Butterfly Effect: Eco-Educator & Nat Hab Monarch Scholarship Winner Princess Harris Brings Positive Change to Underserved Communities

Chat awhile with Princess Harris, one of two environmental educators to win Nat Hab’s 2024 Monarch Butterfly Scholarship Grant, and it quickly becomes clear that, much like her beloved monarchs, she was destined to lead a life of transformation and change.

A Chicago native, Harris spent much of her childhood exploring the Marian R. Byrnes Natural Area near her home, “fueled by a passion for all things green.” It was here that her discovery of monarch eggs and larvae on milkweed plants spawned her lifelong journey to study and help save the species.

“When my school class visited the Field Natural History Museum in Chicago, I learned that monarch butterflies migrate over 3,000 miles,” says Harris. “I was relentless in reading any information I could at the Chicago Public Library about this magnificent journey, along with the monarch’s metamorphosis from caterpillar to butterfly.

“I just always admired the monarch,” Harris adds, “and I always wanted to protect it—especially when I learned their numbers are falling, and that many of their issues are caused by humans.”

Monarch Butterflies at the Monarch Biosphere Reserve, Mexico © Court Whelan

As Harris grew, so too did her love of the outdoors and her passion to protect the planet and its imperiled species, neither of which were seen as “normal,” she recalls. “Being African American, I was considered an outlier. When I told my family I wanted to be an environmentalist, they all said, ‘that’s white folk work!’ and my mom tried to steer me in a different direction because she thought I’d have a difficult time finding employment.”

Shifting Paradigms

Determined to change that mindset, Harris persisted. With her mom’s eventual blessing, she earned her Bachelor of Arts in Environmental Studies from Northeastern Illinois University, often as the only woman or person of color in her classes.

After graduating, Harris looked to share her passions and lessons with others. She managed urban farms and farmers’ markets to help ensure local communities had access to fresh fruits and vegetables. She also worked at an area high school, taking at-risk students into a nearby forest preserve—often for their first visits there—while teaching them about the environment.

Today, bolstered by studies at the North American Monarch Institute, Harris serves as the Sustainable Food & Land Use Senior Coordinator at Faith in Place, an interfaith environmental nonprofit serving communities throughout Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin.

Driven by its foundational “theory of change,” the organization brings people of diverse faiths together to rectify environmental injustices, which disproportionately affect low-income, urban and BIPOC communities. Its extensive youth outreach initiatives include a three-state Eco-Ambassador program, which empowers teenagers to become environmental justice leaders.

Getting Out There

For her part, Harris helps Faith in Place’s partner organizations create community-supported agriculture plots and pollinator gardens, requiring that each contain milkweed, the only plant on which female monarchs lay their eggs and monarch larvae feed.

Harris also leads youth nature outings, during which students help with habitat restoration by planting milkweed and removing invasive plants. She also heads Faith in Place’s Monarch Fests and its Migration & Me program.

The latter, she explains, “reconnects BIPOC community members with nature by connecting the monarch butterfly’s continental migration story to personal and family migration stories, like the Great Migration of African Americans from the rural South to northern cities.”

All told, her efforts annually benefit some 500 students, 90% of which come from BIPOC communities and/or those impacted by environmental injustices.

Broadening Perspectives

Extending her eco-ethos to such communities can be challenging, says Harris, but it’s essential for improving the health of everyone who lives there.

“BIPOC communities often have all these other issues,” she notes. People’s focus, for example, can often be occupied with avoiding violence, earning livable wages, having access to healthy foods and receiving quality education.

“You often hear people say, ‘I don’t have time to worry about the environment, I need to work or make sure my children are safe.’ But one thing Faith in Place wants to bring to BIPOC communities,” Harris adds, “is that yes, we have all these other issues, but at the same time, doing things like planting trees and creating cleaner air and water—it’s all part of the same goal to make our communities healthier and to help people thrive.”

These efforts are also key for broadening her students’ perspectives and career aspirations—as well as the environmental cause, Harris says. “As a mentor, I think it’s important to be a person of color in this movement and to show youth that people of all races are doing this work to build healthier communities and protect our Earth.” 

