Category: Environmental Justice

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.

Sewage is still ‘America’s dirty secret’ – Catherine Flowers is fighting to change that -The Verge

By

Doctors couldn’t diagnose the rash spreading across Catherine Flowers’ legs and body. But the activist thought it had to do with the day she wore a dress during a visit to a family whose yard featured “a hole in the ground full of raw sewage.” “I began to wonder if third-world conditions might be bringing third-world diseases to our region,” Flowers writes in her new book, Waste: One Woman’s Fight Against America’s Dirty Secret.

She was right. That rash led to research that found that hookworm, a parasite thought to be pretty much dead in the US, was actually alive and well in the rural Alabama county where she grew up. Without working septic systems, residents were getting sick from raw sewage. Flowers has been on a mission to change things for her community ever since. She is now a recent MacArthur Foundation “genius grant” awardee, and she founded the Center for Rural Enterprise and Environmental Justice (CREEJ).

With her latest book, available on November 17th, Flowers is expanding that fight to places across the US which lack the basic infrastructure that many city-dwellers take for granted. Two million Americans lack access to indoor plumbing, a 2019 report found, and that has huge implications for their health. The Verge spoke with Flowers about what she’s seen and how COVID-19 and climate change are piling on top of what’s already a shitty situation.

Read On… 

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 

MacArthur ‘Genius’ Brings National Attention To Local Fight Against Sewage Failures

If Catherine Flowers ever received a calling to take on a career in environmental activism, it likely came in the form of mosquito bites.

In 2009, Flowers was doing economic development work in her hometown of Lowndes County, Ala., where raw sewage leaked into the yards of poor residents who lacked access to a municipal sewer system.

On one visit, she met a pregnant woman whose toilet waste flowed into a pit right outside her mobile home. The mosquitoes swarming the pit attacked Flowers.

Days later, her body had broken out in mysterious red blotches.

“I didn’t think anything of it until I broke out in a rash,” she said in an interview with Morning Edition host Noel King.

Flowers went to the doctor, who ran blood tests for infections and other diseases, which came back negative.

“I asked her, ‘Is it possible that I have something that American doctors are not trained to look for?’ Because they don’t even acknowledge that there’s a raw sewage problem in this country,” she recalled.

Lowndes is one of the poorest counties in the U.S. Its weak sewage infrastructure, combined with poor soil drainage, has left the rural area’s predominantly Black community vulnerable to diseases and infections like hookworm.

At the time, Alabama’s public health department threatened 37 families with eviction or arrests because they couldn’t afford septic tanks. Since then, Flowers has been raising the alarm bell on the largely overlooked issue.

She negotiated with state politicians, working with then-Sen. Jeff Sessions, to end such prosecutorial policies, and collaborated with the Environmental Protection Agency help secure funding for septic systems.

This month, Flowers won a MacArthur Foundation fellowship – also known as a Genius Grant — for her work by “bringing attention to failing water and waste sanitation infrastructure in rural areas and its role in perpetuating health and socioeconomic disparities.” (Note: The MacArthur Foundation is a financial supporter of NPR.)

Read on…

What’s at stake in the U.S. election: Catherine Flowers for The Globe and Mail

What’s at stake in the U.S. election: The Globe and Mail has asked a group of writers to offer their opinions. Scroll to the bottom for links to the full series.

Most of the historic 1965 Selma to Montgomery voting rights march went through rural Lowndes County, Ala. The area was once steeped with racial terror because of the desire to control Black labour – that had once been free to plantation owners owing to slavery – and stymie their right to vote. Because of the violence used on Black and white citizens, it earned the name “Bloody Lowndes.” Today, it is the epicentre of the wastewater crisis and a poster child for policies fostering inequality in rural communities. The county residents have not received adequate funding for wastewater infrastructure, and the infrastructure in place is failing or has failed. It is also where poverty, environmental justice and climate change intersects with the lack health care access.

The population of Lowndes County is 72 per cent African-American. It has a per capita income of US$19,491, where more than a fourth of the residents live below the poverty line. Many of the residents are essential workers, employed in plants or in other jobs that have high workplace COVID-19 infection rates. It is also a food desert in a place where many people are victimized by high blood pressure, diabetes and respiratory issues. There is only one doctor to provide medical services within the entire county. It also has the highest per capita COVID-19 infection rate in the state of Alabama and one of the highest death rates per capita as well, in a county of approximately 10,000 residents.

Policies supporting infrastructure funding and development – whether on the state or federal level – have long excluded places such as Lowndes County. The wealthiest populations can qualify for loans or grants, while the poor are penalized through the denial of access to funding for sanitation infrastructure. With climate change becoming even more evident through higher temperatures for longer periods of time, higher water tables and wastewater treatment failures, the pandemic has made the population of Lowndes County and many others in the United States vulnerable for illness and death. This is compounded by the discovery that COVID-19 is shed in feces.

