Opening doors for students of color: Woody Wheeler and Lori Cohen

by Frances Badgett

Huxley alumnus Woody Wheeler (’76) and his wife Lori Cohen have dedicated their lives to environmental protection and conservation. Recently, they channeled their passion into a generous contribution to the Huxley 50th Anniversary Diversity Scholarship.

Among his many accomplishments, Woody was a founding member of the Seward Park Audubon Center in the heart of urban Seattle. After a career working for several environmental non-profit organizations, he started a birding and nature touring company, Conservation Catalyst, and led birding and nature tours for Naturalist Journeys. He has led tours from Canada to Antarctica. 

Lori, a University of Maryland graduate, worked for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for 37 years, from 1978 to 2015. During her career, she assumed many positions, but her last was as associate director of the agency’s Regional Superfund program where she managed the cleanup of contaminated properties throughout the Pacific Northwest.

During their careers, both environmentalists have championed overlooked and underrepresented populations, whether by creating access for underserved youth in outdoor spaces (Woody) or cleaning contaminated properties near low-income neighborhoods (Lori). They have each worked hard to broaden and diversify the environmental movement.

“We deliberately sited the Audubon Center in the most ethnically diverse corner of Seattle,” said Woody. “In order to make certain the neighborhood wanted us there, the City asked us to conduct a needs assessment. I interviewed 40 key stakeholders as a part of this effort, and almost to the person they said, ‘Of course we want this. It would be good for our families and our community.’”

Cohen has sought to hire people of color and to advocate for environmental justice as part of her focus at EPA.  

“Many of the projects I worked on were in ethnically diverse, low-income neighborhoods,” she said. “We worked hard to be inclusive and to address environmental justice issues by engaging tribal governments and the local community in our cleanup projects.”  

When Huxley appeared to be falling short of its fundraising goal for its biennial anniversary celebration, the couple pledged $12,000 in matching funds to the college’s 50th Anniversary Diversity Scholarship to boost the campaign. They made lists of friends and family members who could contribute, appealed to Huxley board members who had not previously engaged philanthropically, and sent a letter on Huxley’s behalf from a noted conservationist of color to alumni supporters. 

“People of color have been disproportionally affected by environmental pollution, and this scholarship will help create opportunities to gain entry into the environmental field to address these problems,” said Woody.
Thanks to the couple, and donors who stepped up to match their gift, Huxley met and exceeded its goal for the 50th Anniversary Diversity Scholarship. 

“We wanted to do something tangible, to put our money where our mouth is, and to make change happen in our society,” Woody said. “Western and Huxley are taking bold steps in committing to diversity. We hope these new students will be comfortable and nurtured from their first year to graduation, that they get a degree in environmental science, and work for the environment in their careers. We all need their talent and perspectives.”

For Woody and Lori, diversity isn’t just a “should,” it’s a “must.” 

“The environment needs all of us,” said Woody. “We have to do this—it’s for our very survival as a species.”

Woody and Lori are both mostly retired now and have enjoyed traveling the globe to spot penguins, monkeys, and manakins. While Lori tutors elementary school children in disadvantaged neighborhoods, Woody shares his passion for nature through birding and natural history tours, educational presentations, and by serving as a tree advocate in Seattle.