinely wanted to hear my story... Every single one of the narratives shared that day were so important and so powerful. It just left me with this question: how many of these powerful narratives of resilience continue to be ignored in wider discourses?”

The benefits of these video narratives extend much further than the students. Because these narratives will be recorded in front of a live audience of international sustainability professionals, funders, and scientists, the event itself will have a powerful impact.

How is your idea unique?

Storytelling to convey messages and bring people together is as old as civilization. Using stories to call people IN instead of calling people OUT, however, is an important tool often forgotten in making inroads towards peace. In addition, giving people opportunity to highlight their own stories is itself empowering, especially for young people. Students collaborate and support each other in building their narratives, and presenting their stories. This narrative building process across differences of culture, access, and discipline has a transformative and bonding affect. These stories have power to heal and daylight issues that can be centuries in the making.

There is nothing like this on the international stage. We have done this in one country, and it has had a powerful impact. The potential impact around the world is much larger.

Idea Proposal Stage

  • Full-scale roll-out: I have completed a pilot and analyzed the impact of that pilot on the users I am trying to reach with my idea. I am ready to expand the pilot significantly.

Tell us more about you

In my last position, I designed, piloted, and grew the Doris Duke Conservation Scholars Program at the University of Washington. In this work, my team and I built what is perhaps the most progressive, inclusive, and high-impact conservation leadership programs in the US. We did this by bringing together students from backgrounds and social sectors that are generally not seen in conservation – Latinx, Black, Asian American, Arab American, and Native American; Gay, Lesbian and Transgender; first generation college students, and budding conservations from socially conservative backgrounds. We build trust, and we focused the program on the importance of their stories and perspectives.

It took a strong team with specific experise to support the students and their own process of telling their stories. I worked with Dr. Chenjerai Kumanyika ( ) who is a professor at Clemson University in Communication; Dr. Carolyn Finney (, professor in geography at University of Kentucky; Benjamin Drummond and Sara Joy Steele ( videographers with years of experiences in documenting peoples stories about their relationship with nature, and my instructional staff. The team is essential to building the trust and confidence with the scholars and helping train them in the art of story telling.

In my life, there has never been a more important time for team work like this on international issues of difference ( ethnicity, religion, gender, and equity) and sustainability, than right now. The International Sustainability Fellows Program we are launching in 2018 will do just that.

Expertise in sector

  • 3-5 years

Organization Filing Status

  • Yes, we are a registered non-profit.


Join the conversation:

Photo of Kristin Powell

This is great. Not just as an interesting platform, but as a way to keep some of the most inspired thinkers…inspired and appreciated. I also think that all the work going into this would create a platform to easily expand to other media with minimal effort, like recording for a podcast that could reach a wider public audience. Reminds me of the Moth story telling program but with a sustainability theme. I also like the international aspect. I’ve found that there are a lot of barriers to creating international fellowships through US programs because people are so swamped with implementing the program that lifting up really good international applications and candidates that face one extra barrier, like English not as a first language, can be too overwhelming to take on. So the fact that stories are getting curated to reach out to people and areas that might be facing the largest need for innovation in sustainability is refreshing. Look forward to chatting more about this, Kirsten.

Photo of Daniel Evans

Yes, a great idea to share personal stories and hopeful narratives that can inspire people around the world.

Photo of Wendy

I really like this project and would love to see it internationalised. Does the mentoring lead to longer term collaboration?

Photo of Kirsten Rowell

Thanks Wendy!

Photo of Sarah

Hi, neighbor (sort of-- I'm in Estes Park)--

Great proposal, really well written and inspiring to read. I see that you are at CU-- will this program be located at CU, or at UW? How will the Fellows be selected? Is the partnership with the Doris Duke Foundation ongoing?

