Climate Heroes Take the Stage

Join Brushwood Center at Ryerson Woods for their live-streamed 37th annual Smith Nature Symposium Awards Ceremony on Friday, October 9th at 7 p.m., honoring Bill McKibben and Sue Halpern with the 2020 Distinguished Environmental Leadership Award

Gail Sturm, Brushwood Center Chair, with Donna La Pietra and Bill Kurtis at Brushwood’s 2019 Smith Nature Symposium. This year’s proceeds benefit Brushwood Center’s COVID-19 response.

This power couple of journalism has influenced millions of young people through their writing and activism on behalf of nature, democracy, and the climate. They will be joined on the virtual stage by Bill Kurtis and Donna La Pietra (Masters of Ceremonies) with special remarks by recent Symposium awardees, including Sibylle Szaggars Redford and Robert Redford. 

Proceeds from the live-streamed event support Brushwood Center’s COVID-19 response, Thrive Together, providing vital nature and arts-based programs to support the wellbeing of youth, families, and seniors throughout Cook and Lake Counties. 

Brushwood Center’s Veterans Program facilitated the creation of a new mural at the Captain James A. Lovell Federal Health Care Center to brighten spirits during COVID-19 (Pictured: Elizabeth LaCombe, Recreational Therapist, with other Veteran painters; Credit: Michael Kardas)

 “Sue Halpern and Bill McKibben are truly heroes of our time. Brushwood Center is thrilled to honor their accomplishments, and engage in this critical moment of action to move our society toward more just and sustainable solutions,” said Gail Sturm, Chair of the Brushwood Center Board of Directors. 

Bill McKibben is the founder of, the first planet-wide, grassroots climate change movement, which has organized twenty thousand rallies around the world in every country save North Korea. He is the recipient of the Right Livelihood Prize, Gandhi Prize, Thomas Merton Prize, and a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences with honorary degrees from 18 colleges and universities. Foreign Policy named McKibben to their inaugural list of the world’s 100 most important global thinkers, and The Boston Globe described him as “probably America’s most important environmentalist.”  

Volunteers help pack Brushwood Center’s Bilingual Nature Explorer Backpacks in North Chicago.

Sue Halpern is a contributing writer at The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, The New York Times, and Rolling Stone covering science, technology, and social issues. She is the author of seven books, including Four Wings and a Prayer: Caught in the Mystery of the Monarch Butterfly, which was made into an Emmy-nominated film. She is a scholar-in-residence at Middlebury College, where she serves as Director of the Narrative Journalism Program. Halpern was a columnist for Mother Jones, Ms., and Smithsonian Magazine, recipient of Guggenheim and Echoing Green Fellowships, and a Rhodes Scholar. 

Michael Kardas, Brushwood Center’s Photography Instructor, Captures the Prairie Landscape as a part of the Center’s self-guided photography program with Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie during COVID-19 (Credit: Noah Powell).

The Smith Nature Symposium memorializes the significant civic legacy of Hermon Dunlap and Ellen Thorne Smith, who donated their land and cabin to help form Ryerson Woods. 

The Distinguished Environmental Leadership Award was first presented at the Symposium in 1984 to Roger Tory Peterson, the esteemed American naturalist, ornithologist, artist, and educator. In 2019, Amory Lovins and Judy Hill Lovins were recognized for their commitment to a low-carbon energy future and for using their art to inspire people to be environmental stewards. In 2018, the award was presented to Robert Redford and Sibylle Szaggars Redford for their lifelong devotion to land preservation and climate change.

To learn more about the series, register to attend, or become a sponsor, visit 


Nestled in 565 acres of pristine woodland in the historic Ryerson home in Riverwoods, Illinois, Brushwood Center promotes the importance of nature for nurturing personal and community wellbeing, cultivating creativity, and inspiring learning. In doing so, we honor the legacy of those who came before us on this land and champion a region where people will care about and for nature. Brushwood Center offers world-class programming with nearly 200 artists each year to deepen the public’s connection with the environment in an intimate setting where nature, conservation, and art coexist in their entire splendor. Our audiences include veterans, children, families, business people, and others looking to the arts as a pathway for connecting to nature throughout the region.

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