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News >  Washington

Women of the Year - Legacy: Debra Schultz digs deep into science, education, business, philanthropy

UPDATED: Mon., Sept. 21, 2020

By Nina Culver For The Spokesman-Review

Debra Schultz has never been one to be idle. She was one of the first women to be a soil scientist in the state of Michigan. She spent 20 years teaching middle school in Spokane Public Schools. She’s served on district and state curriculum development and assessment committees. And she also co-founded the Inland Northwest Land Trust, now called the Inland Northwest Land Conservancy.

“You give back to the community that you live in,” she said. “Spokane is a community where it’s very easy to be involved. It’s easy to feel like we can make a difference.”

Schultz grew up in a cooperative community outside of Chicago. Her parents, who were social justice- oriented, taught her the importance of education and being involved in her community. “My parents were very progressive people,” she said. “They were union organizers and very much of the belief that all people have the opportunities to support their family and have a job.”

When she first went to Grand Valley State College in Michigan, she was considering a career in geology. But one of her professors was a soil scientist, and she began to consider that as an option. She loved being outdoors and was also interested in agriculture. “I was very much involved in the early environmental movement,” she said. “Soil combined all of my interests.”

Her professor would become a mentor and helped her find a job mapping soils in Michigan with the USDA after she graduated. She was one of two women who were the first in the field in the area. There were some difficulties at first, including the fact that her colleagues always seemed to expect her to make the coffee. She would reply, honestly, that she didn’t drink coffee and was fine without it.

“That was the culture,” she said. “I had a great boss. That makes a big difference. I was tough. I was having a good time. We were doing really good work that had meaning.”

There were always people who supported and encouraged her, something she has tried to do for others during her career. She also worked in Colorado and Wyoming mapping soils and doing consulting before she signed up for graduate school at Cornell University to study in the geomorphology program.

But then she heard about the environmental resource management program at Washington State University and decided to apply there. When she arrived, she was thrilled to see the rolling hills of the Palouse. “This is one of the most unique landscapes in the United States,” she said.

She was also impressed with WSU . “It was a forward-thinking program,” she said. “The people involved in that program were big thinkers.”

It was here that her life took a turn. She had always been involved in dancing. She did folk dancing and contra dancing, and taught swing and basic ballroom dancing. She met Penn Fix, who would become her husband, at a dance in Moscow, Idaho.

After graduating from WSU in 1985, she took a six-month consulting position in Massachusetts, but came back to the Northwest because of Fix. “I had several job offers at that point that were not in Spokane,” she said. “I really wasn’t interested in traveling anymore. I didn’t want to be one the road.”

She went back to school and earned a teaching certificate from Gonzaga University. She hired on with Spokane Public Schools, then called District 81, as a middle school teacher.

“I actually found great joy in teaching middle school,” she said. “Kids in their middle school years are in transition times.”

She made good use of her scientific background while working in the district. She developed a curriculum to study the Latah Creek watershed, for which she won a national award for environmental education. She was also the science department coordinator.

In 2008, she left education. She and her husband took over Dodson’s Jewelry when her brother-in-law retired. The couple ran the business for 10 years before retiring and closing the business in 2018.

Schultz has not let retirement slow her down. She is president of the Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture board of trustees. She’s also on the board of the YWCA and the Johnston-Fix Foundation, which supports local arts, education and the environment.

But Schultz said she doesn’t see herself as a leader or a role model.

“I would classify myself as an includer,” she said. “I don’t necessarily want to be in the spotlight. I see myself as an encourager.”

While her goal is to nurture people to do their best, she’s also not afraid to speak up when necessary. She said that she tries to live by the words of the late civil rights icon John Lewis, who advocated causing “good trouble” as a way to bring about change.

“If there’s a way I can run interference, because of my age and experience, I will run interference,” she said. “I’ve always been someone who is willing to fight a fight if I see something wrong.”

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