DURHAM, N.C. – Catherine Coleman Flowers, one of America’s most respected and influential environmental and social justice activists, has been appointed Practitioner-in-Residence at Duke University.
Flowers, who was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship in 2020 to support her advocacy for disenfranchised rural communities, began her three-year residency at Duke July 1.
She holds shared appointments at the university’s Nicholas School of the Environment, Trinity College of Arts and Sciences, and John Hope Franklin Humanities Institute.
As founding director of the Center for Rural Enterprise and Environmental Justice (CREEJ) in Madison, Ala., Flowers has for more than two decades been at the forefront of efforts to combat the “forgotten” problem of inadequate water and wastewater infrastructure in poor, rural U.S. communities, especially communities of color.
CREEJ is widely credited for building partnerships across political and social lines to help spur improved access to clean water and safe waste treatment systems in these communities and redress the harmful economic, environmental, and human health impacts linked to the contamination. Recently, the Center has sharpened its focus on sanitation innovation aimed at mitigating the impact of climate change on the worsening wastewater conditions around the world.
As Practitioner-in-Residence at Duke, Flowers will share her expertise with students both in and out of the classroom through presentations, mentoring and advising.
She’ll also coach student and faculty researchers on methods for authentic community engagement; collaborate with them to document stories of environmental injustice related to water infrastructure in the American South; and introduce them to her ongoing work with the White House Environmental Justice Council and the Biden Administration’s Justice 40 initiative, which aims to ensure that 40% of all federal climate investments go directly to frontline communities most affected by poverty and pollution.
“Catherine grew up in Lowndes County, Alabama, an area plagued by poverty, racial inequity, and contaminated drinking water. With a keen understanding of the constraints that impede the implementation of better infrastructure in the region, she has forged innovative collaborations to find real-world solutions and help document how lack of access to clean water and sanitation can trap rural, predominantly Black populations in a vicious cycle of poverty and disease,” said Toddi Steelman, Stanback Dean of the Nicholas School.
“We are thrilled that she will be sharing her expertise, experience and passion for justice with our students, faculty and staff,” Steelman said.
Valerie Ashby, former dean of Trinity College, said, “From the moment I met Catherine, it was clear she was a teacher, scholar, community leader and policy driver who also cares deeply about engaging students—for their benefit— in her local and global work. She is principles-driven and values-driven and will open doors and bring students great experiences that teach them not only what environmental justice is but how to do it well and make change.
“She has already made a significant impact on those students who have had the opportunity to work with her, and I am delighted that we are formalizing her relationship to Duke through this appointment,” Ashby said.
Though this is Flowers’ first formal appointment at Duke, she has a long history of collaborations with the university, including working with a Bass Connections faculty-student research team in 2018-19 to investigate new ways to improve sanitation access in Lowndes County and presenting the 2021 Ferguson Family Lecture at the Nicholas School.
“Building partnerships that speed the development of solutions and inspiring young people to use their talents and voices to make a difference are things I’ve always been passionate about, and this new appointment presents remarkable opportunities for doing both,” Flowers said. “I can’t wait for the school year to begin.”
Among other pioneering accomplishments over the course of her storied career, Flowers worked with the United Nations’ Special Rapporteur in 2011 to document the level of poverty in Lowndes County and the southern United States more broadly. With the Columbia University Law School Human Rights Clinic and Institute for the Study of Human Rights, in 2019 she published “Flushed and Forgotten: Sanitation and Wastewater in Rural Communities in the United States”, a paper that exposed the extent of water contamination and sanitation problems in poor, rural communities across the country.
She also spearheaded a collaboration with tropical disease researchers to document how insufficient water treatment and waste sanitation has spurred the spread of hookworms and other intestinal parasitic infections in many poor, rural communities. The results of that study spurred the Centers for Disease Control to undertake a similar, larger study across the rural American South and led to the introduction of federal legislation in 2019 to expand scientific and policy efforts to combat neglected diseases associated with poverty in the U.S.
In addition to her leadership at the Center for Rural Enterprise and Environmental Justice, Flowers serves as the rural development manager for the Equal Justice Initiative, a member of the boards of directors of the Climate Reality Project and the National Resources Defense Council, and on the board of advisors for the Center for Earth Ethics at Union Theological Seminary.
She is the author of the critically acclaimed 2020 book, Waste: One Woman’s Fight Against America’s Dirty Secret.