Duke Human Rights Center publishes article on partnership with Catherine Coleman Flowers

Duke Human Rights Center in Lowndes Co.
From left, Emily Stewart, Emily Meza, Bryce Cracknell, Catherine Coleman Flowers, Elizabeth A. Albright, Erika Weinthal, Patricia Means, Aaron Thigpen, Megan Mullin, Perman Hardy, and Katy Hansen on a visit to Lowndes County in summer 2017.

"Solution-Centered Collaborative Research in Rural Alabama" describes the Duke Human Rights Center at the Franklin Humanities Institute's ongoing partnership with FHI Practitioner-in-Residence Catherine Coleman Flowers on an environmental justice project in her home county of Lowndes County, Alabama. Installing septic systems, or updating inadequate ones, is very expensive in Lowndes County, due in part to its unique soil conditions. As a result, many local residents who cannot afford new systems have raw sewage leaks in their yards or backups into their houses, leading to unsafe sanitary conditions and an upsurge in tropical diseases like hookworm. Additionally, they have been arrested for failing to update their systems, thereby compounding the problem.

Co-authored by Flowers, Nicholas School of the Environment faculty members Erika Weinthal and Elizabeth A. Albright, and DHRC Program Coordinator Emily Stewart, the article was published in the Social Science Research Council's digital forum Items in March 2018. Below, Emily Stewart discusses her work on this partnership with FHI Program Coordinator Sarah Rogers. This interview has been edited and condensed.

The article is impressive, because it describes something that’s difficult to explain – the work it takes to build a partnership outside of the university, and what in-progress projects look like.

We’re still learning!

Tell me how the DHRC@FHI’s partnership with Catherine Coleman Flowers came about.

In 2014, we received a grant from Humanities Writ Large to fund a community research project, and we were looking for partners. Sia Sanneh, a lawyer for the Equal Justice Initiative, thought we would be interested in Ms. Flowers’ work. Catherine is their Rural Development Manager, in addition to her position at ACRE [Alabama Center for Rural Enterprise], working to resolve the sanitation infrastructure problems in her home county of Lowndes County, Alabama. She's been working on this issue for over seventeen years.

We invited Ms. Flowers to speak at Duke in the Fall 2014, and arranged meetings with faculty and students to discuss the type of partnership Catherine would be interested in. In Summer 2015, we took a group of students down to Lowndes County, Alabama, to carry out a survey of residents to understand how widespread the issue really was, and create a video that ACRE could use to raise awareness about the situation.

What do you think the students learned from the trip?

The students were asking us really important questions. They knew that these Lowndes County residents had opened their doors to many other “outsiders,” and they were still waiting for some kind of change. Since the residents trusted the community leaders who were taking us to their houses, they let the students to ask the survey questions, with the hope that we would use the data to find solutions. The students wanted to know, “What is Duke’s long-term commitment to this project? How can a R1 institution like Duke can partner with a nonprofit and work collaboratively towards solutions?” These questions were at the core of how we built our partnership.

Based on some of our research, the solutions might be new sanitation technology, and policy that allows affordable access to it. But Catherine taught us that you can’t create solutions for a rural area unless you go there and meet the people, see the problem. So we go down to Lowndes at least once a year. And we never visit anyone’s home without a community member taking us there – Catherine taught us early on that was the only way we could ever work in Lowndes County.

When did you come up with the idea for the Practitioner-in-Residence model?

We realized it was important to have in-person meetings in order to sustain our relationship and further the work. Catherine also loved to engage with students and found hope for the future through those relationships. We were looking for funding structures to support an innovative project and help bring Catherine to Duke in an official capacity. Erika [Weinthal], Betsy [Elizabeth A. Albright], and I drafted a proposal to fund the residency, and Deborah [Jenson, former FHI Director] supported it. When the residency began, I tried to reach out to everyone I knew across Duke to get Catherine as much exposure on campus as possible, and to see who might want to get involved.

What have been the triumphs so far?

I’ve been really moved by the number of people who wanted to be involved in some way. Our partnerships span the university, from the DHRC to faculty in different departments, and to the Law School, the Pratt School of Engineering, the Nicholas School of the Environment, and Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions. The Environmental Law and Policy Clinic is taking this on as a case this Spring, and we’ll have a Bass Connections team that starts this fall and goes through the academic year.

The students are completely amazed by Catherine. She’s so dynamic and has so much integrity. They bring their skill sets to the project, and she provides opportunities for them to attend summits like the Climate and Health Meeting with Al Gore last year. They see her as a mentor and a role model. She says the students give her hope.

What’s in the future?

In addition to the research at Duke, we are also working with Catherine to bring the many ACRE stakeholders together to discuss technological and policy solutions. We just had a meeting in D.C. last week that was quite fruitful.

Our next trip to Lowndes County will be at the end of April to attend the opening of the Legacy Museum and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, which has been a project of the Equal Justice Initiative to memorialize lynching victims and sites all over the country. We’re going to take twenty students, faculty and staff who have been involved in the partnership to support Catherine, and be present for this moment of public acknowledgement of our nation’s history.

How did your background influence how you approach this work?

I was raised Quaker among strong role models that stood up for equality, community, justice and had so much integrity. I feel humbled to work at a Human Rights Center in an Institute that honors the legacy of John Hope Franklin and Pauli Murray. They believed in the importance of education for social change. Catherine’s work fits into the same mold. Her humility, integrity and dedication to this work is extraordinary. She has an Master’s in History, and she sees issues of justice and equity through multiple lenses. It became clear to me early on that she was doing important work and it was something we needed to commit to. I wanted to listen to and learn from her, and I was willing to work hard to do our part in creating solutions.

Visit Items to read the article and learn more about this ongoing partnership.

Emily Stewart