Catherine Coleman Flowers, Franklin Humanities Institute Practitioner in Residence

Ms. Flowers’ residency at FHI is inspired by the legacy of Dr. John Hope Franklin, who bridged the divide between academia and activism, and whose life is an example of how the humanities impact the world, and how the world can impact the humanities. With this in mind, students, staff, and faculty at Duke are invited to collaborate on projects with Ms. Flowers that advance goals of the Environmental Justice Movement, humanities research, and activism.

Ms. Flowers is an internationally recognized advocate for the human right to water and sanitation and works to make the UN Sustainable Development Agenda accountable to frontline communities. She was recently named the 2020 Environmental Health Advocate MacArthur Fellow. Ms. Flowers founded the Alabama Center for Rural Enterprise (ACRE), a nonprofit organization that focuses on leading participatory community development projects to improve infrastructure and quality of life in poor, rural communities in Alabama. ACRE has transformed into a national organization, The Center for Rural Enterprise and Environmental Justice (CREEJ). Ms. Flowers also serves as the Rural Development Manager for the Equal Justice Initiative, an organization that provides legal assistance to promote civil and environmental justice for marginalized communities, with a specific focus on challenging policies that trap racial minorities in cycles of poverty and injustice. 

She is also the Director of Eco-Ministry and Environmental Justice for the Center of Earth Ethics at Union Theological Seminary, and participated in the launching of the New Poor People’s Campaign with Reverend William Barber and Repairers of the Breach. She visited Standing Rock to demonstrate solidarity with the protestors and testified before Congress on environmental racism in Alabama’s Black Belt. In May 2020, Bernie Sanders appointed Ms. Flowers to the ‘Unity’ Task Force on Climate Change. Her book, Waste: One Woman’s Fight Against America’s Dirty Secret will be released in November. 

Living money-poor is risky. Living money-poor and unincorporated is scary… Living money-poor, unincorporated, and black is terrifying.

Dr. Danielle Purifoy

These powerful words capture the struggle of generations of black families living in a small Alabama county. In Lowndes County, residents must pay for their own above-ground sewage systems, which cost more than what some families in the area take home in a year. Faced with an impossible situation, these homeowners live with resurfaced pools of sewage in their yards and contaminated water in their faucets. 

All across the United States, from Flint, Michigan to Lowndes County, issues of poverty, race, sanitation, water, infrastructure, and civil law tie together in tangled social webs that trap people in unjust environments. If justice is a practice based on principles of fairness and equality, can a system of law that prioritizes the administration of code above the human dignity of entire communities be considered real justice? What would justice look like for communities all across the U.S. that are unable to access a basic right to clean water and sanitation? What would justice look like for the people of Lowndes County? These are questions that Catherine Flowers takes seriously. 

The History of the Partnership

The Duke Human Rights Center@FHI and the Nicholas School of the Environment began partnering with Flowers and ACRE in the fall of 2014. This partnership led to the creation of the Environmental Justice Community Research Project in the summer of 2015. A team of undergraduate and graduate Duke students involved with this community research project conducted field research, which consisted of surveys and interviews with community members and was facilitated by the ACRE, to provide a foundation for understanding the convergence between environmental justice, poverty, and access to sanitation infrastructure and to enable further research on how to address these problems and mitigate their consequences. The students also created a video that highlights these issues. 

In 2018, a group of 28 faculty, staff and students from across the university formed a Bass Connections team that produced an environmental justice timeline, an article on Solution-centered Collaborative Research in Rural Alabama, and a survey of 300+ households in Lowndes County. Students have traveled with Ms. Flowers to attend 2017 Climate and Health Meeting, the 2018 opening of EJI’s Legacy Museum and Memorial, the 2019 Climate Reality Leadership Corps training in Atlanta, and to “Cancer Alley” in Louisiana. In 2019, one student traveled to Washington to hear Flowers’ testimony at a congressional hearing. Building on these experiences, Duke graduate students created an Environmental Justice Network at Duke to bring together scholars and activists to engage in environmental justice.  Students reflect more on what they’ve learned and the impact of this partnership below.  

Student Work and Reflections

Interested in learning more about the issue? Check out some of these resources:

A remarkable story of the people of rural Lowndes County, a small Southern town, who in 1966 organized a radical experiment in democratic politics (NYU Press)

A UN report on water and sanitation standards across the U.S. (United Nations Human Rights Counsel)

Describes the link between environmental justice issues, poverty, race, and climate change (Catherine Flowers for

More on the link between environmental justice, human rights issues, and climate change (The Guardian)

Describes the political issues which keep Lowndes County unable to self-govern and thus address infrastructure and sanitation issues in ways that promote the welfare of the community (Danielle Purifoy Blog Post)