Read on…

Catherine Coleman Flowers is the author of the forthcoming book Waste: One Woman’s Fight Against America’s Dirty Secret. She is the founder of the Center for Rural Enterprise and Environmental Justice, a member of the board of directors for the Climate Reality Project and serves as a senior fellow for the Center for Earth Ethics at Union Theological Seminary.

Climate Activism – Catherine Flowers, Rev. Yearwood, Varshini Prakash & Mustafa Ali

Introducing the Bloomberg Green Festival

September 14 – 18, 2020

The Bloomberg Green Festival 2020 was a 5-day immersive experience featuring global voices and proprietary insight.

The Bloomberg Green Festival was organized to be a true thought leadership experience operating at the crossroads of sustainability, design, culture, food, technology, science, politics and entertainment. Built to foster solutions-oriented conversations, the five-day festival featured a mix of panels, presentations, fireside chats, and interactive elements. Focused on core issues of climate action, the Green Festival is a celebration of the thinkers, scientists and practitioners leading the way in the climate era.

You can still watch sessions online, by completing the Registration, including the Climate Activism session with Catherine Coleman Flowers. Catherine is the founder of CREEJ, Center for Earth Ethics Senior Fellow for Environmental Justice & Civic Engagement, and author of Waste: One Woman’s Fight Against America’s Dirty Secret.

 

Climate Activism

10:00 AM – The Green Vote

  • Rev. Lennox Yearwood Jr., President & Founder, Hip Hop Caucus
  • Moderator: Jillian Goodman, Reporter, Bloomberg Green

10:25 AM – Winning the New Green Deal

  • Varshini Prakash, Co-Founder & Executive Director, The Sunrise Movement
  • Moderator: Akshat Rathi, Reporter, Bloomberg Green

10:50 AM – Climate Justice

  • Catherine Coleman Flowers, Founder, Center for Rural Enterprise and Environmental Justice
  • Mustafa Santiago Ali, Vice President of Environmental Justice, Climate, and Community Revitalization, The National Wildlife Federation
  • Moderator: Jillian Goodman, Reporter, Bloomberg Green

Pledge to be a Faith Climate Justice Voter!

This is a moment for fundamental change. When people of faith vote our values, elected officials take note. We can help make change by electing leaders who are committed to ending structures of oppression, ending environmental injustices, and tackling climate change.

Join us in helping communicate our values of caring for God’s Creation and loving our neighbors.

I pledge to vote with climate and Creation in mind.

I am pledging to be a Faith Climate Justice Voter to put love into action for every living creature and for every vulnerable community suffering the impacts of our changing climate, from sea rise, to extreme heat, to devastating droughts, to supercharged storms.

My pledge to vote for climate justice is rooted in environmental justice. I am in solidarity with all who are disproportionately burdened with climate impacts, including Black, Brown, Indigenous, and low-income communities.

I believe that our nation’s elected leaders and our public policies should reflect our shared values. By pledging to be a consistent voter and vote with climate justice in mind, I am communicating the values of caring for God’s Creation and our children’s future.

You pledge to vote. We remind you to keep your word. It’s so easy. And it works.

Make Good Trouble with Catherine Flowers

Catherine Flowers | Good Troublemaker

"If we want justice, whether it's climate justice, environmental justice, social justice— it starts with voting." ??This National Voter Registration Day, join Good Troublemaker Catherine and help protect the vote in states that need it most ➡️ bit.ly/Good-Troublemaker-3.

Posted by John Lewis: Good Trouble on Tuesday, September 22, 2020

REGISTER VOTERS

The right to vote is critical for an effective and fair democracy that works for all of us. For $1.50 per person, you can help fight voter suppression in states that need it most, like Georgia.

We’re partnering with Register2Vote, a non-profit and non-partisan, voting rights organization, to mail pre-filled voter registration forms to eligible unregistered voters. Recipients will also receive a pre-stamped return envelope, so all they have to do is sign it and drop it in the mail. Then, Register2vote will track it to make sure it arrives safely at the County Registrar. By lowering the barriers to voter registration, we can make a difference in the fight against voter suppression.

VOTE

Make sure you’re set to make GOOD TROUBLE this election season.

– Check that you’re registered to vote here.

– Register to vote here.

– Confirm you have the ID you need to vote in your state here.

– Make sure you’re an informed voter here.

– Check your polling place here.

 

Get Inspired!  WATCH

“John Lewis: Good Trouble” chronicles the life and career of the legendary civil rights activist and Democratic Representative from Georgia.

 

USE YOUR VOICE AND PRIVILEGE TO SUPPORT OTHERS’ RIGHT TO VOTE.

See where voter suppression is already silencing voters at alarming rates (Source: Brennan Center) and then help empower disenfranchised communities by facilitating others to register to vote.

Learn how…