Category: Environmental Justice

William J. Barber III Joins CEE as Fellow

Environmental justice scholar and advocate William J. Barber III has joined CEE as a fellow for the Environmental Justice and Civic Engagement Program. He brings to the Center nearly a decade of social justice organizing experience along with deep academic training in both the science and the law behind environmental and climate issues.

“I am pleased to join the Center as a fellow for this next year,” says Barber. “The work that the Center is doing to reclaim the calls for stewardship of our planet—across multiple faiths—speaks to my own desire to explore how we build a movement of power and principle to save people and planet.”

“We are thrilled that Will has taken this fellowship with the Center for Earth Ethics,” says Executive Director Karenna Gore. “He has a deep understanding of the intersection of issues that have culminated in the climate crisis and brings extraordinary skills, insight and passion to solving it in a way that forwards justice.”

“As a son of the church, exploring these intersections of faith and social activism resonates with my own upbringing rooted in a legacy of social justice ministry,” adds Barber.

Barber recently co-authored, with Ethan Blumenthal, an op-ed in the Charlotte Observer presenting “an objective view of implementing greenhouse reduction policies in North Carolina while fully addressing equity and environmental justice concerns.” He was also profiled as part of LinkedIn’s “Rising Leaders” series.

Barber is the strategic partnerships manager at The Climate Reality Project, a non-profit based in Washington, D.C. He is a member of the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality Secretary’s Environmental Justice and Equity Advisory Board, as well as co-chair for the North Carolina Poor People’s Campaign Ecological Devastation Committee.

Recently, he founded The Rural Beacon Initiative, a multi-member startup that provides consultation for groups looking to advance equity, climate justice, and environmental justice.

He has several years of experience in grassroots and community organizing. He was a field secretary for the North Carolina NAACP for two years and was one of a three-member leadership team for its Moral Freedom Summer, a long-term voter mobilization campaign. Barber earned his B.S. in environmental physics from North Carolina Central University and earned his juris doctorate from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of law, where he focused on environmental law and policy.

william j. barber iii Biography >

 

 

 

Aliou Niang to Discuss Postcolonial Biblical Criticism on November 5

Postcolonial Poetics: Aliou Niang on the Human-Nature Relationship
Friday, November 5, 2021 – Online
9 a.m. Los Angeles | 12 p.m. New York | 4 p.m. Dakar | 5 p.m. Paris

REGISTER TODAY

How can we understand the Bible and other faith teachings in the context of today’s ecological crisis? How can we restore traditional practices that once directed a mutual relationship among God, humans and nature?

These are among the questions raised by Aliou Niang, associate professor of New Testament at Union Theological Seminary, in “A Poetics of Postcolonial Biblical Criticism: God, Human-Nature Relationship, and Negritude” (2019). Niang will discuss these and other issues raised in his book in a webinar on Friday, November 5, at noon Eastern Time.

Left to right: Aliou Niang, Souleymane Diagne, Petra Thombs

A native of Senegal and member of the region’s Diola people, Niang describes his book as “a humble reading of Scripture in conversation with Diola faith traditions.” He integrates the work of Léopold Sédar Senghor, the architect of the concept of Négritude, and other postcolonial theorists to “reposition the colonized” and learn from “people who have been negotiating life with nature since time immemorial and were aware of climate change since its onset.”

At the discussion, Columbia University Professor of French and of Philosophy Souleymane Diagne, who also directs the Institute of African Studies at Columbia, will offer a response to Niang’s presentation. Rev. Petra Thombs, executive director of the Ramapough Lenape Nation Community Center in Mahwah, N.J., will provide a reflection.

“Postcolonial Poetics: Aliou Niang on the Human-Nature Relationship” is co-sponsored by the Center for Earth Ethics at Union Theological Seminary and the Institute for African Studies at Columbia University.

This webinar is free, but registration is required.

REGISTER TODAY 

 

PARTICIPANT BIOGRAPHIES

Aliou Cisse Niang is associate professor of New Testament at Union Theological Seminary in New York. Before joining Union, he served as assistant and associate professor of New Testament at Memphis Theological Seminary in Tennessee, where he was named The Rev. Dr. James L. Netters Associate Professor of New Testament and received The Paul R. Brown Distinguished Teaching Award. His previous books include “Faith and Freedom in Galatia and Senegal” (2009) and “Text, Image and Christians in the Graeco-Roman World: A Festschrift in Honor of David Lee Balch” (2012), which he co-edited with Carolyn Osiek.

