Share Tweet Share Email

NIU professor builds community in local backyards, abroad

November 6, 2014
Work is under way on the monarch way station at Mayfield Congregational Church.

Work is under way on the monarch way station at Mayfield Congregational Church.

Diana Swanson likes to build communities.

Accordingly, the NIU professor is working locally and globally to find ways to help two very different populations, both in need.

The first population isn’t comprised of people, but rather insects.

Millions of monarch butterflies need habitat to make the journey back and forth between Mexico and Canada every year. Swanson, an associate professor of Women’s Studies and English and a faculty associate of NIU’s Institute for the Study of Environment, Sustainability and Energy, is working in the local community to create a way station for monarch butterflies to provide habitat to support their lifecycles and prevent extinction.

Swanson is a member of Sycamore’s Mayfield Congregational Church, where the way station that is being constructed. The congregation supports the links between spirituality and ecology. Many of its members recall the days when swarms of monarchs covered the local trees.

Swanson is working with a group to design the garden, develop the list of native plants and work with the surrounding farmers to ensure that agricultural pesticide drift is minimized. The garden’s design includes a labyrinth-inspired meditation path.

Diana L. Swanson

Diana L. Swanson

“The butterfly team’s goal is to show how native plants can be used in landscaping in order to encourage the development of a network of monarch way stations throughout northern Illinois,” said Swanson, who came to NIU as one of the first interdisciplinary hires in 1991.

On the other side of the world, Swanson is working with a team to help a population of people – young girls in in Kenya. Only about 19 percent of children in Kenya graduate from high school and less than 5 percent get a university education.

“The primary mission of Jane Adeny Memorial School for Girls is to provide girls with the skills that will help them to improve their lives and communities,” she said. “The curriculum includes agriculture and entrepreneurship, and the school’s micro-enterprises are living laboratories for the students as well as a source of food and, in the future, income for the school.”

These micro-enterprises include a bakery, fish farm and a dairy farm that is designed to be a model for the region in terms of sustainability and management. Venture Dairy is supporting the design and construction of the dairy and the Holmen, Wis., chapter of Rotary International is donating the funds to purchase the first cows.

Jane Adeny ShieldAs the president of the board of directors for the Friends of the Jane Adeny Memorial School for Girls, Swanson primarily raises awareness about the school and solicits funding and scholarships.

She visited the school in 2011 and 2014, teaching writing workshops, consulting on pedagogy and performing volunteer work such as gardening and painting. NIU alumna and Kishwaukee Community College instructor Ami Irmen accompanied her in 2014 and piloted a memoir-writing curriculum for the school.

Swanson was recruited to join the project by two NIU professors who founded the school: Teresa Wasonga from the College of Education and Andrew Otieno from the College of Engineering and Engineering Technology.

In the spring 2013, NIU students started a campus chapter of Friends of Jane Adeny Memorial School and sent supplies to the school. They are now working on a spring fundraising event.

Interested students can do self-directed literature and feminist research projects with Swanson. She is also working on a study abroad program focused on gender and the environment, to take place in 2016 in the Yucatan.