SOPHE names Catherine Coleman Flowers, MA, as its 2023 Honorary Fellow

Environmental & Social Justice Advocate

Washington, D.C. – March 6, 2023 – The Society for Public Health Education (SOPHE) will present its Honorary Fellow Award to Catherine Coleman Flowers, MA, an internationally recognized environmental health researcher and activist, author and the founder of the Center for Rural Enterprise and Environmental Justice, on Thursday, March 23, during its SOPHE 2023 Annual Conference.

The Honorary Fellow Award is SOPHE’s highest honor presented to a non-member who has made significant and lasting contributions to health education and the public’s health.

Flowers has spent her career promoting equal access to clean water, air, sanitation and soil to reduce health and economic disparities in marginalized, rural communities. In 2011, Flowers first brought to the public’s attention shocking environmental degradation, resulting in raw sewage in yards and waterways and contaminated drinking water of rural Alabama residents. Working with a broad range of multidisciplinary collaborators, including the UN Special Rapporteur, she tackled the vicious cycle of poverty and disease by modernizing the infrastructure so that residents have access to sufficient and sustained waste treatment and clean water. 

As a MacArthur Fellow and a recipient of the “genius grant,” she exposed a broad range of failing infrastructure problems that perpetuates socioeconomic disparities in rural areas across the United States. In her book Waste: One Woman’s Fight Against America’s Dirty Secret (2020), Flowers shares her inspiring story of advocacy, from childhood to environmental justice champion.

“Ms. Flowers demonstrates the power of advocacy urgently needed to expose and rectify the environmental, political, and economic injustices that continue to impact disadvantaged and underserved populations today,” says Dr. Amy Thompson, SOPHE 2022-2023 President. “From the front porches of rural Alabama to the halls of Congress, she has galvanized multiple stakeholders to improve public health infrastructure as well as transform economic development as a foundation for human rights.”  

Flowers 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 and Prevention to undertake a similar, larger study across the rural American South. Flowers’ testimony to the U.S. Congress led to the introduction of legislation in 2019 to address neglected diseases of poverty in the United States.

Flowers also sits on the Board of Directors for the Climate Reality Project, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Center for Constitutional Rights, and the American Geophysical Union, as well as serving as a Practitioner in Residence position at the Nicholas School of the Environment at Duke University. In 2021, her leadership and fervor in fighting for solutions to these issues led her to one of her most notable appointments yet — Vice Chair of the Biden Administration’s inaugural White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council.

For these reasons and more, SOPHE is honored to name Catherine Coleman Flowers as the SOPHE 2023 Honorary Fellow. She joins the ranks of distinguished SOPHE luminaries awarded this honor, including former social justice advocates Surgeon General Dr. David Satcher, Rep. John Lewis, and First Ladies Michelle Obama and Rosalyn Carter. Flower’s acceptance remarks, “Marching for Environmental Justice,” will be available on SOPHE’s website following the annual conference.

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