Souleymane Bachir Diagne is professor of French and of philosophy at Columbia University, where he also directs the Institute for African Studies. Before joining Columbia, he taught philosophy for many years at Cheikh Anta Diop University, Dakar (Senegal) and at Northwestern University. He is the author of “African Art as Philosophy: Senghor, Bergson, and the Idea of Negritude” (2011), “Bergson postcolonial. L’élan vital dans la pensée de Senghor et de Mohamed Iqbal” (2011), “The Ink of the Scholars: Reflections on Philosophy in Africa” (2016), and “Open to Reason: Muslim Philosophers in Conversation with Western Tradition” (2018).

Petra Thombs is the executive director of the Ramapough Lenape Community Center in Mahwah, N.J., operated by the Ramapough Mountain Indians. She is in preliminary fellowship with the Unitarian Universalist Association, and was ordained in 2021. A graduate from Union Theological Seminary with a Masters of Divinity and a major in church history, she focuses on the Doctrine of Discovery as it has fostered racism and extreme marginalization for Indigenous communities globally.

Karenna Gore Denounces “Terrible Burden” of Mountain Valley Pipeline

On the 49th anniversary of the Clean Water Act, Executive Director Karenna Gore penned a guest column, “The common wealth of water,” in the Virginia Mercury. Gore urged Virginia’s state government not to certify the planned Mountain Valley Pipeline, which would bring fracked gas from West Virginia to southern Virginia.

“Virginians who live along this pipeline route are experiencing a terrible burden. It is financial, but it also goes far beyond that,” she writes. “They are forced to watch as the government hands over their landscape to private interests who damage it, all for the sake of a project that does not benefit them and should not even exist.”

READ THE ENTIRE COLUMN HERE 

White House Announces Environmental Justice Advisory Council Members including Catherine Coleman Flowers

Today, the White House announced the members of the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council. The advisory council will provide advice and recommendations to the Chair of the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) and the White House Environmental Justice Interagency Council on how to address current and historic environmental injustices, including recommendations for updating Executive Order 12898.

The White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council (WHEJAC) was established by President Biden’s Executive Order on Tackling the Climate Crisis at Home and Abroad to fulfill his and Vice President Harris’s commitment to confronting longstanding environmental injustices and to ensuring that historically marginalized and polluted, overburdened communities have greater input on federal policies and decisions.

“We know that we cannot achieve health justice, economic justice, racial justice, or educational justice without environmental justice. That is why President Biden and I are committed to addressing environmental injustice,” said Vice President Harris. “This historic White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council will ensure that our administration’s work is informed by the insights, expertise, and lived experience of environmental justice leaders from across the nation.”

The WHEJAC members will represent a diverse set of geographical regions and will serve in a voluntary capacity.

• LaTricea Adams, Michigan
• Susana Almanza, Texas
• Jade Begay, South Dakota
• Maria Belen-Power, Massachusetts
• Dr. Robert Bullard, Texas
• Tom Cormons, Virginia
• Andrea Delgado, Washington, D.C.
• Catherine Flowers, Alabama
• Jerome Foster, New York
• Kim Havey, Minnesota
• Angelo Logan, California
• Maria Lopez-Nunez, New Jersey
• Harold Mitchell, South Carolina
• Richard Moore, New Mexico
• Rachel Morello-Frosch, California
• Juan Parras, Texas
• Michele Roberts, Washington, D.C.
• Ruth Santiago, Puerto Rico
• Nicky Sheats, New Jersey
• Peggy Shepard, New York
• Carletta Tilousi, Arizona
• Vi Waghiyi, Alaska
• Kyle Whyte, Michigan
• Beverly Wright, Louisiana
• Hli Xyooj, Minnesota
• Miya Yoshitani, California

“This is a historic moment that environmental justice communities have been working toward for decades. President Biden and Vice President Harris are, for the first time ever, bringing the voices, perspectives, and expertise of environmental justice communities into a formal advisory role at the White House,” said Cecilia Martinez, Senior Director for Environmental Justice, CEQ. “The advisory council builds off the important work of EPA’s National Environmental Justice Advisory Council and will provide input and recommendations to senior leaders across government as this administration works to clean up toxic pollution, create good-paying, union jobs in all communities, and give every child in America the chance to grow up healthy.”

The United States Environmental Protection Agency (U.S. EPA) will fund and provide administrative support for the WHEJAC. The first meeting of the WHEJAC will be held virtually tomorrow, March 30, and will be open to the public. Please visit the U.S. EPA’s WHEJAC webpage for more information at:  www.epa.gov/environmentaljustice/white-house-environmental-justice-advisory-council.

