By Liyu Woldemichael, ’22

Catherine Flowers, founder of the Center for Rural Enterprise and Environmental Justice (CREEJ) and 2020 McArthur Fellow, shared her powerful story and path to becoming a renowned environmental justice advocate in Lowndes County. Her experiences are detailed in her new book Waste: One Woman’s Fight Against America’s Dirty Secret

Flowers explains, “In order for people to understand why I chose this particular subject matter, they had to understand who I was.” She shared how the sense of community she found in Lowndes County and the deep connection she built with the land was a part of her journey into the climate movement. Seeing the land change over time helped her witness how landscapes were deteriorating as a result of human activity. 

Flowers’ relationship with land is a focal point of her book, and she shared how it impacts her work. The soil connects her to the tragedies of Lowndes Countyan area that was settled by South Carolinian slave owners who moved their plantations to Alabama as Montgomery became the heart of the domestic slave trade. History collected by the Equal Justice Initiative, which Flowers is also a part of, shows that many of the people who ended up in Lowndes County were enslaved people. 

The land of Lowndes, according to Flowers, carries not only this tragic history but also the power of resistance. As the child of civil rights activists, Flowers was born into the Black Southern organizing tradition. She shared that in her lowest moments, faith is what kept her going. This faith, she explains, is grounded in the Black southern church tradition, which inspired civil rights advocates like Martin Luther King Jr. and continues to move her and others’ activism. Flowers discusses how it was because of the tireless efforts of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee that Lowndes County became the birthplace of the Lowndes County Freedom Party, which she states inspired the creation of the Black Panther party.

These contexts are at the forefront of how Flowers has built her advocacy, as she has helped expose “America’s dirty secret” by increasing the attention on rural environmental issues not only in Lowndes County but across the U.S. She joined the Biden-Sanders Unity Taskforce and brought her perspective into how the Biden administration will tackle the climate crisis over the next four years. 

Flowers shared how valuable her partnership with Duke has been, as she has worked closely with students, faculty and staff. This is the sixth year of Duke Human Rights Center@FHI’s partnership, which has raised awareness about the right to accessible water and sanitation in rural communities and advocated for policy change.

When asked how students interested in advancing environmental justice could best get involved, Flowers urged for students to look into the issues impacting their hometown or join the North Carolina Environmental Justice Network to get connected to the environmental injustices closer to Duke. The issues Flowers has fought against are happening throughout the country, and we each can make a difference if we can join environmental justice coalitions who are advocating in our own communities.