Since coming to Duke nine years ago, I gained the realization that all rural communities are virtually the same… the infrastructure neglect is still the same.”Catherine Coleman Flowers
Catherine Coleman Flowers is no stranger to action. Since the start of her career, she’s accomplished everything from working as the Vice Chair of the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council to founding the Center for Rural Enterprise and Environmental Justice. An internationally recognized advocate for public health, Flowers has worked tirelessly to improve water and sanitation conditions across rural America.
On February 9th, Duke University students got to hear from Flowers in a powerful seminar sponsored by Trinity College. A Practitioner in Residence at the Nicholas School of the Environment, Flowers discussed her incredible activism journey.
“I became an activist very, very young,” she said. Her family heritage nurtured her love for the environment early on, as well as her home state of Alabama. In high school, she began to read about the sanitation crisis happening in rural Alabama, Lowndes County in particular.
“I learned that poor people (there) were being targeted for arrest because they couldn’t afford sanitation systems,” Flowers said. The poverty rate in this historically Black county is double the national average, and sewage treatment is not provided for many residents. For those who can afford sanitation systems, they are often far from adequate, such as poorly maintained septic tanks. Issues like exposure to tropical parasites and improper installations are rampant throughout the county.
“It builds upon the structural inequalities that make sure these areas remain poor,” Flowers said. Across the US, millions of rural areas face the same complications. From places like ‘Cancer Alley’ in New Orleans to the city of Mount Vernon in New York, sanitation systems are failing miserably.
“We saw families that couldn’t live in their houses half the time because of the sewage that was running into their home,” Flowers explained. Unsurprisingly, almost all of the areas facing these issues are home to minority communities. “The narrative used to be, ‘they don’t know how to maintain it,’ but that isn’t true. The technology isn’t working at all.”
In November of 2021, Flowers filed the first-ever civil rights complaint against sanitation in Lowndes County. Thanks to her, as well as other prominent community activists, the issue garnered nationwide attention. In less than a year, the county received a $2.1 million grant from the USDA to begin solving the sewage crisis. Similar funding efforts have also been seen in Mount Vernon. “That is an example of what a solution can look like,” Flowers said.
“That’s the kind of power that you have as a Duke student,” Flowers said in closing. With almost one million dollars available for student funding annually and access to one of the greatest networks in the world, Duke students are in a remarkable position to make a change, she said. In North Carolina, counties like Duplin and Halifax are in need of outside help. “Growing up in the computer age, you can bring those skills needed to assist those applying for funds.”
So, what can you do? Above all, Flowers emphasizes the importance of leading from behind. ” Don’t go in the community and try to lead from the front… People from the community need to be involved from the design to the implementation.”
As students, our assistance is needed in the form of support. From assisting with grant applications, to utilizing our network access to spread the word, there are so many ways to get involved. True equity is found not when we speak for the community, but rather when we strengthen the community’s ability to speak for itself.
Click here to get in contact with Ms.Catherine Coleman Flowers, and click here for more information about work you can do in the local community!
Post By Skylar Hughes, Class of 2025