Good luck!
Sarah Pita

Photo of Kirsten Rowell

Hello Sarah,
Thanks for your support! This program will be anchored at CU Boulder. The students will apply to a call, like many fellowships programs, and we will have an extensive and diverse group of folks who will be on our recruitment and selection committee.
The association with Doris Duke Conservation Scholars is that I used to run UW program, and I am still a co-Principle Investigator and a steering committee member, however there is not yet an official partnership between them and this program, but I definitely in close contact with all the DDCS programs.
While there are differences in the program that I am launching at CU (focus on international and sustainability whereas DDCSP is US only and focused on Conservation), there are so many places where our collaborative efforts would benefit all. Once launched, I can envision collaborating with the storytelling events and larger conferences that bring these amazing students together and network.

Photo of Hannah


that's a very good proposal, and a strong idea.
Future Earth has an extensive network of early career professionals - researchers and practitioners who are in the first ten years of their career - who could be linked to this initiative. I'm sure their input and support would be of great value.
Feel free to contact me.

Photo of Kirsten Rowell

I would love to talk more. This program is intended for undergraduates at the moment. An official partnership however, aimed at networking and mentoring would be a wonderful addition to the students' training. We have made a few connections with Future Earth and as we develop the program further we will figure out how we can build a synergistic partnership!

Photo of kiki

I've seen these narratives performed live and they are SSOOO powerful.

Photo of Kirsten Rowell

Thanks for your support Dr. Jenkins!

Photo of Kate Rushton

Hi Kirsten!

Thank you for sharing the work you are doing. The narratives are very powerful.

Am I right in thinking that your proposal is an event that gathers these young people together to be recorded in front of a panel of 'experts'? Then these videos will be standalone after the event and shared through social media.

Photo of Kirsten Rowell

Hello Kate,
Yes and no. Our proposal is to support the production and dissemination of the videos via a curated website. The event is tied to a three year program that supports students around the world in their research and career aspirations in sustainability innovations. The storytelling event will be supported through other funds and will be coupled with professional poster session - all open to the public, but I expect that experts in the field and partner organizations that work with students in their internships will be the bulk of the live audience.
In the past program that I ran, we had over hundred managers, directors and academics, deans of colleges in the audience, and I from what I learned it was hugely impactful event, changing hiring policies and opening up conversations for organizations about how to evaluate strategic planning and program development in conservation with more attention to inclusivity, equity, and social justice.
 Again, this was initially developed as an identity and cohort building tool for the students, which our evaluators have suggested was transformative for the students, but the emergent impact we didn't see coming was how it impacted the professional partners that we work with.
Thanks again for your interest Kate!

Photo of Doug Levey

Bravo! This is a powerful idea that's already been successfully piloted; it's easy to see how it can become even stronger by being internationalized. It has to be -- sustainability is a global challenge. The only thing I'm unclear about is whether there's an explicit message or idea behind each story....or is the message for the listener to fill in? (I suppose the impact of the stories would be lessened if they became too preachy.)

Photo of Kirsten Rowell

Hello Doug. Thank you for your support and praise.
Great question! The short answer is yes, there is an over-arching theme to all the stories that the students will write and present. Students will have writing prompts that help center their personal stories on the central theme of sustainability: what does it mean to them personally?, how does it impact them their communities? and the places and people that they love?, and how do they see themselves as part of the future of sustainability solutions?
In the past, our story teller trainers have really worked with the students in the art of telling a compelling story, one that draws the audience in on a human level, and how these are most impactful when told with vulnerability and humility, because in the end, you are asking for the trust of the audience and building a relationship with audience, in a sense. So, to your comment about preaching, we have definitely had to work with some of our students around this, and I suspect it will come up in every cohort, especial given the contention around some of the subjects that the students address. Our goal is to call people in, not to call people out.
Thanks again for the wonderful question.

Photo of Claire Horner-Devine

This is amazing work, and I would love to see these stories shared with a broad community to inspire a new generation of leaders and practitioners.

Photo of Kirsten Rowell

Thank you Claire. I think it could be pretty impactful too.

Photo of Jon

This is a fantastic concept because it joins together so many important strands-- early career researchers, individuals from under-represented groups, cross-cultural engagement and critical sustainability challenges.

Photo of Kirsten Rowell

Thanks Jon. I am hopeful.