iSEE Congress Highlights Earth Month!

A teacher-turned-environmental health researcher who has documented largely overlooked problems of poor sanitation and water contamination in marginalized rural communities is one of four distinguished sustainability experts featured in the upcoming iSEE Congress in April.

“The Future of Water” is the theme for iSEE Congress 2021, which will be held online during Earth Month and is sponsored by the Institute for Sustainability, Energy, and Environment (iSEE) at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. Congress brings together researchers, educators, and activists from different disciplines to address a global environmental challenge. This year, iSEE is partnering with the U of I’s Joint Area Centers (JACS), three of which are funded through U.S. Department of Education Title VI grants, and the Illinois Global Institute to address water crises caused by climate change and other factors.

Four noon-hour virtual lectures on April 6, April 14, April 20, and April 23 will explore the weaponization of water, environmental justice in rural America, current freshwater crises, and the high-tech tools that allow scientists to identify viral pathogens through wastewater.

Catherine Coleman Flowers, a MacArthur “genius” grant recipient and a Stuart L. and Nancy J. Levenick Resident Scholar in Sustainability Leadership at the U of I this spring, will participate in a roundtable discussion on April 14 about her new book, “Waste: One Woman’s Fight Against America’s Dirty Secret.” The book explores the environmental justice movement in rural America and highlights her journey as an activist.

Flowers grew up in Lowndes County, Ala., a rural, mostly African-American community where many houses didn’t have indoor plumbing or phone service. After earning her bachelor’s and master’s degrees, and working as a teacher and civil rights advocate, she returned to her hometown to work on economic development. She soon began documenting sanitation problems in the community, where residents cope with contaminated drinking water and raw sewage in their back yards.

Her research collaborations with the U.N., Columbia Law School Human Rights Institute, and others demonstrated how the lack of access to waste treatment and clean water can trap rural, predominantly black populations in a vicious cycle of poverty and disease. Their communities were more likely to suffer from contaminated water and poor sanitation, leading to the spread of intestinal parasitic infections.

Flowers is the founder for the Center for Rural Enterprise and Environment Justice and a Senior Fellow for Environmental justice and Civic Engagement at the Center for Earth Ethics at Union Theological Seminary. She was selected as a MacArthur Fellow in 2020 and was named to the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council in March 2021.

Other Congress talks:

  • April 6: “The Weaponization of Water in the Middle East and Africa,” by Marcus King, Associate Professor of International Affairs at George Washington University. He will explain how overuse, population growth, and climate change have turned water into a tool for conflict in the Middle East and Africa, and suggest actions that governments and the international community can take to discourage the weaponization of water. King has experience in public service, research, and the private sector focusing on climate change resiliency and adaptation.
  • April 20: “The Past, Present, and Future of Water,” by Peter Gleick, a leading water scientist and co-founder of the Pacific Institute, who also received a MacArthur “genius” fellowship. Gleick will explore the role of fresh water in human evolution, current water crises facing the planet, and how we might transition to a more sustainable future. (Gleick wrote a blog post for the upcoming Congress to begin the conversation.)
  • April 23: “From Polio to Covid: Environmental Virology at its Best,” by Joan Rose, 2016 recipient of the prestigious Stockholm Water Prize and the Nowlin Chair in Water Research at Michigan State University, who has spent her carer tracking pathogens in water. Rose will discuss how scientists assess disease risk and how molecular tools and other advances are allowing them to track community health during COVID-19 and other outbreaks.

All four talks are open to the public, and the Gleick and Rose events received additional sponsorship from the Center for Advanced Studies as part of its MillerComm lecture series. For Zoom registration links and other information, please visit the iSEE Congress website.

iSEE is also sponsoring several other events during Earth Month, including:

  • Community Trash Pick-Up: Everyone is invited to help pick up trash on campus from 3 to 5 p.m. on Wednesday, April 7. Participants will meet at the Boneyard Creek behind Engineering Hall and disperse from there. Bags will be provided, but bring gloves/bags if you have them – and bring a friend! This event is sponsored by iSEE and U of I Facilities and Services.
  • Sustainability Rocks! Students are invited to join iSEE from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Thursday, April 8, outside the Illini Union to paint a rock with a sustainability-themed message or design! Paints will be supplied and students can bring their own rock if they have one. Afterward, they will place the rock somewhere on campus for others to find!
  • The Charles David Keeling Lecture: Alice Hill, the Rubenstein Senior Fellow for Energy and the Environment at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, D.C., will present “Lessons from the Pandemic to Tackle the Climate Crisis” at 4 p.m. April 19. Read more about the Keeling

For more information on these and other events, please visit iSEE’s Earth Month page.

– Article by iSEE Communications Specialist Julie Wurth