Catherine Flowers Advocates for Equal Water and Sanitation Access Across Communities
Internationally recognized advocate for equal water and sanitation access CATHERINE COLEMAN FLOWERS offers informative, engaging talks on environmental justice and climate change.
Flowers founded CREEJ, the Center for Rural Enterprise and Environmental Justice, serves as the Rural Development Manager for the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), is a Senior Fellow for the Center for Earth Ethics at Union Theological Seminary, and sits on the Board of Directors for the Climate Reality Project and the Natural Resources Defense Council. She is a 2020 MacArthur Fellow in Environmental Health and served on the Biden-Sanders Unity Climate Task Force to inform policy making discussions in preparation for the 2020 presidential election. From these roles, she brings a lens of leadership and authority on environmental justice and climate change to her talks.
Her book Waste: One Woman’s Fight Against America’s Dirty Secret, was added to the New York Times "16 New Books To Watch For In November" list for its discussion on where sanitation meets systemic race, class, and geographic prejudice.
Sought out to speak this year for the American Institute of Architects, the Triple Bottom Line Americas Conference, the Bloomberg Green Festival, and the Global Philanthropy Forum, Flowers' thought-provoking talks leave audiences with modern-day, tangible solutions and ways to take action to address today's current environmental challenges, whether she is addressing equal access to water, the effects of climate change on different communities, or the effect of history on today's inequities.
Catherine C. Flowers is an environmental activist bringing attention to the largely invisible problem of inadequate waste and water sanitation infrastructure in rural communities in the United States. As founding director of the Center for Rural Enterprise and Environmental Justice (formerly the Alabama Center for Rural Enterprise), Flowers builds partnerships across social scales—from close neighbors, to local elected officials and regional nonprofits, to federal lawmakers and global organizations—to identify and implement solutions to the intersecting challenges of water and sanitation infrastructure, public health, and economic development.
Flowers grew up in Lowndes County, Alabama, an area plagued by poverty and failing infrastructure, which often results in raw sewage in yards and waterways and contaminated drinking water for residents. With a deep understanding of the historical, political, economic, and physical constraints that impede the implementation of better infrastructure in the region, she has engaged collaborators across a broad range of disciplinary expertise to document how lack of access to sufficient and sustained waste treatment and clean water can trap rural, predominantly African American populations in a vicious cycle of poverty and disease.
In 2011, Flowers worked with the UN Special Rapporteur to uncover the startling 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, she published “Flushed and Forgotten: Sanitation and Wastewater in Rural Communities in the United States” (2019), an examination of inequalities in access to sanitation and clean water within a framework of human rights. The report exposes the extent of water contamination and sanitation problems in poor, rural communities across the country, largely due to neglect by local leaders.
Flowers also spearheaded a collaboration with tropical disease researchers focused on intestinal parasitic infections spread by way of insufficient water treatment and waste sanitation. The researchers found that hookworm, long thought to have been eliminated from the South, is in fact prevalent among the residents of Lowndes County, prompting the U.S. Centers for Disease Control to undertake a similar, larger study across the rural American South. Flowers’s testimony to the U.S. Congress led to the introduction of legislation in 2019 to address neglected diseases of poverty in the United States.
Flowers is broadening the scope of environmental justice to include issues specific to disenfranchised rural communities and galvanizing policy and research to redress failing infrastructure that perpetuates socioeconomic disparities in rural areas across the United States.
Catherine Flowers is the founding director of the Center for Rural Enterprise and Environmental Justice. Flowers is also the rural development manager for the Equal Justice Initiative, a member of the board of directors of the Climate Reality Project, and a senior fellow for the Center for Earth Ethics at Union Theological Seminary. Previously, Flowers has worked as a high school teacher in Detroit, Michigan, and Washington, D.C. She has published articles in Anglican Theological Review, Columbia Human Rights Law Review, and American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene, among others, and her new book, Waste: One Woman’s Fight Against America’s Dirty Secret, which was published in November 2020.