Michelle Frankel traces her love of wildlife back to her teenage years visiting the Audubon Center in Greenwich and to her father's love of nature, which inspired in her "a sense of awe and wonder." Since that time, she says, she has been "devoted to wildlife conservation."
It should come as no surprise, then, that Frankel recently returned to the Audubon Center -- as the new director of Audubon Greenwich. She is replacing Karen Dixon, who left Audubon last summer. Frankel originally took the job on an interim basis in September, after Dixon left, but now the interim tag has been dropped.
Frankel, who lives in Stamford with her husband, George Mordecai (the cantor at Temple Beth El in Stamford), and their two daughters, Gabriella, 10, and Eliora, 6, took a Time Out recently to talk about Audubon Greenwich and to share her vision of its future.
Q: What attracted you to return to Audubon Greenwich? You have worked in some quite warm climates.
A: You are right -- my work has led to warmer climates. For my post-doctoral fellowship I worked at Tel Aviv University focusing on the impacts of urban development in Israel on the globally threatened lesser kestrel as well as with the International Center for the Study of Bird Migration in Israel, where I helped develop the "Migrating Birds Know No Boundaries" program, which brings Palestinian and Israeli children together around the common goal of saving the birds they share. For several years I worked with Audubon's Florida program, protecting incredibly unique and critical habitats such as the Everglades and some of the last stands of ancient cypress swamps.
But I'm originally from the Northeast, and I consider eastern deciduous forests my native habitat. I grew up in these woods, and I feel very blessed to have the opportunity to help guide the direction of the Audubon's Kimberlin Nature Education Center here in Greenwich which provided me with my earliest experiences in nature. And, of course, another reason for my return north is that most of my extended family lives in the New York area, so I am glad to be able to raise my children in close proximity to my family.
Q: What do you see as your biggest challenge as director?
A: Audubon Greenwich's Kimberlin Nature Education Center is perfectly positioned to take a giant leap forward -- moving from an exceptional nature education center to a regional hub for community conservation and engagement. My greatest challenge at this important juncture is to ensure that we have the resources to meet the ever-increasing demands for our high-quality programs, especially as we bring them to broader and more diverse audiences over a larger geographic scale. I feel confident, though, because we have a very capable board and we are being guided by key members of the Greenwich community -- including pro bono guidance from the Wetzler Group -- as well as National Audubon staff. Together, we are developing a comprehensive business plan that will allow us to set the foundation for a "21st Century Audubon Center."
Q: What is your vision for Audubon Greenwich locally -- and on a larger scale?
A: We are so fortunate that community members such as Eaddo and Peter Kiernan, Joni and Kevin Kimberlin, to name just a few, have guided the vision for this center for 10 years or more and continue to be vibrant participants today. After celebrating the 10th anniversary of the Kimberlin Nature Education Center this past year and honoring the Kiernans and Kimberlins for their contributions, Stewart Hudson, our new executive director for Audubon Connecticut, and I are now working closely with these and other community leaders, the Audubon Greenwich board and staff to build on this vision to develop a "21st Century Audubon Center" in Greenwich.
Our vision for Audubon Greenwich is that it will serve as a hub, locally and regionally, for community-based conservation. By "hub," I mean it serves as a model, it inspires, it is a place of learning and training and skill-building, it is a meeting place for the local community, a convening place for regional partners, a hands-on and minds-on exploration space, a place for volunteering and habitat restoration and citizen science, a base for grass-roots advocacy and a sanctuary for the diversity of both wildlife and people that are needed to build healthy communities.
This vision begins with the space itself. We are developing a vision for the Kimberlin Nature Education Center as a "21st Century Audubon Center" with revamped exhibits and interactive learning spaces, both indoors and outdoors, that invite people to explore and investigate, engage them in learning about the important role their local ecosystem plays, and inspire them to take conservation action. Our land manager, Andy Chapin, has been hard at work developing demonstration wildlife habitats in key areas around the Center building, providing models where visitors may learn how to landscape for wildlife in their own backyards. The landscape architects at Conte & Conte LLC are generously donating their time to help us design an interactive, interpretive trail that will engage people of all ages with diverse learning styles.
Beyond the physical space, our vision is for all of our center programs to ultimately lead people to conservation action. Audubon Greenwich's Kimberlin Nature Education Center was selected by National Audubon as one of only five pilot Audubon Centers across the country to lead the way in enhancing the way our center programs help us achieve our conservation priorities.
So for every program we offer, we will ask ourselves, "How does this program lead people to take actions that will improve the health of Long Island Sound?" or "How can we tweak this program so that people will be inspired to create bird-friendly habitat in their own community?" As we go through this process, we will be serving as a model for Audubon centers across the country.
The vision expands from the Kimberlin Center to the surrounding community to bring people together to create a network of healthy habitats for wildlife and people. This work ranges from working with North Greenwich Congregational Church across the street to build a pollinator garden, to developing a Schoolyard Habitat with Brunswick Upper School and integrating it into their curriculum, to leading a science and literacy program for the Greenwich Head Start program in the setting of the pollinator garden we helped establish at the Armstrong Court Community Organic Garden.
And radiating out beyond the local community, I would like to export this model of community-based conservation to urban coastal areas throughout southwestern Connecticut where there is more limited access to the resources we have in our own community. Audubon Greenwich staff is leading our bird-friendly communities' initiative throughout the region, in cities such as Stamford, Bridgeport and New Haven. Our Urban Oases program in New Haven, which is creating a network of bird-friendly habitats and outdoor learning places in parks, schoolyards and private yards throughout New Haven, was designated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as one of the first Urban Wildlife Refuge Partnership Projects across the country. (There are only eight such designated projects across the country, and our project was ranked No. 1 in the nation!).
Q: What are some priorities for 2014?
A: While developing and rolling out the new business plan for a "21st Century Audubon Center" here in Greenwich, we want to expand our volunteering opportunities. We have a stellar group of teacher-naturalist volunteers, and now we want to build a docent program that helps visitors fully enjoy the exhibits, the art gallery, the store and the trails system. We also want to develop a Friends group for our Audubon sanctuaries and to broaden the reach of our programs, reaching more diverse audiences over a larger geographic area, while also deepening our connection with the local community. We want to ensure that all our exhibits and programs deepen the visitors' appreciation of nature and inspire them to take conservation actions in their daily lives.
Q: What were your earliest influences? Your mentors?
A: Ted Gilman, now senior naturalist with Audubon Greenwich, provided me with my first immersive natural history experience. As a teenager, I participated in the weeklong Audubon Ecology Workshop for Teachers that was offered for many years at Audubon Greenwich. Though I was not a teacher and by far the youngest participant, it was a formative experience for me that led the way for me to devote my life to wildlife conservation. I had never before encountered someone so deeply knowledgeable -- and passionate -- about nature as Ted. It is my great, good fortune to be able to continue to learn from Ted today as a colleague.
The other great mentor that inspired my love for nature was my father. Though he did not have a great depth of natural history knowledge, he loved nature and inspired in me a sense of awe and wonder and taught me that there are miracles everywhere around us if only we open our eyes to see. He was a lover of poetry and saw the poetry in all things.
TO CONTACT MICHELLE FRANKEL:
Call 203-869-5272 ext. 226 or email firstname.lastname@example.org