Month: February 2021

Catherine Flowers and her fight for environmental justice in Alabama

In parts of the American south, many homes don’t have access to working waste treatment – something activist Catherine Flowers is fighting to change

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The environmental activist Catherine Flowers grew up in Lowndes County, Alabama. It’s an area that was once home to plantations, and today is still known for its rich soil. But that soil also poses a challenge for waste management: 90% of households in Lowndes County have failing or inadequate water systems.

This means they have no way to manage the raw sewage from their homes. It’s a problem that exists across the state, but one that disproportionately affects the African-American population.

The lack of public sanitation in Lowndes County can be explained by government neglect, Flowers tells Rachel Humphreys. And because the cost of installing private septic tanks is more than many residents can afford, they have been punished with threats of prosecution for failure to install sanitation systems.

Catherine Flowers
 Photograph: AP

The Stench of American Neglect

by Caroline Fraser for The New York Review

In her new book, the activist Catherine Coleman Flowers chronicles her efforts to expose criminally deficient sanitation in her home county of Lowndes, Alabama and around the US.

February 25, 2021 issue

In 1941 Walker Evans, a photographer, and James Agee, a journalist for Time and Fortune magazines, published Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, their idiosyncratic Depression-era volume of photographs and reporting about a 1936 trip to Alabama’s so-called Black Belt, a region that was, as Booker T. Washington had pronounced, “distinguished by the colour of the soil.” The book would eventually become one of the most famous nonfiction accounts of poverty in American history, comparable in influence to Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath. In it, Agee yearned to forswear words entirely in favor of the essential stuff of life:

If I could do it, I’d do no writing at all here. It would be photographs; the rest would be fragments of cloth, bits of cotton, lumps of earth…phials of odors, plates of food and of excrement…. A piece of the body torn out by the roots might be more to the point.

The book was devoted almost entirely to the lives of white sharecropping families. Evans’s unsparing images closely scrutinized every hollow stubbled cheek and watering eye, lingering on the slack, filthy folds of feed-sack dresses, half-naked children, and a woman’s bare bandaged foot. Agee, too, left nothing out, noticing a woman’s “manure-stained feet and legs,” saying the odors were “hard to get used to…hard to bear.” He rifled a family’s bureau drawers when they weren’t home, and his traumatized prose probed the calamitous housing, room by room: the broken windows stuffed with rags, the verminous bedding, the “privies” outfitted with “farmer’s toilet paper”—newspaper, pages from catalogs, or “corncobs, twigs, or leaves.”

Yet for all that scrutiny, a whole part of the region’s population went unobserved in Famous Men. Then as now, those rural counties of Alabama were also inhabited by Black farmers or sharecroppers who made up more than half of the people who lived there. Of dozens of photos in Famous Men, only a single one shows them: four Black men sitting in front of a barbershop. One Sunday morning, Agee, accompanied by a white landowner, was driven out to see the man’s Black foreman and tenants. Agee, who was from Tennessee, was anguished about the encounter, admitting that the landlord’s tenants “were negroes and no use to me”: Fortune magazine, which had originally assigned Evans and Agee to the story (and never published it), had requested that the article cover whites, not Blacks, whose “plight,” according to a later account, the magazine did not consider “newsworthy.”

Agee nonetheless recorded a menacing scene of the white landlord crudely commanding a group of Black men, dressed in Sunday clothes, to approach and sing for them, “to show us what nigger music is like.” Chagrined, Agee was “sick in the knowledge that they felt they were here at our demand.” Later, he approached a young Black couple on the road to ask about photographing a nearby church. Petrified by his intentions, the woman clenched her body like “a suddenly terrified wild animal.” Seeing her fearing for her life, he “wished to God I was dead.”

Fifty years later, Dale Maharidge, a journalist with The Sacramento Bee, returned to Agee’s families. Some of their descendants had prospered, yet many were still afflicted by poverty and illness, living in mobile homes. His 1989 volume, And Their Children After Them: The Legacy of “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men”: James Agee, Walker Evans, and the Rise and Fall of Cotton in the South, accompanied by a new series of photos by Michael Williamson, won a Pulitzer Prize, sticking fairly close to the three white families Agee had written about. Among the grimmest living conditions Maharidge found were those of the widow of a man who had been one of the naked boys in Evans’s photographs. Her home was a shack she rented for $10 a month, with no running water or electricity. He commented:

In thousands of miles of travel across the rural South, blacks were often found occupying such dwellings; it’s rare to find whites in such “little country homes,” the preferred euphemism when whites occupy them.

