People helped me not only mature into being an environmental lawyer, but they also helped me grow and mature as a person. They saw something in me I didn’t see in myself.”
As a child, Helena Wooden-Aguilar loved the Poconos woods so much that she mourned when others cut down four trees near their home. As a teen, she often nagged her parents to recycle. So when she arrived at the historically black Howard University in Washington, D.C., she was puzzled to find that when she talked about environmental issues, "people kind of withdrew from the conversation." Tutoring inner-city teens, she gained insight: "They told me, 'I have a lot going on in my life. I'm afraid for my life-it's hard for me to champion the environment when my own environment is so complex.'"
It made Helen determined to marry her environmental concerns to the passion for justice she had inherited from her father, Mr. Sherman Wooden Sr., a retired director of the Office of Multicultural Affairs at the University of Scranton, who also taught social psychology. At only 21, Helena enrolled at Vermont Law School. "It was like home to me," she says. "People helped me not only mature into being an environmental lawyer, but they also helped me grow and mature as a person. They saw something in me I didn't see in myself." Dean Shirley Jefferson became her mentor and surrogate mother, giving her career advice and scooping her up for drives to the grocery store.
A tough environmental job market led Helena into a position as staff attorney at the Battered Women's Justice Project in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania: "I learned from the wonderful women around me what it meant to be an advocate in the truest sense-they gave 100 percent every day," she says. While online one day, she found an opening at the EPA in its Office of Civil Rights, "my dream job." When she was hired for the position, she took her Venezuelan- born mother, Ms. Reina Wooden, a retired Pennsylvania state auditor, out to dinner and cried with happiness.
As a case manager for the External Compliance Team, Helena investigated discrimination complaints against local and state governments receiving EPA funding, often nudging feuding parties into mediation. Deputy Chief of Staff Ray Spears, her mentor, urged her to expand her focus. While brainstorming with her fiancé, Helena realized what she really wanted to do: bring more minority students into environmental law. Thus, her plan was hatched: a program in which VLS and the EPA would collaborate to offer courses on environmental law and policy to students at historically minority colleges and law schools. The students could steward and champion the environment in their communities and, perhaps, one day become environmental lawyers, as well.
Helena methodically worked through details with EPA officials. An email she sent in February 2009 to Dean Jefferson garnered a quick "Excellent idea!" Nine months later, a Memorandum of Understanding was signed in which the EPA and VLS agreed to expand outreach to minority and underserved communities. The pilot program, offering for-credit classes in climate change and energy law, will start in spring 2011. Vermont Law School will provide environmental curriculum in a several ways, including faculty and student exchanges and possible distance learning courses. "It's been on a fast track," says Helena. One early outcome: EPA has already sent five African American students from North Carolina Central University Law School to attend the last VLS Summer Session.Helena, who is currently team leader of her office, is hoping the program will expand; details are under wraps at the moment. Weekends find her with her fiancé, Mr. Steven Robinson, and their two-year-old son rambling down Virginia trails: "We're definitely an outdoors type of family," she laughs. "Just like me, my son loves to run around in the woods!"