By Emily Stewart

This is the sixth year of the Duke Human Rights Center@FHI’s partnership with Catherine Coleman Flowers to address important and often overlooked environmental justice issues. Catherine Flowers has worked with students, faculty and staff to raise awareness about the right to accessible water and sanitation in rural communities, advocate for policy change and develop technological solutions. She has served as the FHI Practitioner in Residence, community leader for a Bass Connections project, and built relationships across campus. Catherine Flowers is now the 2020 Environmental Health Advocate MacArthur Fellow and spoke with Emily Stewart, Assistant Director of the Duke Human Rights Center@FHI about her journey to this point and her hopes for the future.

Photo from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation

ES: Catherine, congratulations on being a 2020 MacArthur Fellow! Of course, after partnering with you for the past six years, we know how well-deserved it is, but I really want to celebrate all your hard work. This has been quite a year for you—founding The Center for Rural Enterprise and Environmental Justice (CREEJ), serving on the Biden-Sanders Unity Task Force on Climate Change, joining the board of Natural Resources Defense Council, being named a MacArthur Fellow and you are about to release your new book Waste: One Woman’s Fight Against America’s Dirty Secret. As you reflect on your journey up to this point, what have been some of your most important learnings?

Catherine Flowers: Well, I think the lesson for me is: persistence pays off and there’s always more to do. And I’ve been fortunate to have had success in the midst of a pandemic where things could have been very different. And at the same time, you know that we have suffered losses, too. But this just gives me encouragement to continue to move forward so that we won’t continue to have the kind of losses that we have suffered in Lowndes County as a result of COVID.

Yes, it was so upsetting to hear about Pamela Rush’s death, and I know you’ve mentioned that there have been so many losses. I’m wondering if you want to speak a little bit more about how the pandemic is impacting the residents of Lowndes County.

Lowndes County at one point had the highest COVID infection rate and death rate in the State of Alabama. And now I am reading that across the country we are in a third surge. I’m very concerned because the conditions that made Lowndes County vulnerable to COVID are still there, and we have to find a way to grapple with and solve the systemic issues that are associated with so many different things—not just environmental justice—but also racial justice and social justice.

Then of course, you know, there is the rural divide, and we are going to have to deal with that issue. Some young people in Lowndes County must be put in cars and driven to areas where they have school busses sitting out in the middle of nowhere so they can have access to broadband. It is not like we have not been complaining about this for years. But now it’s been laid bare: all of the disparities. So I’m still very concerned that until we find a vaccine, we’re going to continue to see these issues, and I hope that we don’t see any more losses, but I’m not as optimistic as I would like to be. 

I know you’ve been doing a lot of work to get out the vote in order to make change on a national and local level. It all ties together in so many ways.

I think people are starting to see that what happens in Lowndes County is just a microcosm of what is happening around the country. We can all become victims, and Lowndes County and places like it are kind of like the canaries in the coal mine for all of us.

Since founding ACRE in 2004, you have worked tirelessly to address the root causes of poverty with a focus on rural America. Your work has grown to a national level, including opening a new organization last year, and I’d love to hear about your vision for Center for Rural Enterprise and Environmental Justice?

The vision for CREEJ is to help rural communities develop the type of collaboration that we developed in Lowndes County. With partners, we seek to lift the voices of local people and to train individuals—and institutions—about how to work in grassroots communities. It is even more important now also to learn how to work in communities of color because clearly, a lot of people are bringing perspectives that do not fit and will not make them successful. We also want to focus on policy. Our goal is trying to change the policies around who gets access to the funding and who does not. Thirdly, we want to be involved in the creation of a toilet that when it flushes clean water comes out.

How do you see the MacArthur Fellowship helping you achieve some of these goals?

I think the MacArthur Fellowship puts a spotlight on environmental justice. It lifts it up in a way I don’t think it’s been lifted up before. In terms of my work, it will give me the opportunity to seek out—and maybe partner with—additional collaborators to find solutions.

photo by Emily Stewart

Returning to our partnership, I know how much you’ve loved working with and mentoring students. As you continue to work towards finding solutions to these challenging issues, can you tell me more about why building relationships with students is so important to you?

First of all, it helps organizations like ours expand their capacity to do the work by bringing skills to help local communities. But I think it’s also important for students to have the experience of working in communities they probably wouldn’t work in otherwise. Out of that [experience], I think, they develop a sensibility that they may not have had without spending time in Lowndes County. A lot of those students are now in the work world, I can see the influence and the impact. They stay in touch—and are using their new positions to help find solutions or to shine light on the problems. Some of them have even changed their career path based on their exposure to what they saw, and they want to be part of making a difference. And I think that’s important because I’m one person. But with all the students that we have touched through the years, the impact is far greater than it ever would have been without that experience. So, when people asked me “What’s the best way to help solve these kinds of problems?”, I just to try to influence as many young people as possible, to take my place.

You speak a lot about why you do this work, and one of the reasons is for your daughter and your grandson. What do you think are the most important issues young people are facing today and how does that impact the way you do your work?

 The biggest threat is to not have a livable planet. In my view, the immediate threat is the challenge to their rights as American citizens and then the larger threat is as a citizen of one planet. If we do not address the issues associated with climate change, then there won’t be a future. And that that concerns me greatly.

I think the most important issue that young people face today is dealing with democracy and having a voice. There are so many efforts to stifle their voices, and stifle protests, and take away their freedom to do so. Although we’re in a flawed democracy, we’re in a democracy, nevertheless, and to take away their voices and their ability to protest for the changes that they want to see happen, I think is one of the greatest threats that they’re facing.

