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2024 Environmental Excellence Awards Honor Two Environmental Justice Champions

At its Finishing Ceremony on May 10, Antioch University’s Environmental Studies Department honored its 2024 graduates and awarded its prestigious Environmental Excellence Awards. The Community Award went to Perry Cohen, a leader in outdoor education for queer youth, and the Alumni Award went to Nia Keith, a leader at Mass Audubon who has helped the 128-year-old organization achieve its goals around diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice.

“The Environmental Excellence Awards ceremony recognizes the best of who we are as a learning community,” says Abigail Abrash Walton, PhD, the Director of the MS in Environmental Studies. She notes that with the challenges of climate change and biodiversity conservation that we face today, it’s imperative that we take action. Part of why the recipients won the awards they did, says Walton, is because “Cohen and Keith have dedicated their lives to doing so, and it’s remarkable to see the positive impact they have had on our communities. This year’s Environmental Excellence award winners exemplify pioneering initiatives to expand the community of belonging with respect to environmental justice.”

Group picture, dignitaries with award winners (Left to right)
Bill Groves, JD (President/Chancellor of AU), Peter Palmiotto, Doctorate of Forestry C.F., (AUNE ES Dept. Chair), Nia Keith, M.S. (Environmental Excellence Alumni Award recipient), Perry Cohen, M.S., M.Ed. (Environmental Excellence Community Member Award recipient), Libby McCann PhD (ES Core Faculty), Carole Ison-Barnes, PhD (Chair, AU Board of Governors)
(Left to right) Bill Groves, JD (Chancellor of Antioch), Peter Palmiotto (Chair of Environmental Studies), Nia Keith, Perry Cohen, Libby McCann (Environmental Studies Core Faculty), and Carole Isom-Barnes (Chair of Antioch’s Board of Governors)

The Environmental Studies Department established the Environmental Excellence Awards in 2004 in order to recognize each year one community member and one alum who have promoted environmental sustainability through professional and personal actions. For Peter Palmiotto, the Environmental Studies Department Chair, this serves the department’s mission in multiple ways. “It is inspiring to learn and feel how Perry and Nia make positive change in the spheres they touch,” he says. And beyond that, he explains, “Their stories help our graduates see how the skills and experiences they obtained while at Antioch can make a positive difference. The awardee’s example helps our graduates envision themselves as the positive change agents they want to be and who our world needs.”

Elizabeth McCann, Core Faculty in the department, made a similar point in the remarks she delivered at the ceremony. “The world is in need of leaders and change agents who lift up justice, kindness, right action and human dignity in their time on earth,” she said. “Both of our awardees embrace this challenge and opportunity to make change palpable, especially for community members who have been historically pushed to the margins, under-resourced and underestimated.”

For Cohen, the experience of getting the award was gratifying. “I was totally taken by surprise to receive the award,” he explains. In part this is because he sees the good company it puts him in. As he says, “When I read the names of past recipients and saw some of the folks I have always looked up to in our community like Jim Rousmaniere, Tom Wessels, and Meade Cadot, I was floored.” Cohen was honored largely for his role in founding and directing The Venture Out Project, a program that has as its mission providing a safe and fun space for queer, trans, and LGBTQ+ youth. His passion is to help LGBTQ+ people find joy and adventure in the outdoors, and he explains that he “feels a pull to protect our planet and the magical spaces that create it.” In addition to his work at Venture Out, Cohen is a strategy consultant at High 5 Adventure, and serves as an Eddie Bauer One Inside Leader. 

Meanwhile Nia Keith, a 2009 graduate of the MS in Environmental Studies with a focus on Environmental Education, has brought science and environmental education to low income youth through her work at Mass Audubon. In 2021 she was promoted to be that organization’s inaugural Vice President for Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Justice, in which role she continues to focus on her goal of making nature more accessible for everyone. (Read our full profile of Nia Keith here.)

As McCann said in her remarks, “We celebrate two fearless, creative leaders making the world a better place, creating spaces of belonging so that each of us can be our full selves and fully celebrated in community.”

The Finishing Ceremony is held the day before the campus-wide commencement ceremony on the New England campus. Graduates, faculty, staff, alumni, and their community of friends and supporters put on this annual event. This year’s graduates had varied projects, said Abrash Walton, including “advancing the power of regional regenerative food systems to promote human and ecological well-being, developing a new conceptual model blending the Panarchy Framework of Adaptive Cycles and Shared Socioeconomic Pathways to inform West Virginia’s energy and economy transition, using applied spatial analysis to advance shorebird and other species conservation, and researching a thought piece, ‘Climate Solutions Need Queerness,’ among many other works of scholarship, research and engagement.”

Additional Photos from the Finishing Ceremony