By Mike Weilbacher, Executive Director
On November 17, the Schuylkill Center presents the 11th annual Henry Meigs Environmental Leadership Award, given to leaders who reflect the spirit and vision of Schuylkill Center founder Henry Meigs.
This year, we honor Carole Williams-Green, the dynamic founder of the Cobbs Creek Community Environmental Education Center in West Philadelphia. A former public school teacher and administrator, she has led a successful multi-decade effort to rehabilitate the historic but abandoned Fairmount Park Police stables in Fairmount Park’s Cobbs Creek section, creating a center to bring environmental education to under-served neighborhoods like her own West Philadelphia. Founded in 1991, the center opened its doors in 2001.
After being presented the award, Williams-Green will join a panel discussing environmental education and under-served audiences. As we go to press, panelists include Jerome Shabazz, founder and executive director of the Overbrook Environmental Center, and Lamar Gore, refuge manager of the John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge at Tinicum, Tarsha Scovens, founder of Let’s Go Outdoors, and Karen Young of the Fairmount Water Works.
“I used to go to Pennypack in Fairmount Park,” Williams-Green said, “where they have a wonderful environmental center, and I saw how children loved to be engaged in outdoor activities. It bothered me that children from West Philadelphia had to travel so far to get these kinds of experiences, ones that really excited children.”
At the time, she was a close acquaintance of Dick James, our founding director, as the two of them served on PECO’s Energy Education Advisory Council, where she and Dick developed pioneering energy education curricula in the 70s and 80s. Talking with Dick about her frustration, Williams-Green remembered, “Dick said there’s no reason there shouldn’t be an education center in West Philadelphia. He was my mentor, and I got my inspiration to start Cobbs Creek from the Schuylkill Center.”
Williams-Green spent 31 years in Philadelphia schools, teaching a variety of grades in classrooms, and then, after earning a Master’s in curriculum and instruction (rare for an African-American woman at the time) she became a curriculum specialist, writing science curricula for the city.
When she retired, she focused on Cobbs Creek. “Fairmount Park didn’t know what to do with the building,” she said. “I saw that Cobbs Creek already had a skating rink and a recreation center, and needed something educational. So I went to a community meeting and said, ‘what if?’”
The community responded, a nonprofit was created, and it somehow raised $2.7 million to refurbish the stable, “which had been in disrepair for years. I mean,” she continued, “people were scared to come here. It was a crime scene; cars were brought here, stripped, and burned.”
No longer. The center trains Junior Docents—neighborhood high schoolers paid to work there—to lead tours of the park. Classrooms and labs host a variety of programs. The site includes urban demonstration gardens, amphitheater, restored habitats like meadow and wetland, and Cobbs Creek itself flows just steps from the front door and is the beneficiary of monitoring and restoration projects.
George Ambrose, the board’s vice president, noted, “It was her vision that ecology was an opportunity for under-served students in West Philadelphia to gain access to science education. Her impact cannot be over-stated. She sought out foundations, corporations, elected officials, government agencies, and private citizens to help build the dream of equitable access to science resources. Without her vision and drive, there would be no center. It’s that simple.”
She credits her mother with her interest in science and nature. “I was raised in Haverford,” she reminisced, “and my mother—who was raised in the South—took us on nature trips. My brother had a fishing pole, my mother had a wagon, and we walked for miles—this is what we did in the afternoon. There was so much about nature that fascinated me.”
Past winners of the Meigs Award include Governor Ed Rendell, then-Deputy Mayor Mike DiBerardinis, former trustees John and Cindy Affleck, pioneering ecologist Tom Dolan, Morris Arboretum botanist Dr. Ann Fowler Rhoads, and Bob Mercer, director of Bristol’s Silver Lake Nature Center for 40 years.
Henry Meigs was key in our 1965 founding. A descendant of industrialist Henry Howard Houston, Henry worked with his family—mother Margaret and aunt and uncle Eleanor Houston Smith and Lawrence M. C. Smith—to donate the land that became the Center, fund its start-up, and hire Dick James; Henry then served on our board for more than 30 years.
Recognizing critical disparities in access to environmental education centers, we are thrilled to honor someone who founded a center in a neighborhood typically not reached by these kinds of programs. Williams-Green’s work to establish the Cobbs Creek Community Environmental Education Center has touched many lives, opening doors and new opportunities.
“My life story is great,” Williams-Green said. We agree, and for that life’s work, offer her the 11th Meigs Award for Environmental Leadership. Please help us honor Carole Williams-Green on November 17.