Author: Shannon M.D. Smith

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…

‘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.

How to Fix the Climate

Catherine Coleman Flowers offers a response to the Boston Review Forum on ‘How to Fix the Climate’.

“The people least responsible for climate change are the most impacted. We must prioritize exposed, fence-line, frontline, and vulnerable communities.”


Living in Alabama, a state bordered by the Gulf Coast, it is hard not to reflect on climate change and the environmental justice calamities that have been at the forefront of 2020. The pandemic has brought death to every corner of the world—and, as anticipated, vulnerable and marginalized communities have faced the highest death and infection rates. Next came the wildfires. So much of the world and the United States have been burning that adequate description conjures apocalyptic visions. Now we are in the midst of a historic hurricane season, battering the Gulf Coast over and again. There have been so many named storms this year that the twenty-five alphabetical names have been used up and we’re now on to using Greek letters to designate them. As I write, we anxiously await the arrival of Zeta.

“Communities of color, low-income families, and indigenous communities have long suffered disproportionate and cumulative harm from air pollution, water pollution, and toxic sites.”

This year Mother Nature has previewed the destruction that is to come if climate change worsens and we continue to act as if humans are not its cause. Denial of climate change is not dissimilar to the denialism that causes so many to refuse to wear a mask and social distance to contain the spread of COVID-19. Denial doesn’t prevent bad things from happening, and ignoring reality has caused traumatic consequences around the world. Lack of action will cause all of us to have the blood of future generations on our hands. And people are suffering now.

People living in communities plagued by environmental and climate injustice are already experiencing the effects of climate change—on the heels, for many, of having been traumatized by industrial pollution that has sickened them with cancers and other illnesses. Many in these communities are already doing what Charles Sabel and David G. Victor advise and are pursuing local climate activism and action. At the same time, many are also running up against the limits of what it is possible to achieve locally when global actions by states and moneyed corporations are stacked against them.

In Lowndes County, Alabama, climate change and a lack of adequate sanitation have intersected catastrophically.  Read on…

***
This forum response is featured in Boston Review’s new book, Climate Action. ORDER A COPY TODAY

Faith and Climate Crisis in the Biden Administration

In a Video Recorded for FÉ NO CLIMA, Center for Earth Ethics director Karenna Gore comments on the approximation between Faith and the Climate Crisis in the Biden Administration.

The founder and director of the Center for Earth Ethics at the Union’s Theological Seminary in New York, Karenna Gore, believes that the rapprochement between “religion” and “climate crisis” will be an important aspect of Joe Biden’s policies, president elected from the USA. The inauguration of Biden and deputy Kamala Harris on Wednesday, January 20, is considered a historic day for the climate agenda.

In a statement recorded especially for the IV Fé no Clima Meeting, at the end of last year, she affirms that, during the elections, Biden “made it clear that the climate is a priority” and stressed the importance of the appointment of the former Secretary of State, John Kerry, for the role of Special Representative on Climate Change for the new government. The message to the event’s participants is now available on Fé no Clima’s YouTube channel .

“President Joe Biden will trust God and will also rely on science to guide our work on Earth to protect God’s creation,” said Kerry last November, at the event that announced part of the new presidential office.

In the opinion of Karenna Gore, the new climate representative’s speech “signals and implies that involving religion will be crucial to the approach that the Biden administration will take in climate action”.

According to her, the work at the center she runs is focused on seeking solutions to the ecological crisis of the faith and traditions of indigenous peoples. “We work through education, convening, public speaking and movement building,” he explained. Recently, Fé no Clima, an Iser project, started a dialogue to deepen relations with the Center for Earth Ethics.

Regarding the link between beliefs and discussions about the environment, the activist says that “religion can create a sense of belonging that goes beyond political or partisan alignment and guides us to be the best version of ourselves”.

And he highlighted the importance of religion in social transformations. “Archbishop Desmond Tutu said that the teaching of the scriptures had a role in ending apartheid in South Africa,” he said, also celebrating the influence of Martin Luther King Jr, pastor of the Baptist Church, in the fight for civil rights in his country.

