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The need for persistence: Catherine Coleman Flowers speaks to students about climate change

On the night of Oct. 10 at 7 p.m., environmental justice activist Catherine Coleman Flowers spoke to the St. Olaf community over Zoom in a virtual conversation sponsored by the Vice President for Equity and Inclusion María Pabón Gautier and the Orientation & Transition Experiences team. Community members had the opportunity to join virtually or attend an in-person screening at the Lion’s Pause Mane Stage. 

Flowers, who Zoomed in from Glasgow, Scotland where she was attending the United Nations Climate Change Conference, has done extensive work throughout her life fighting for environmental and racial justice. Her many professional accomplishments include founding the Center for Rural Enterprise and Environmental Justice, serving as the Vice Chair on the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council and receiving the 2020 MacArthur Fellow for Environmental Health Advocacy. 

She also wrote the book “Waste: One Woman’s Fight Against America’s Dirty Secret” published in 2020, which focuses on racism, sanitation, and exposes the wastewater problem that many Americans have turned their eyes away from. It was selected for the St. Olaf 2021 Common Read, which serves to teach new students about equity and inclusion and unite them through a shared reading. The virtual conversation served as a way for the St. Olaf community to continue engaging with Flowers’ work and the opportunity to learn from her. 

In an email to The Olaf Messenger, Pabón wrote, “The part that resonated the most with me was when Flowers talked about celebrating small wins. Her journey and the impact she has had in the field is an accumulation of small wins, patience, perseverance, and community. This was extremely powerful to me because it helps me (and I hope everyone who was listening to it as well) see the long term impact. It helps me to trust that even though I may not see the seeds germinate, they will bring their own fruits in this work.” 

One of the main points of the conversation focused on centering rural communities in conversations about environmental justice and sustainability. Flowers grew up in a rural area herself, in Lowndes, Alabama, an impoverished community with inadequate wastewater systems that often led to sewage failures. She spoke to the strong sense of community there and the importance of being able to depend and collaborate with those around you. Growing up there inspired her interest in community organizing, climate change, and sanitation. 

Additionally, the conversation covered student activism and the necessity of persistence. She also spoke of how it is okay for people to take mental health breaks when it comes to activism, but also how action is good for peoples’ mental health.

Pabón also wrote to The Olaf Messenger about how Flowers’ talk connects to St. Olaf and this community. “There are so many intersections between environmental and racial justice. However, we are not in the practice of making space to hold both conversations at the same time. Catherine showed how she does it and the importance of not having one without the other,” Pabón wrote.

The conversation ended with a Q&A where community members asked about Line 3 and how to support indigenous activists, how to engage in conversations about climate justice, and how to stay motivated. She ultimately closed with the powerful message that students are renewable energy.