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This longtime science educator wants young people calling the shots on environmental policy

Carole Williams-Green. November 16, 2016 Category: FeatureFeaturedMediumPeople
A lot of things have changed since Carole Williams-Green’s childhood summers growing up in Haverford, when she couldn’t swim in the segregated pool in nearby Ardmore.

To ease her disappointment, her mother took her on nature walks, “my brother with his fishing pole and me with my wagon,” Williams-Green said. “We would go and discover a lot of things.”

Williams-Green, now 83, would never lose that passion for nature. This Thursday, the veteran science educator and founder and president of West Philly’s Cobbs Creek Community Environmental Education Center will receive the Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education’s annual Meigs Award for Environmental Leadership.

“As a center based in a city, we’ve long recognized the disparity in neighborhood access to environmental education,” said Schuylkill Center Executive Director Mike Weilbacher. “Carole’s work at Cobbs Creek has opened nature’s doors to thousands of city residents.”

Williams-Green started her career as an elementary school science teacher, and went on to become a leader in the School District of Philadelphia’s science division through a Penn State program known as “Science for the 70s.”

"Carole’s work at Cobbs Creek has opened nature’s doors to thousands of city residents."
Mike Weilbacher

Spearheading this program, she increased her understanding of science, “but also the need for it, and how to encourage young people to want to take science as a major course,” she said.

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Williams-Green would go on to serve on the boards of the American Cancer Society, the Academy of Natural Sciences, the Girl Scouts and PECO’s Energy Education Advisory Council. She also traveled to Australia and New Zealand as an ambassador for Philly’s school science programs, and “that’s where I got some of my ideas of how environmental centers and nature centers could have an impact on children.”

But back at home, Williams-Green found herself sending the children of West Philly to Pennypack in the Northeast and Wissahickon in the Northwest. 

“’It just feels so unfair,’” she remembered saying at the time. “’It seems like there should be a place in West Philly that the children can call their own, and learn the same kinds of activities that are exciting children in other parts of the city.’”   

In the very early 1990s, she spotted an opportunity: the old Fairmount Park Police stables at 63rd and Catherine streets, abandoned following the killing of Police Sergeant Frank R. Von Colln in 1970. The historic building, standing right alongside Cobbs Creek, was built in 1936.

According to Williams-Green, in 1991, convening community members “agreed that we didn’t need another rec center — we needed something that really spoke to educating the young people and making people more aware of what Cobbs Creek, the park, could do for them.”

With support from Penn State and the William Penn Foundation, the movement for the Cobbs Creek Community Environmental Education Center garnered 501(c)3 status, raised $2.7 million over the next 10 years and officially opened on the rehabilitated site in 2001. Since then, Williams-Green estimates, they’ve served about 10,000 people with a range of programming on the 965-acre site.

"The United States is a leader, and you don’t get to be a leader by not knowing what you’re talking about."
Carole Williams-Green

Although she’s proud of receiving this award at age 83, Williams-Green wants to see the city bring more young people to the fore when charting its visions for a greener future — an environmental conference for young people, say, or implementing a formal coordinator for youth involvement in developing environmental education opportunities and programs: “Give them an office down at City Hall. I think we’ve overlooked some things.”

And in a political climate threatening the sciences, particularly environmental science, across the country, youth involvement in that knowledge building is vital.

“The United States is a leader, and you don’t get to be a leader by not knowing what you’re talking about,” she said. “It’s the lack of knowledge that frightens me.”

Being a successful nonprofit leader in the environmental sciences is about keeping your mind open, Williams-Green says: open to partnerships, open to youngsters’ visions and open to gaps in your own knowledge.

“Acknowledge what you don’t know,” she says, “so that you can gain knowledge about it, and get someone who knows and can support what you’re trying to do. That’s how we grew as an organization.”

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