Taking Flight

Woman in front of a monarch butterfly mural in Mexico

© Princess Harris

It’s no wonder, then, that Harris garnered last year’s Monarch Butterfly Scholarship Grant (not to mention, her first name is Princess!) with an invitation to travel on one of our 2024 Kingdom of Monarchs trips, where travelers get to witness millions of monarchs overwintering in Central Mexico’s forested highlands.

“Her creativity and ability to connect with young people not yet exposed to things like monarchs, pollinators and wildlife conservation was an incredible X-factor,” says Nat Hab’s Chief Sustainability Officer, Court Whelan.

“Mix that with her enthusiasm and expertise with developing more youth programs and events centered around the monarch,” Whelan adds, “and we knew we had someone who was going to take the experiences, impressions and lessons learned from this monarch adventure and inspire an entire generation (even multiple generations!) of people in her community and beyond.”

We recently sat down with Harris to learn more about her mission to help save monarch butterflies, along with her recent adventures in Mexico and how the trip will inform her outreach and education efforts moving forward. 

Our Interview With 2024  Monarch Butterfly Scholarship Grant Winner Princess Harris

Q. What Happens at your Monarch Fests?

We provide education, have live monarchs on hand and even do a monarch release. The children—many of whom have never seen a monarch up close—get to gently touch the butterflies, and they clap and cheer as the monarchs fly away.

The same happens at our Double Dutch Fests at Rainbow Beach, a natural city park on Lake Michigan, and at other organizations where I organize releases.

The kids are always totally in awe. Their admiration for the monarchs grows and afterwards, they always want to see more of them and help them survive. It’s one thing to talk about the monarch and its migration, but seeing it in person just opens children’s eyes to how magnificent and grand that journey is.

Q. What do your students learn in your Migration & Me program?

I teach students about the monarch’s anatomy and lifecycle, as well as how to identify male and female monarchs and their eggs and larval growth stages. We do this on nature hikes, during workshops and at our community gardens. I use live demos, when possible, and visual props.

I’ve also taken one of the main stigmas away, which was youth and adults not wanting milkweed in their family gardens because of the name. Once my audience realizes how important milkweeds are to monarch survival, they eagerly welcome milkweeds when offered.

Monarch caterpillar on orange milkweed

Monarch caterpillar on milkweed

Q. There’s a personal element to the migration program too, right?

The Migration & Me program inspires kids to start a discussion at home about their family’s personal migration story and to learn more about where they came from.

Relating human migration to that of monarchs and showing kids that something as small as an insect migrates for some of the same reasons we do—that generates empathy and compassion, hopefully resulting in an urgency to protect all beings.

Q. Can you speak more on the impact your work has on urban and BIPOC youth?

When I was young and exploring the nature preserve near my home—that was something I did all on my own. I really didn’t have any mentors who helped inspire my passion for the environment. So, I think it’s so important for me to be a mentor now, and for my students to see people like me doing this work.

When I worked in a high school with at-risk youth, for example, they really had no thoughts about what an environmentalist is, nor did they care prior to meeting me. When I told them I was an environmentalist, they were like, ‘What is that?’ They’d also ask, ‘Isn’t that something that white people do?’ And I’d tell them, ‘No, we have to do this work, as well.’

I also realized that a lot of them had never even been out of their neighborhood. And I thought, OK, how can I change that? So, I’d take them on trips to the nearby forest preserve and beach. At first, they were scared, but I’d say, ‘Let’s just relax, just breathe. Let’s just enjoy ourselves.’ And they started to really enjoy the activities and wanted to learn more about the environment. At least one of those students even went on to pursue this work!

Q. How did it feel to win the Monarch Butterfly Scholarship Grant?

To be honest with you, at first, I really didn’t think I had a chance to win. But when I made it to the semifinals, I was like, oh, my goodness, I can’t believe it!

Looking at it now, though, it does seem like everything just fell into place, and that all of my hard work went into this moment. And it felt really good to feel recognized for my work.