It is extremely important for young people to vote because a lot of the freedoms that we enjoy are being challenged or threatened right now. The people leading the charge for change are young people. When I’m watching the news, the people that are out there are young people and I applaud and support them. I will be voting to support their right to do what is in the Constitution.

That’s really important and leads into this next question. We’ve often talked about the right to water and sanitation, but how do you see the relationship between human rights, environmental justice and climate justice?

I do not think that there is a separation, and that everybody has human rights. Human rights are inherent just by virtue of the fact they are human, and governments are in place to make sure to guarantee that we have them. In terms of environmental justice issues in Louisiana or North Carolina or wherever, it impacts all of us. If we have governments in place that do not care about environmental justice, the human rights framework is the alternative. It has worked to get attention in marginalized communities like Lowndes County, Alabama and Flint, Michigan. When we have people in government that only value money instead of clean air and clean water, the next impacted community could be the community that didn’t expect to become a victim; they sat there thinking it would happen somewhere else and not in their backyard. And that’s why we should all be concerned.

None of us are safe. We see that with COVID. The person at top of the government who is saying “oh, it is not so bad”, but he was in fact flown in a helicopter to the hospital and had 13 doctors in attendance. That is not going to happen to the rest of us. Some people are having problems getting tests. I am just real concerned that these are the kind of folks who are going to be mining in all our yards and [who will] take away our freedom to protest it. There are initiatives in some states they are saying that if you protest, they will take away the right to vote. And the right to vote and the right to protest are parts of the pillars of democracy. Some of these people don’t even know anything about the Boston Tea Party, so they need to go back and read American history. I know America’s history is not the best, but there are certain principles that emerge that I think are universal. I believe in those principles, and I think that we should uphold them.

All of it is connected, I do not think any of it is separate because a lot of the protests are not just about environmental justice, they are intersected by issues related to climate and climate justice. The Sunrise Movement had a number of protests. I personally participated in Jane Fonda’s Fire Drill Fridays and she was able to masterfully show the connections between all of these issues and climate change, which she describes in her book. She brought people there to participate that were across the spectrum, not seeing any separation and I think she was right about that. And likewise, I do not see them as being separate.

Moving towards the intersection of all these ideas, I love this thread of conversation. What were some of the lessons you learned from serving on the Biden-Sanders Unity Task Force on Climate Change, and what are your hopes for policy change that will impact the lives of the communities you serve?

Well, first, the fact that I had a chance to serve on that committee was significant. Although I was appointed to the Task Force by Senator Bernie Sanders, there was not very much difference or disagreement about the actions that we needed to take whether they were appointed by Biden or Sanders.  We agreed to what our values were, and we agreed that environmental justice was going to be the center. I was very, very hopeful to see that people across the political spectrum on the Task Force agreed about what the objectives were. We had to agree on how to get there. So I am very hopeful because of serving on that Task Force that we may have moved the needle significantly in a way in which it had not moved before. We were meeting against the backdrop of the George Floyd protests, too. The pandemic and those protests made everybody understand the importance of the moment.

You are working with a diversity of organizations and coalitions, including the Poor People’s Campaign, the Climate Reality Project, the Center for Earth Ethics and Indigenous people. Where do you see the most promise for real substantive change?

I think the fact that we are working together shows that there is the possibility of real substantive change. We know that we are all working toward having a livable planet for all of us; to make sure that everyone has a decent standard of living and end to poverty and inequality. We see where division leads us: Division does not equal progress. We got examples of that from the national government on down, so in order for us to find solutions we have to work together,  We want to continue to model is how we collaborate and work together on sustainable solutions.

We are really looking forward to the release of your book next month Waste: One Woman’s’ Fight Against America’s Dirty Secret. Can you tell me more about what inspired you to write it, and why now?

Wow, you know, I have always wanted to write a book, but I am glad that I wrote it at this time. There was no way in the world that we could have predicted all of the things that have occurred this year—that I had no control over—but it also underscores the need for the story to be told. I started writing the book maybe in August or September of last year and I finished it in January.

And that’s incredible to me. 

You know, everybody was telling me, “You cannot write a book that fast!” and I said, “No, I’m going to do it in time for a release in 2020.  Defying expectations has always been my story: everything that people tell me I cannot do, it ends up happening anyway. So I was told, even with the book, a lot of other people were saying there’s no way in the world you can write this book in that amount of time, because most people write books in an average of two years. And I said, “But I’ve lived it, so it shouldn’t take two years for me to put on paper—what I’ve already lived.” Also I wanted to write a book that was accessible to everyone, not just the academic community.

I wanted to inspire young people. I wanted them to see that you’re never too young or too old to get involved. The book pretty much talks about my evolution and transformation as a young leader to becoming an older leader. It also shows the intersectionality between civil rights, human rights, and voting.

But my goal of the book was to tell my story, to talk about all the people that had a role in it, and to also talk about the solutions. A lot of times people do not understand rural communities and want to believe that the only place in the US with a wastewater problem is Lowndes County, Alabama, which is not true. That is America’s dirty secret.

Thank you so much. Catherine. I really appreciate you making time for this and we are looking forward to the book event in February.

Please join the Duke Human Rights Center at the Franklin Humanities Institute for a virtual book event with Catherine Coleman Flowers on Wednesday, February 3 at 6:30 PM. A limited number of students can receive a free copy by contacting Emily Stewart at Emily.stewart@duke.edu by November 15.