US returns to Paris Agreement

“I am also very excited to be speaking to you at a time when my country, the United States, announced that we will again participate in the Paris Agreement, a very important 2015 treaty in which all countries in the world have come together to create a plan to really face this serious existential crisis and overcome it,” said the director.

Biden made a commitment to return to the Paris climate change agreement on the first day of governing. The measure is part of a package of actions that will revert, on the day of inauguration, several measures of the Trump administration for this and other topics.

Read the full speech

In the video recorded for the event participants, Karenna Gore also pays homage to the environmentalist Alfredo Sirkis, who died last year. In addition to being a friend of the Gore family, Sirkis was director of Centro Brasil no Clima, a Brazilian partner of the Climate Reality Project, an organization created by former US vice president, Al Gore.

Published on: 20/01/2021 – # Fé no Clima

Battling America’s ‘dirty secret’

Climate change raises the risk from failing sewage systems. So Catherine Coleman Flowers is working for a new way to deal with waste.

Originally published DECEMBER 17, 2020 by Sarah Kaplan for the Washington Post – Climate Solutions.

LOWNDES COUNTY, Ala. — To Catherine Coleman Flowers, this is “holy ground”: the place where her ancestors were enslaved and her parents fought for civil rights and she came of age. Here, amid the rich, dark earth and emerald farm fields, she is home.

Yet this ground also harbors a threat, one made worse by climate change.

Untreated sewage is coursing through this rural community, a consequence of historic government disinvestment, basic geology and recent changes in the soil. On rainy days, foul effluent burbles up into bathtubs and sinks, and pools in yards. Some residents have hookworm, an illness rarely seen in developed nations.

It’s America’s “dirty secret,” Flowers said, a problem stretches beyond one county in central Alabama. Heavier rainfall caused by climate change is saturating soil and raising water tables – confounding septic systems. From the flooded coasts of Florida to thawing Alaska towns, an estimated half-million U.S. households lack adequate sanitation.

Now Flowers, a MacArthur Foundation “genius”, is partnering with environmental engineers at Columbia University on a solution. They are working on a new kind of toilet that will act as a mini sewage treatment facility. Instead of flushing waste, the system they’re working to build will filter, clean and recycle waste on site. Instead of sending raw sewage into the soil, it will turn it into water for use in washing machines, and into nutrients for fertilizer, and perhaps even energy for homes.

The new Wastewater Innovation and Environmental Justice Lab at Columbia will serve as a hub for research on sanitation policy, an incubator for rural activism, and — advocates hope — a birthplace for a better, greener way of managing waste.

What was once a problem can become a solution, Flowers said. And the change will start in Lowndes County, as it has before.

***

Read on…

CEE December 2020 Update

Dear Friends of the Center for Earth Ethics,

Please join us along with Union Theological Seminary today, Tuesday, December 8, 12:30-2 pm Eastern time for the first of a series of important conversations with faith communities and the Biden-Harris Transition team.

For this first roundtable we’ll be talking about building bridges with multi-faith communities, climate change, police reform, anti-racism, poverty, immigration and refugees.

We’re excited to be joined by Josh Dickson (Biden-Harris Transition) with Rev. Dr. Serene Jones (Union Theological Seminary), Eboo Patel (Interfaith Youth Core), Dean Jonathan Walton (Wake Forest Divinity School), Rev. Liz Theoharis (Poor People’s Campaign), Tatiana Torres (Faith 2020), Rev. Frederick A. Davie (Union Theological Seminary), Karenna Gore (Center For Earth Ethics), Rev. Adam Nicholas Phillips (Faith 2020).

RSVP!


