Catherine Coleman Flowers

Founding Director, Center for Rural Enterprise and Environmental Justice

As the founding director of the Center for Rural Enterprise and Environmental Justice (formerly the Alabama Center for Rural Enterprise), Catherine Flowers builds partnerships–from close neighbors, to local elected officials and regional nonprofits, to federal lawmakers and global organizations–in order 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, an examination of inequalities in access to sanitation and clean water within a framework of human rights.

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.

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 first book, Waste: One Woman’s Fight Against America’s Dirty Secret, came out in November 2020. Flowers was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship – commonly referred to as the “Genius Grant” – in 2020.

Podcast Guest Appearances

Killer Combination: Climate, Health and Poverty

What happens when climate, public health and poverty converge?

Author and activist Catherine Coleman Flowers grew up in rural Lowndes County, Alabama. When she moved back home in 2001, she immediately noticed that things were different.

“I knew that armadillos were not native to Alabama,” Flowers recalls. “But when I moved back, I started to see armadillos. I started to see palm trees grow in areas where they would not grow before.