The WHEJAC will complement the ongoing work of the National Environmental Justice Advisory Council (NEJAC), a federal advisory committee established in 1993 to provide advice and recommendations on EJ issues to the Administrator of the EPA. More information about NEJAC can be found here: https://www.epa.gov/environmentaljustice/national-environmental-justice-advisory-council

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Water, Sanitation and Inequality in the US – Catherine Coleman Flowers project with The Guardian

Help us Investigate Sanitation Inequality in the US

Categories: Public Programs & Events

We know that access to sanitation – just like access to clean air and water – is so often divided along race and class lines. But while there’s never been more awareness that environmental racism pervades the US, there’s not enough research detailing how – making solutions hard to come by.

For that reason, we’re excited to announce that Union is supporting a critical environmental justice project focused on sanitation inequality – one that every one of us can take part in.

We are joining with the Guardian newspaper and the Center for Rural Enterprise and Environmental Justice in a project called “America’s Dirty Divide”. Led by the environmental justice pioneer and senior fellow at the Center for Earth Ethics Catherine Coleman Flowers, they have created this questionnaire to investigate how widespread this problem is. The project will investigate how many people in America do not have access to sanitation and sewage services – a problem endemic to many poorer communities and communities of color that has never been properly documented.

TAKE THE QUESTIONNAIRE

In particular, they’re looking for examples of sewage problems in homes or communities; poorly functioning septic systems; or poorly operating municipal sewage systems. Entire communities are living with sewage flowing into yards or homes, with terrible consequences for their health, economic stability, and dignity. Yet there is no sustained national effort to tackle this problem. (The Guardian’s first story since launching this project, about the town of Centreville, Illinois, is here.)

We would love your help in circulating the questionnaire to your contacts – clergy, other faith leaders, community activists, and anyone you think would be willing to respond or to take the questionnaire to their networks. The Guardian and CREEJ would also like to hear from you directly if you have experience with these issues, or familiarity with a community that you think they should look into.

If you have questions, suggestions, or ideas, please reach out to [email protected]. Thank you so much for taking the time to spread the word. It’s our hope that by exposing the scope of this issue, we’ll be able to catalyze efforts to address it.

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…

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…

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

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.

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Read on…

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…

Catherine Coleman Flowers, NY Times Opinion

Mold, Possums and Pools of Sewage: No One Should Have to Live Like This

Before she died of Covid-19, Pamela Rush opened her home to show the world what poverty looks like.

Ms. Flowers is the author of the forthcoming “Waste: One Woman’s Fight Against America’s Dirty Secret,” from which this essay is adapted.

My story starts in Lowndes County, Ala., a place that’s been called Bloody Lowndes because of its violent, racist history. It’s part of Alabama’s Black Belt, a broad strip of rich, dark soil worked and inhabited largely by poor Black people who, like me, are descendants of slaves. Our ancestors were ripped from their homes and brought here to pick the cotton that thrived in the fertile earth.

I grew up here, left to get an education and followed a range of professional opportunities. But something about that soil gets in your blood. I came back hoping to help good, hard-working people rise up out of the poverty that bogs them down like Alabama mud.

A big part of my work now is educating people about rural poverty and environmental injustice — about how poor people around the United States are trapped in conditions no one else would put up with. Those conditions — polluted air, tainted water, untreated sewage — make people sick.

I take activists, donors and politicians to see such conditions for themselves. We visit families crowded into run-down homes that lack heat in the winter and plumbing in all seasons. We visit homes with no means of wastewater treatment, because septic systems cost more than most people earn in a year and tend to fail anyway in the impervious clay soil. Families cope the best they can, mainly by jury-rigging PVC pipe to drain their toilet’s sewage into cesspools in the woods or yard outside, where they breed parasites and disease right by where children and pets play.

An estimated 90 percent of Lowndes households have failing or inadequate wastewater systems, although no one took the time to count until my organization, the Center for Rural Enterprise and Environmental Justice, conducted a door-to-door survey in 2011 and 2012.
The head of one of those households for years was Pamela Rush. Pam, who was a 42-year-old mother with a cautious smile when I met her in 2018, greeted visitors at the door of the faded blue, single-wide trailer she shared with her two children. Senator Bernie Sanders, as well as famous activists like Jane Fonda and the Rev. Dr. William Barber II of the Poor People’s Campaign, traveled down the dusty road to Pam’s home, where they saw a picture that was hard to shake.