Maharidge did locate the Black community of Parson’s Cove, “at a point on the map that seems as far from anywhere as any visitor to Alabama should be,” and spent time with Frank Gaines and his family. They were “landlocked by white landowners on all sides” who were still refusing to sell land to Blacks. Maharidge, who is white, alluded in broad strokes to the Gaineses’ housing—a few hot rooms illuminated by bare bulbs, walls insulated “with cardboard and newspaper.” Water was piped from a spring; nothing was said about sanitation. The writer admitted that he found it hard to penetrate the deep mistrust, or even to start conversations in Parson’s Cove, “one of the blackest places in Alabama.”

Now, decades after Agee and Maharidge, a Black writer is telling the story of the Black Belt. Catherine Coleman Flowers grew up there, and her new book, Waste: One Woman’s Fight Against America’s Dirty Secret, contains no photographs, but it doesn’t need any. It deals directly in images as redolent as Agee’s clods of earth and phials of odors. The “dirty secret” Flowers urges readers to confront is the racial and economic injustice of rural American subsistence, including but not limited to the South, and the degradation it entails. She chronicles the lives of friends and neighbors coping with criminally deficient housing and a lack of sanitation so horrific that raw sewage bubbles up in sinks and toilets, floods the floors of run-down and collapsing trailers, and lies reeking in backyards and lagoons. She widens her gaze to take in similar crises from California to Florida and beyond, but she begins in her own backyard.

Read on…

Bridging the rural divide

OPINION | ENERGY & ENVIRONMENT – THE HILL

Catherine Coleman Flowers

 

The deep divide between rural and urban communities is a polarization that has been exemplified by coronavirus, climate change and economic despair.

It is estimated that approximately 60 million people live in rural America. Most of the landmass of the United States is in rural counties, covering 90 percent of the nation. Many rural areas are far from urban centers, while some are just outside of our cities. In my experience living and working in rural communities over the years, policy proposals introduced by lawmakers often exclude rural communities either intentionally or through the language. To bridge the divide, we need to develop a political lexicon that is inclusive of rural Americans.

A contingent of rural voices – beginning with residents – should be consulted whenever policy is made in order to avoid unintentional exclusion. A rural roundtable composed of plain folks – and not just politicians – should be assembled to give a voice to how to prevent the death of rural communities. Many elected officials represent rural communities but live in urban areas

Federal infrastructure investment should also include rural communities. Not only are roads and bridges in need of repair or replacement, but the lack of funding is also startling. There is no broadband in many areas and children are unable to attend virtual school because of the lack of internet services.

Cell phone service is often unreliable in places like Lowndes County, Ala., which borders the state’s capital, Montgomery. Despite the likely perspective among those who live in urban areas that rural communities are remote, some are not. Rural populations have been neglected because they do not fit into a certain formula that is skewed toward cities.

A glaring example of the rural divide is the wastewater treatment deficit throughout rural America. This should be a key component of the infrastructure investment as we build back better. More than 20 percent of the nation use onsite wastewater technologies, reaching 40 percent or more in areas with large rural populations. Up to half of the septic systems in the United States do not work properly or fail at some point and, by some estimates, 65 percent of lands across the nation cannot support septic systems.

It is astounding that no accurate figure exists that provides the true picture of this issue. Yet there are states that mandate residents buy failing onsite wastewater systems that leave families in public health crises when the sewage comes back into their homes or is on the ground. Now that COVID-19 is known to exist in wastewater, finding solutions is more imperative.

Rural communities should no longer be left behind. Congress must begin addressing this problem now while also looking at technological solutions for a new future reclaiming and reusing household wastewater. As we seek to reduce greenhouse gases emissions (GHG), green infrastructure should be deployed, the pandemic should be addressed. Access to clean water and working wastewater infrastructure should also be a top priority of the Biden administration. It is where climate change and environmental justice intersect.

One recent example of the way lawmakers can leave rural citizens behind: census data in 2020 was collected online, by mail or by phone. In rural households with no internet access, unreliable or no phone service and often several families sometimes in different houses at one address, this is not an efficient way to account for everyone.

If the country wants to account for all Americans, we must begin by discarding traditional formulas to count rural residents, which excludes family homes or compounds in sparsely populated areas that have one mailbox and more than one household on the property. Hiring census workers that live in the community who can go from house to house would provide a more realistic count of rural residents, which would then lead to a more equitable distribution of federal dollars. Unincorporated areas should not be punished and left out of funding equations.