More This Week…


Engaging Orthodox Christian Theology with Today’s World

 DECEMBER 11, 2020


In the News…

Waste: One Woman’s Fight Against America’s Dirty Secret
named one of ‘The Ten Best Science Books of 2020’
by Smithsonian Magazine

“Flowers, who has been called the “Erin Brockovich of Sewage,” puts a spotlight on long-standing issues in Appalachia, Central California, coastal Florida, Alaska, the urban Midwest and on Native American reservations in the West. She thoughtfully weaves systemic issues of class, race and geographic prejudice into a compelling, and at times arresting, narrative. Like the issues Waste puts in focus, this book can’t be overlooked.”
Available now from The New Press

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NY Times Book Review of ‘Waste’

Excerpt from The New York Times online. Originally published Nov 17, 2020. Read the complete review here.

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Flowers brings an invigorating sense of purpose to the page. “Waste” is written with warmth, grace and clarity. Its straightforward faith in the possibility of building a better world, from the ground up, is contagious.

As eye-opening as it is as a chronicle of the rural sanitation crisis, “Waste” is at least as much the autobiography of an environmental justice advocate. Flowers shares the extraordinary story of her own life, in all its detours, leaps of faith, luck, strange turns, hard work and her ever-rising social consciousness.

Flowers’s parents were activists, and her childhood home in Lowndes County was a haven for civil rights leaders. She eavesdropped on front-porch strategy sessions with the likes of Stokely Carmichael and Bob Mants of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. “At the time, I did not realize I was not among common men,” she writes.

Her own organizing skills were first put to use when she campaigned against terrible educators at her high school, leading to the removal of her principal and superintendent. In college, she learned to mobilize large groups, especially in the fight to protect Alabama State University, a historically Black college, from a merger. She left school for the Air Force, and then returned to her studies as a newlywed at Fort Sill. On her first day of class, her husband of two months was injured in a freak accident during field training. His head injury resulted in amnesia, which pushed Flowers into her next great battle: agitating for health care and occupational rights on behalf of her husband, while simultaneously reintroducing herself to him. This proved taxing.

She finished her studies while advocating and caring for her husband in the hospital. “I had finished my degree program,” Flowers writes. “I also had learned an unforgettable lesson about the audacity needed to challenge structural racism no matter where it appears.” As she moves through Washington, D.C., Fayetteville, Detroit and finally returns to rural Alabama, Flowers has far more adventures than can be described here. But her growing vision for a more just future is always rooted in history, from her attunement to the ghosts in place names to the annual march from Selma to Montgomery that becomes a recurring site of connection and mobilization for her.

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Read the complete Book Review by Author, Anna Clarke, at The New York Times online…

Waste: One Woman’s Fight Against America’s Dirty Secret out November 17th

November 17, 2020 – Official Release Date

Waste: One Woman’s Fight Against America’s Dirty Secret by Catherine Coleman Flowers

About

The MacArthur grant–winning “Erin Brockovich of Sewage” tells the riveting story of the environmental justice movement that is firing up rural America, with a foreword by the renowned author of Just Mercy

“Catherine [Flowers] is a shining example of the power individuals have to make a measurable difference by educating, advocating, and acting on environmental issues . . . [and a] firm advocate for the poor, who recognizes that the climate crisis disproportionately affects the least wealthy and powerful among us.” —Al Gore

MacArthur “genius” Catherine Coleman Flowers grew up in Lowndes County, Alabama, a place that’s been called “Bloody Lowndes” because of its violent, racist history. Once the epicenter of the voting rights struggle, today it’s Ground Zero for a new movement that is Flowers’s life’s work. It’s a fight to ensure human dignity through a right most Americans take for granted: basic sanitation. Too many people, especially the rural poor, lack an affordable means of disposing cleanly of the waste from their toilets, and, as a consequence, live amid filth.

Flowers calls this America’s dirty secret. In this powerful book she tells the story of systemic class, racial, and geographic prejudice that foster Third World conditions, not just in Alabama, but across America, in Appalachia, Central California, coastal Florida, Alaska, the urban Midwest, and on Native American reservations in the West.

Flowers’s book is the inspiring story of the evolution of an activist, from country girl to student civil rights organizer to environmental justice champion at Bryan Stevenson’s Equal Justice Initiative. It shows how sanitation is becoming too big a problem to ignore as climate change brings sewage to more backyards, and not only those of poor minorities.

– The New Press

Reviews – Order Your Copy