First Environmental Issues Series spotlights Flowers’ perspective on environmental justice 

Hannah Katzke and Kate Beckler

Author and activist Catherine Coleman Flowers discussed the importance of looking beyond oneself and taking action on behalf of environmental issues at the first Upper Division (UD) Environmental Issues Series: “Where Do We Go From Here?: A Multifaceted Look at Climate Change and the Environmental Issues We Face” on Tuesday. Claire Goldberg (12) moderated the event with history teacher Dr. Ellen Bales and math and science teacher Catherine Crowley.

Flowers founded the Center for Rural Enterprise and Environmental Justice (CREEJ), an organization that advocates for environmental justice, according to the Speaker Series’ website. Growing up in Lowndes County, Alabama, Flowers saw how poverty and failing infrastructure  contaminated the county’s drinking water and people’s backyards with sewage.

After the success of the UD History Series last year, Goldberg was inspired to start a series on the importance of race and justice on climate change and the environment, she said. “I thought that the Environmental Speaker Series could complement the history speaker series in a powerful way that will hopefully spark important conversations.”

While the event style is similar to that of the UD History Series, the UD Environmental Issues Series centers solely around environmental issues, Bales said. 

During the event, Flowers spoke about how her experience as a teacher gave her the skills needed to be a successful activist, she said. She focuses on sanitation issues in rural communities like Lowndes County because many people, especially in urban areas, do not understand what these communities face unless they see it themselves. 

When reaching out to potential speakers, Bales saw Flowers as the dream candidate, she said. Bales found Flowers’ advocacy for sanitation and waste as human rights to be inspiring, she said.

In 2020, Flowers published her memoir, “Waste: One Woman’s Fight Against America’s Dirty Secret,” which addresses the consequences of climate change for marginalized groups and access to proper sanitation.

In preparation for the UD Environmental Issues Series, Bales taught Flowers’ memoir to her Global Environmental History, Atlantic World History, and US History classes, she said. 

During the event, Flowers said she was surprised by the support she received from people of all political backgrounds. She tries to bridge divides through dialogue, she said.

Bales appreciated Flowers’ commitment to approaching everyone as people first rather than assuming their character based on political beliefs, she said. “That seemed to me like both a pragmatic and a generous and human way to be in the world. It’s a model for all of us.”

Flowers also discussed how activism is only successful if people work together, she said. “We’re all part of an ecosystem, and everyone is responsible for their own actions and those actions’ outcomes.”

Throughout the event, Flowers stressed the urgency of environmental issues and how sitting back and doing nothing will only lead to further destruction, she said. 

Bales hopes that the Environmental Issues Series created a space for people to discuss and understand the urgency of pressing environmental issues, she said. “Not everyone has to be an activist, not everyone has to be a scientist, but there are ways we can all contribute.”

After a great turnout, Goldberg hopes that Flower’s words motivate people to think about the environmental impacts of racist histories and policies, Goldberg said. “If even a few kids resonate with what Flowers said yesterday, it would be a success.” 

“We’re all part of an ecosystem, and everyone is responsible for their own actions and those actions’ outcomes.”

– Catherine Coleman Flowers

Goldberg hopes the event exposed attendees to living conditions that exist outside of the urban environment that most students live in, she said. Most members of the community do not even know these conditions — where people do not have access to basic resources like sanitation disposal — exist, she said.“I hope that everyone who comes to the speaker series reconsiders what things in their lives they take for granted.”

Flowers’ stories of important front-line work as well as her warmth and relatability were phenomenal, Rosenblum said. “Many people were able to connect with [Flowers] on different levels.”

Scientist Benjamin Strauss will be the guest speaker at the February Environmental Issues Series, and students will hear from environmental historians Bathsheba Demuth and Jack Davis in April.