Here’s what can be done to include rural populations:

New ways to get money to the residents should be implemented, especially if the states are not cooperating;

An alternative mechanism to get aid to citizens should be offered where the political structures fail to do so;

A study should be commissioned to seek input from impacted persons on reviving rural towns and communities;

Ill-advised policy of closing rural hospitals should be reversed;

Support for the role of rural communities in fighting climate change should be granted;

Financial support to revive family farms should be provided;

Enable marginalized communities throughout America – including territories like Puerto Rico – to have access to the clean energy economy that prioritizes communities for retraining, investment, housing and infrastructure that support industries other than landfills, prisons and dirty industry.

Moreover, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) should identify the states that have sent money back instead of spending it in communities where it is needed for housing, family farms or resilient and sustainable infrastructure. All Americans should have access to climate-friendly housing and wastewater treatment whether in rural or urban communities. The USDA should work with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) engaging environmental justice principles to provide clean water and sanitation across the United States. Throughout the federal government, environmental justice should inform all policies and provide a healthy and safe environment for all Americans to live and thrive.

This is a new day and the time is here to disrupt inadequate paradigms that do not promote the common good, exclude the poor and exploit crises to support the few when many are suffering. The relocation of many city dwellers to rural areas during this pandemic is indicative of the future as we confront the challenges of climate change.

Rural America is a part of our present and our future as we build back better or build in places long neglected. This is an opportunity for the Biden-Harris administration to unite us all and bridge the divide with inclusive policies that do not pit rural against urban areas.

Catherine Coleman Flowers is an internationally recognized environmental activist, MacArthur “genius” grant recipient, and author of the recent book “WASTE: One Woman’s Fight Against America’s Dirty Secret.” She has spent her career advocating for equal access to water and sanitation for all communities – particularly those who are marginalized. 

‘Big Tent’ Environmental Justice Plan Looks Past Racial Divides

Environment and Energy Report, Feb. 5, 2021, Bloomberg Law reporting by Dean Scott and Stephen Lee in Washington, Editor: Rebecca Baker

 

Environmental justice advocates are looking to link communities of color with experience fighting industrial polluters and landfills with polluted communities in Appalachia—a “big tent,” strength-in-numbers approach they say is ripe for results.

President Joe Biden, who has made environmental justice a priority for his administration, has taken action to encourage the approach. An executive order vowed to “deliver environmental justice in communities all across America” by resurrecting and elevating environmental justice advisory groups, including an interagency council directed to reach out to tribal officials, environmental justice organizations, community groups, and unions.

Advocacy groups in Black and Hispanic communities see advantages in joining forces with largely white and low-income communities in the Appalachian region, which includes West Virginia and about a dozen other states stretching from New York’s southern tier to Alabama.

Read the complete article on news.BloombergLaw.com including comments by Catherine Coleman Flowers.

Catherine Flowers among “Women who are changing Alabama for the better”

Thursday, February 4th, 2021, www.ThisisAlabama.org

By Amber Sutton

For the past six years, Women Who Shape the State has honored women from a broad spectrum of backgrounds, including politics, enterprise, social work and more, with one thing in common — a positive impact on Alabama.

Whether it’s by advocating for equality, leading the charge in advancing technology, ensuring care for communities that are often overlooked or working to improve the lives of those around them, honorees are women who are fighting to push Alabama forward.

With the recent announcement of the Class of 2020, we took a look back at some notable past honorees whose work continues to change the state for the better.

 

Catherine Coleman Flowers is a McArthur Foundation “genius grant” fellow for the class of 2020. (Cary Norton)

Catherine Coleman Flowers

Catherine Coleman Flowers is an environmental advocate and founder of the Center for Rural Enterprise and Environmental Justice, which works to eliminate environmental disparities that limit access to clean water, air and sanitation in rural and marginalized communities.

The 2017 Women Who Shape the State honoree has also served as the rural development manager at the Race and Poverty Initiative of the Equal Justice Initiative since 2008.

Flowers is a McArthur Foundation “genius grant” fellow for the class of 2020 and her first book, “Waste: One Woman’s Fight Against America’s Dirty Secret,” was published in November.

Please read more about incredible ‘Women Who Shape the State’ including the Class of 2020 which includes Stephanie A. Bryan,Tribal Chair & CEO, Poarch Band of Creek Indians.