Stephen Higgs (MS/JD ’05)
Executive Director, Senior Advocates for Generational Equity (SAGE)
What did it mean to you to be named a Doris Duke Conservation Fellow? What were some of the activities and opportunities that held the greatest impact for you?
Being honored as a Doris Duke Fellow was a highlight of my time in graduate school. I greatly appreciated the financial support from the fellowship to defray some of the costs of my education. I also felt blessed to have the opportunity to connect and socialize with other students, and to receive the training from conservation leaders. The greatest impact on me was the feeling of support to continue to lean into a career in conservation, and to better understand the importance of connecting with and networking with others in this field. I have strived to bring these practices forward throughout my career, and I learned these practices as a fellow.
Can you tell us about your SEAS experience? How did it help you advance in the conservation field?
The most significant experience I had at SEAS was the opportunity to work with Steve Yaffee and Julia Wondolleck at the Ecosystem Management Initiative (EMI). Throughout my life, I have been drawn to collaborative problem-solving. These two faculty members helped me understand how this set of practices can be applied in a field where I am most passionate—conservation and sustainable development. I learned a tremendous amount from my coursework in subjects such as negotiation and resource policy, and applied that learning as a research fellow at EMI. Working with Yaffee and Wondolleck, I gained practical experience to interview and learn from people from all walks of life seeking common ground. I also honed my research and writing skills, and became more experienced facilitating strategic planning and evaluation workshops for conservation initiatives.
Because of my work at EMI, I became interested in environmental mediation (a type of collaborative problem-solving) and that served as a springboard for me to secure a Fulbright Fellowship to focus on environmental mediation. I then became an environmental lawyer where I regularly used these problem-solving skills for a wide variety of clients. Today, I actively work to nurture and support collaboration as the executive director of a nonprofit. I am also drawing on my experience from EMI as I support the nonprofit where I work through its next strategic planning process.
My experience at SEAS and with EMI deepened my commitment to conservation and interest in protecting and restoring Earth. I am very grateful for all the support and encouragement from the university. I also appreciate remaining connected, and am pleased to serve as an alumni lead for the school in Oregon.
Lastly, I wanted to share that teachers at SEAS continue to influence me as I network with students who are pursuing a career in conservation. I am so grateful for the early support and mentoring of faculty, and strive to do the same for students I meet and connect with here in the Pacific Northwest. For me, one more way I feel like I can continue to contribute to conservation is by supporting younger people as they pursue this important work.
What kind of changes have you observed in land conservation in the U.S. over the course of your career?
I don’t work directly in land conservation. My focus is on promoting volunteerism and charitable giving in support of conservation and other causes. However, I do have a few observations.
First, I think there is good news! For example, I learned last year that the UN had set a goal related to protection of ocean reserves and met it. Awesome! Initiatives such as Hope Spots (the work of Mission Blue) are really exciting.
Second, I think there is bad news. For example, the challenge of a warming climate is creating a cascade of negative impacts. At this point, we are influencing the temperature of our planet for many generations to come, and there is an increasing need to act and to act with urgency.
Third, I have hope in the power of Impact Networks (a form of collaborative problem-solving) to take on some of our greatest challenges. I believe there are over 1.3 million charities in the U.S., and many are focused on conservation. With deeper coordination between these initiatives, I believe we can meet and achieve our conservation goals. I have been interested in and worked on conservation matters since I was 16 years old. Throughout this time, I’ve come to better appreciate the importance of collaborative problem-solving to pursue goals that are beyond the ability of any organization to accomplish on its own. I think there is a growing recognition of a need to better convene and collaborate to take on the issues of our time.
Note: Prior to 2017, the School for Environment and Sustainability (SEAS) was known as the School of Natural Resources and Environment (SNRE). References to “SNRE” have been updated to “SEAS” to reflect the name change.