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Q. What was it like to finally be on the Kingdom of Monarchs trip?

After dreaming about this for so long, it was just totally unbelievable to actually see so many monarchs in a single place. Whatever I thought I was prepared for, I wasn’t!

Thinking about their whole migration history and how it’s that last generation in a cycle that travels so far to live in the Mexican Highlands for those months, it’s just incredible. And knowing that I was a part of that—you know, that maybe I had one or two butterflies from my releases there!—made me feel so good. It made me smile and it made me want to keep going.

Q. What were some of your favorite experiences there?

A monarch butterfly lands on a women's hand in Mexico

It’s not uncommon for butterflies to land on travelers. (Love that monarch manicure!) © Princess Harris

Seeing the monarchs chilling in their natural environment, not worrying about anything, was so magical. But we were also lucky enough to arrive in the forest at the right time to see a burst—the moment when the sun hits the monarchs and heats them up and they start flying everywhere.

It was fun to see cows in the background with butterflies fluttering around them. And to have the interaction of monarchs landing directly on you, too! It was all so awe-inspiring.

Q. Were there new things you learned about monarchs?

Unfortunately, some birds are adapting to eating monarchs, which have historically been toxic because their larvae feed on milkweed. So, that was disheartening to learn. As was hearing how Mexican cartels had been logging the monarchs’ forests.

It was enlightening to learn how local people protested that, though. They fought for their lands, and the Mexican government stepped in to save these fir forests. It was inspiring also to see how much the locals embrace and help protect these butterflies and how they’re benefitting from monarch tourism in terms of jobs and better education.

Q. How will you share the lessons you learned with your students?

I plan to share my stories, photos and videos from my trip at our Monarch Fests, Double Dutch Fests and Migration & Me nature outings, as well as our Green Team Summits, which reach more than 1,500 students annually from across the country.

Q. What are you hoping your students’ biggest takeaways will be?

Fortunately, rather than having to imagine what the migration experience is like, I can now show them what I’ve witnessed and give them a first-hand account. And I can let them know that the monarchs they’ve seen and helped save are ultimately part of the migration that made it to Mexico.

Explaining how local people lost their lives fighting to protect their lands will also help show my students the importance of the work we do and how we’re all connected. We’re all fighting for clean air and green spaces and to save these monarchs. It’s all connected, everything we do. Even though we’re all way up here, we’re connected to Mexico through the monarch butterfly.

>Read: What You Can Do To Help Monarch Butterflies

Q. What else would you like the world to know about monarch butterflies?

Many people don’t know that the monarch butterfly travels so far, or that it’s the fourth generation in their cycle that travels all the way to Central Mexico.

These butterflies are also excellent pollinators. And because monarchs are so beautiful, they make for perfect ambassadors, helping open conversations about the importance of other pollinating insects and the need to protect our environment.

Also, milkweed is the only plant they lay their eggs on. So, no milkweed, no monarchs!

Monarch Butterflies by Court Whelan

© Court Whelan

Q. What’s your ultimate hope for monarchs? 

We don’t know what will happen if a species like the monarch disappears. Or what effect that could have on us and the Earth. It’s so important, then, to keep what we have, because we’re all connected.

There is no planet B! And no species can live without clean water, food and air. It’s sometimes really difficult to get these messages across, especially when people are distracted or may be struggling. But we just have to keep pushing through and continue educating.

I’m hopeful that our younger generation will see this, and that through these teachings, they’ll know they can make a difference. Seeing my students grow and seeing their eyes open to something different—that gives me hope. That’s what I strive for, and why I keep putting my heart and soul into this work.

> Meet our other 2023 Monarch Butterfly Scholarship Grant winner, Ohio schoolteacher Stacey Leffler.

Want to see monarch butterflies in the wild? Learn more about our Kingdom of the Monarchs trip and witness this magnificent migration for yourself!

The post Butterfly Effect: Eco-Educator & Nat Hab Monarch Scholarship Winner Princess Harris Brings Positive Change to Underserved Communities first appeared on Good Nature Travel Blog.

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