Inside Track: An environmentalist at heart
Beginning with collecting thrown-out pop cans at an early age, Bill Wood never envisioned a career in environmentalism.
Bill Wood started picking up pop cans from the side of the road when he was only 4 or 5 years old in hopes of “becoming rich” from the deposit refund.
He might not have become rich, but he did learn early on that much of what people throw away is valuable.
“I was always indignant that people would throw this stuff out but also that I could get this money,” Wood said. “I could take people’s trash and make it beneficial to me.”
Though environmentalism took hold from an early age, Wood didn’t initially intend to pursue it as a career.
He entered the University of Illinois with plans of pursuing genetics and cancer research but ended up graduating with a dual degree in English and history.
Luck landed him his first job.
He said his roommate was giving up a field research position with the University of Illinois and suggested him as his replacement.
“I worked on this University of Illinois critical trends assessment project. I would go out with a master’s level botanist and do field research on invasive species. My job was, basically, geographic information systems and collecting plant and insect samples all over the state of Illinois and trying to analyze how invasives were doing compared to natives. So, that was my first foray into the environmental field, sort of by accident.”
Wood said after two years in that position, he headed out to Seattle to join his sister, who he called “kind of my hero,” and took a job doing deconstruction and architectural salvage in Seattle and Bellingham, Washington.
He returned to the Midwest to be closer to his family. He said his mom lived in Illinois and his grandma lived in Tennessee, so he settled on Kentucky and enrolled in graduate school.
He earned a master’s degree in social work from the University of Kentucky, having discovered that he liked working in the nonprofit realm.
“I kept ending up in the nonprofit field, basically,” he said.
A particular catalyst for his decision to obtain a master’s degree was his work as a victim advocate for a Whatcom County domestic violence and sexual assault service provider.
“A lot of the women that worked there had MSWs or BSWs, and I saw myself going in that direction and wanting more responsibility,” he said. “The ability to be a decision-maker in an organization really led me down the path for the graduate degree.”
Wood participated in the Great American Clean Up the summer before graduation and was fortuitously partnered with the executive director of the Lexington Habitat for Humanity.
The pair discussed Wood’s previous experience with deconstruction and architectural salvage and that conversation ended with an invitation for Wood to join Habitat for Humanity part time.
While there, Wood secured an Environmental Protection Agency grant for Habitat to do deconstruction and architectural salvage work that allowed the nonprofit to hire him full time as the deconstruction coordinator for the program.
“That was just a very fortunate break, that I happened to be there with the boss of the organization and I had that experience,” he said. “And that brought together these two passions of housing advocacy and environmental sustainability, particularly with construction and demolition waste.
“My main job was scavenger. Keeping things out of the landfill was my goal, but the goal for Habitat was bringing in this material we could sell to make money to help with the housing mission.”
Wood said the program started out small, but by the time he left the organization, it was making $300,000 per year for Habitat’s ReStore.
Wood also was responsible for initiating a latex-based paint recycling program, which he believes was the first of its kind in Kentucky.
In 2012, he had the opportunity to become the ReStore manager for Habitat for Humanity in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.
“They didn’t have a ReStore and wanted to start one, and (because of my experience) I was seen as someone desirable to come in and get that off the ground,” Wood said.
Habitat made Wood an interim executive director for the location after a year and a half, and eventually, he was promoted to the position of executive director.
During his time in Harrisburg, Wood said he was able to reduce the organization’s operating debt by $200,000 in a two-year period without cutting any positions.
“Which was a massive feat,” he said. “It was extremely difficult. It was a combination of intense fundraising and examining expenses closely. That was one of my main accomplishments.”
He also took on a challenging situation involving over-assessed property values.
Wood said Habitat for Humanity had built six new homes in one of the most impoverished neighborhoods in Harrisburg, and the properties had been assessed at a rate far above what homes in the neighborhood had sold for in multiple decades.
“We had folks paying $650 or $700 a month, which is a lot on a mortgage period and especially for a habitat house in a very low income neighborhood,” Wood said. “I dug into it and found they were paying two-thirds in taxes, tax bills of like $450 a month.
“The homes had all been over-assessed by the county to the tune of about 200 percent,” he said. “We had homes assessed at $150,000 and taxed like that, but no one had sold a home in that neighborhood for over $65,000 in decades.”
Wood was able to arrange for pro bono tax assessments and legal representation for the homeowners.
“We were able to appeal to the county tax board and get the values of these homes cut in half, so the tax burdens were cut by 50 percent or more.”
Wood said it was a challenging time, especially because the homeowners blamed Habitat for the situation.
Wood said it turned out to be one of his proudest professional moments.
It also was the conclusion of his time at Habitat for Humanity in Harrisburg.
“I literally walked out of court with them and then announced I was leaving,” he said.
Wood had taken a job at the West Michigan Environmental Action Council in Grand Rapids.
He said getting back to the Midwest was important to him and he’d been familiar with West Michigan previously thanks to several trips to Bell’s Brewery in Kalamazoo during college.
Wood has been at WMEAC for six months now, and he said he is excited to be able to focus more on environmentalism and sustainability.
“I’ve tried to inject environmentalism and sustainability into a field where I think it belongs but not everybody does,” he explained. “I had some battles I won and some I lost during my time at Habitat.”
Wood said he plans to continue to focus on recycling and waste reduction as key objectives in his new role.
He said WMEAC specifically plans to work with Kent County to increase recycling rates and making the recycling stream cleaner.
“When the recycling is cleaner, there is more value; it’s a better commodity,” he said. “That is important to me. So, trying to get those recycling rates up and increase what we can pull out of the recycling and commodify.”
He also expects water protection to remain a major goal.
Wood is committed to diversity and inclusion and said that was a main reason he came to WMEAC.
“WMEAC was making an intentional effort to make the environmental movement look more like our society,” he said. “That’s important to me, and I want to continue trying to make sure we are being faithful to that.”