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Hear From 2022 William K. Reilly Award Winner on Today's Environmental Challenges

On May 2, Catherine Coleman Flowers, Founding Director of the Center for Rural Enterprise and Environmental Justice, received the William K. Reilly Award for Environmental Leadership from the Center for Environmental Policy at American University’s School of Public Affairs.

Ms. Flowers is the Vice Chair of the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council, the author of Waste: One Woman’s Fight Against America’s Dirty Secret, and a board member of the Natural Resources Defense Council and The Climate Reality Project.

Also recognized with the Reilly Award was Paul Polman, Co-Founder and Chairman, Imagine, Former CEO, Unilever, Author of Net Positive: How Courageous Companies Thrive by Giving More Than They Take.

Professor Daniel Fiorino, Director of the Center for Environmental Policy, spoke with Flowers, who was a MacArthur Fellow for Environmental Health Advocacy in 2020, about some of the challenges she confronts in her work to combat socioeconomic disparities in rural neighborhoods.

DF: What are the major environmental issues impacting communities of color today?

CCF: I think we should ask this question differently: “Which environmental issues are NOT affecting communities of color?” Communities of color and poor communities are on the front lines of climate and environmental justice. Just like the canaries in the coal mines, the environmental issues they encounter every day of their lives are warnings to us all.

However, we also need to address the differences between rural communities and urban communities. I was raised in rural Lowndes County, Alabama. When I was a child, people would have to walk to others’ homes to get water, many relied on manual water pumps, and those who were lucky enough to have indoor plumbing had sewage flowing onto the surface of the land. To this day, the infrastructure systems remain at a failure level in Lowndes and other rural communities across the United States. This is a result of policymaking by people who have no knowledge of challenges of rural life and the lived experience of rural residents who have been witnessing changes in weather patterns and infrastructure failures for generations.

It is just a matter of time before the conditions in Lowndes become the standard for all of us regardless of where we live.

According to the most recent IPCC report, we have eight years to get it right and to find solutions to protect our common home.

DF: How do you motivate others to mobilize/organize around climate and equity issues?

CCF: It took me years to grasp the intersectionality between environmental justice, climate change, and climate justice. Walking on unnamed dirt roads, observing the changes in seasons and vegetation, I learned to pay attention and to note the increased frequency of flooding events, the failure of septic systems, and the water-borne illnesses facing adults and children living in these areas. Today, I motivate others by letting them know that all of us are connected, no matter where we live. We can all find examples of such disproportionate impacts such as flooded out homes in low-lying neighborhoods, the lack of potable water in California’s Central valley, and increased rates of asthma and cardiovascular disease among residents who lack air conditioning or work outdoors. We have an inspiring history behind us to use in our fight for justice today. There is a deep history of social change in the south and Alabama, in particular. In the early 1900s, there was a tremendous agrarian struggle in Lowndes County as sharecroppers sought to organize and demand their rights. In 1960s, Selma and Lowndes County were at the center of the fight for voting rights. And today, we are fighting for climate justice and sanitation equity.

DF: The environmental justice movement is more than 30 years old. While we have seen some major accomplishments, what still needs to be achieved?

CCF: One of the major accomplishments of environmental justice work is that we are finally recognizing sanitation inequities in this country. Another major accomplishment is that the White House has elevated environmental justice issues to the executive level for the first time in our nation's history.

We need to do more to make sure that Justice 40, the administration’s initiative to deliver at least 40 percent of the overall benefits from Federal investments in climate and clean energy to disadvantaged communities, actually delivers equitable solutions. Forty percent is merely a down payment on the vast issues that need to be addressed, but I am happy that we have at least begun the process. Acknowledgement is a step toward transformation.

DF: How should federal, state, and local policies change to address the environmental issues in communities of color?

CCF: We must remove the structural inequities that are baked into our federal, state, and local governments’ discrimination against communities of color and poor communities. All federal appropriations should utilize a Justice 40 model in which funding is consciously committed to remedy historical wrongs. A good example of where to start is the Water Resources Development Act that is currently in the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. This legislation aims addresses climate and environmental justice priorities and includes the establishment of an advisory committee guiding the US Army Corps of Engineers on these issues.

At the state and local levels, similar models should be employed, with the engagement of individuals from communities of color, and poor and rural communities as valued stakeholders. This will require developing relationships, establishing trust, and learning from long-time residents. Further, recognizing the knowledge and expertise that local stakeholders bring to the process can help quickly leapfrog policy and investments.