Catherine-FlowersCatherine Coleman Flowers is the founder of the Alabama Center for Rural Enterprise Community Development Corporation (ACRE) and the Rural Development Manager for Equal Justice Initiative. This interview was conducted over email with Catherine Coleman Flowers by Sarah Kerman, a freshman undergraduate student, majoring in Public Policy and working for the Duke Human Rights Center at the Franklin Humanities Institute. 

Sarah Kerman (SK): How important are human rights to your work?

Catherine Flowers (CF): Access to clean water and sanitation is a vital part of our work. On 28 July 2010, through Resolution 64/292, the United Nations General Assembly explicitly recognized the human right to water and sanitation and acknowledged that clean drinking water and sanitation are essential to the realization of all human rights. The Resolution calls upon States and international organizations to provide financial resources, help capacity-building and technology transfer to help countries, in particular developing countries, to provide safe, clean, accessible and affordable drinking water and sanitation for all.

SK: How do issues of contamination and environmental racism relate to human rights?​

CF: Environmental racism is the intentionally exposing vulnerable communities to toxic conditions. The people populating areas within 2 miles of our nation’s hazardous waste facilities or amongst raw sewage are by majority of color. African Americans are 79 percent more likely than whites to live in neighborhoods where industrial pollution is suspected of causing the greatest health dangers. However this figure reflects the same fact for other vulnerable populations that are either minority or poor. Environmental racism and contamination of any community deprives it residents of the basic right to live in a clean, healthy and safe environment. This is a right that is inherent to all human beings, yet many are deprived due to their income, race, or ethnicity.

SK: What inspired you to create the ACRE?  Which initiatives have been most successful?

CF: ACRE was created out of a desire to find solutions to poverty. I grew up in rural Lowndes County, Alabama and was appalled that despite all of the history around the area, the progress was limited. The initiatives that have been most successful were stopping the arrests of people in Lowndes County that could not afford septic systems, developing partnerships to help find sustainable solutions, community involvement, and highlighting the water and sanitation
issues as well those the dangers to health that occur as a result.

SK: What has been most challenging about the wastewater treatment project?

CF: The most challenging aspects of addressing the raw sewage problem is the lack of financial resources being allocated to impoverished communities to fix the problem. Foundations in the United States have not begun to fund these types of projects in the United States because many have not recognized the extent of length and breadth of the problem.

SK: Which populations are most impacted by sanitation and clean water issues?

CF: We work primarily in rural communities. Therefore our vantage point, the populations most affected by sanitation and clean water issues are the poor and minorities.

SK: What do you think other rural communities can learn from the ACRE’s participatory initiatives in Lowndes County, Alabama?​ 

CF: The first thing is do not assume everyone is in the E911 system or has been counted by the census. They should conduct their own study using people that live in the community. Second, do not expect to have access to maps of water lines in their communities. Most people are not aware of how soil permeability impacts what technology is
used and the cost. There are few policies in place to protect citizens that purchase homes with little or no infrastructure, therefore the community has to educated about what to look for and which questions to ask. Expect resistance. People resist what they do not know or understand. Being consistent wins supporters. Partner with universities and advocates from the environmental, engineering and public health communities to gain more knowledge and support. I could go on, but I will stop here.

SK: How are the issues of water and sanitation rights linked to other root causes of poverty?​

CF: Without infrastructure there is no meaningful economic development. This could either create or sustain poverty. No infrastructure provides an unfair playing field for economic development opportunities that can create jobs and support improved services. There is lots of illness. And many of the young people leave upon graduation from high school in search of opportunities for growth and advancement elsewhere. Services generally are limited or nonexistent. What is there is usually very expensive compared to other areas and usually are of poor quality. An important component to ending poverty in rural communities is access to affordable wastewater technology and clean water.



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