Catherine Flowers, Franklin Humanities Institue 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 ACRE’s goals, 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 recently visited Standing Rock to demonstrate solidarity with the protestors. She also testified before Congress on environmental racism in Alabama’s Black Belt.

Ms. Flowers 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.

Click here to read an interview with Catherine Flowers and learn about her work with Kyra Josephson, a junior undergraduate student majoring in History and working for the Duke Human Rights Center at the Franklin Humanities Institute.

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

-Danielle Purifoy, PhD Student of the Nicholas School of the Environment and Human Rights Research Grant Recipient

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.  The Alabama Department of Public Health has responded to this need not with sanitation projects, but with arrest warrants.

The people of Lowndes County are being arrested for sanitation code violations because they cannot afford septic tanks. The families are marked as criminals and, in some cases like those seen in Detroit, this criminalization could provide legal grounds for the state to take children from their parents, despite there being no other evidence of child abuse.

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. 

Catherine Flowers and The Center for Rural Enterprise and Environmental Justice (CREEJ), previously the Alabama Center for Rural Enterprise

Flowers is the Executive Director and founder of 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 recently transformed into a national organization, The Center for Rural Enterprise and Environmental Justice (CREEJ).

Flowers also works with 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.  Learn more about Ms. Flowers.

ACRE and DHRC@FHI 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. The five undergraduate and three 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.


Student Work and Reflections

Flushed, Forgotten and Unincorporated Communities: Taking a Human Rights Perspective on Sanitation Issues by Onuoha Odim, Duke University Public Policy Undergraduate, Trinity 2020




North Carolina Environmental Justice Summit by Gino Nuzzolillo ’20






Student Reflections on the Climate and Health Meeting by Bryce Cracknell ’18






Current Opportunities for Students and Faculty

Duke students interested in getting involved with ACRE and learning about opportunities to conduct research are highly encouraged to meet with Ms. Flowers when she is on campus. Students pursuing the Human Rights Certificate can incorporate research in collaboration with ACRE towards the final research component of the capstone. Ms. Flowers will have regular office hours. To schedule a meeting, please contact

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

The Plight of the Poor: Raw Sewage in Lowndes CountyThe Equal Justice Initiative’s summary of environmental justice issues in Lowndes County (Equal Justice Initiative)

Bloody Lowndes: Civil Rights and Black Power in Alabama’s Black Belt by Hasan Kwame Jeffries –Winner of the 2010 Clinton Jackson Coley Award for the best book on local history from the Alabama Historical Association

Hookworm Infections and Sanitation Failures Plague Rural AlabamaDetails the health consequences of poor sanitation in Lowndes County and historical context of the link between race, poverty, rural communities, politics, and poor infrastructure (Circle of Blue)

U.S. Preaches Human Rights Across the Globe, but Fails to Provide Black and Poor People a Basic Human RightThe U.S. water and sanitation crisis in international context (Atlanta Blackstar)


Report of the Special Rapporteur on the Human Right to Safe Drinking Water and SanitationA UN report on water and sanitation standards across the U.S. (United Nations Human Rights Counsel)

Water Affordability is a New Civil Rights Movement in the United StatesInsight on the politics of the U.S. water crisis and more information on the “Water is a Right” movement (Circle of Blue)

Beyond COP 21: Articulating Climate Realities and SolutionsDescribes the link between environmental justice issues, poverty, race, and climate change (Catherine Flowers for

Climate Change Threat to Public Health Worse Than Polio, White House WarnsMore on the link between environmental justice, human rights issues, and climate change (The Guardian)

Black Belt Infrastructure = Black PowerHistorical context on the relationship between politics, poverty, race, and infrastructure in the “Black Belt” of Alabama (Danielle Purifoy Blog Post)

Living UnincorporatedDescribes 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)

Media & Press

America’s Dirty Secret: Living Amongst Raw Sewage

VICE News: This Woman Advocates For Alabama Residents Exposed To Hookworm

24 Hours of Reality: A Conversation with Catherine Flowers

Catherine Flowers Working with Duke University on Sanitation & Poverty in Lowndes County

Duke Law Keynote Address – Environmental Justice