Category: News

Faith + Food Coalition to Issue Interfaith Statement before UN Food Summit

“Food is both a building block of life and a basic human right.”

This fundamental truth underpins the “Interfaith Statement” for the United Nations Food Systems Summit, which will be presented at a virtual launch on Friday, September 17, at 11 a.m. EDT.

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The Statement is the culmination the Coalition’s engagement in the formal process leading up to the United Nations Food Systems Summit on September 23 during the UN General Assembly in New York. Over the summer, the Faith + Food Coalition held five dialogues, and three follow up events, to articulate values-based perspectives to the Summit. The Statement is product of those efforts.

“The Interfaith Statement correctly moves values to the forefront in our global conversation about food,” says Karenna Gore, executive director of the Center for Earth Ethics. “The UN should heed this call and use the Food Systems Summit to advance the equitable and agroecological practices that are healthy for both people and planet.”

The Statement will be delivered to the Heads of the Food Systems Summit as well as key Member States. The UN already has indicated that it will include the Interfaith Statement in the Summit’s official record.

The launch event will bring together members of the faith community and civil society to present key findings from the Coalition’s dialogues, review the Statement’s Calls for Action, and outline next steps for faith-based organizations following the Summit. Scheduled speakers include:

  • Martin Frick – Deputy to the Special Envoy for the UN Food Systems Summit 2021
  • Karenna Gore – Founder and Executive Director, Center for Earth Ethics
  • Bibi la Luz González – Founder, Eat Better Wa’ik
  • Meera Baindur – Associate Professor of Philosophy, Manipal University Jaipur
  • Felipe Carazo – Head of Public Sector Engagement at Tropical Forest Alliance, World Economic Forum
  • Nate DeGroot – Associate Director and Spiritual & Program Director, Hazon Detroit
  • Mona Polacca – Senior Fellow, Original Caretakers Program, Center for Earth Ethics

Andrew Schwartz, director of sustainability and global affairs at the Center for Earth Ethics, will moderate.

The launch event will be broadcast on Zoom, with simultaneous livestreams on Facebook and Twitter. Those wishing to participate via Zoom are encouraged to register in advance.

The Statement was months in the making. In preparing for the Summit, the UN encouraged civil society groups to hold dialogues to contribute outside perspectives. The Coalition, an alliance of seven organizations, formed to take part in that process. The Coalition aimed to bring voices from faith-based groups, Indigenous communities, small farmers and food producers, and underrepresented communities to the process.

In May and June, the Coalition hosted five dialogues corresponding to each of the five UN “Action Tracks” for the Food Systems Summit. The goal was to use the dialogues to examine global food systems critically, using the lens of faith and values.

Although billed by the UN as a “people’s summit,” the UN’s process raised concerns from the start. “The process surrounding the Summit has caused serious concern from observers and those of us who have participated in dialogues,” said Schwartz, who convened the Coalition. “While the Summit has welcomed unprecedented input from the civil society and key stakeholders, there is an obvious and concerning bias towards the corporation actors and methodologies that have led to the problems that the Summit is supposed to address.”

Over the summer, the Coalition’s efforts attracted the attention of Summit organizers and other multilateral organizations. The WHO invited the Coalition to present its findings at a webinar held on June 10. The UN invited the Coalition to present an online forum as an official “side event” to the Pre-Summit in Rome on July 27. And, in one of the last preliminary events before the Summit itself, on September 2 the Center for Earth Ethics and the UN co-hosted a “global dialogue” about faith-based perspectives on food systems.

The Statement was drafted by Schwartz along with Chris Elisara (World Evangelical Alliance), Gopal Patel (Bhumi Global), Joshua Basofin (Parliament of the World’s Religions), Kelly Moltzen (Interfaith Public Health Network), Marium Husain (Islamic Medical Association of North America) and Steve Chiu (Buddhist Tzu Chi Foundation). Dialogue participants Becky O’Brien, Daniel Perell, Grove Harris, Lina Mahy,  Meera Baindur, and Nate DeGroot also contributed.

The Faith + Food Coalition (www.faithandfood.earth) is an alliance of seven organizations—Bhumi Global, Buddhist Tzu Chi Foundation, the Center for Earth Ethics, the Islamic Medical Association of North America, Interfaith Public Health Network, Parliament of the World’s Religions, and the World Evangelical Alliance—that bring voices from faith-based groups, Indigenous communities, small farmers and food producers, and underrepresented communities to the UN Food Systems Summit.

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NB. This story has been updated to include comments from Karenna Gore and Andrew Schwartz.

“Planting Seeds for Change”: Faith + Food Global Online Forum on July 27

What are the impacts of our global food systems on people and the planet? What can we learn from Indigenous communities and traditional food practices? How can a respect for faith and values make food systems more healthy, sustainable, and equitable?

To help answer these questions, the Faith + Food Coalition will host “Faith + Food: Planting Seeds for Change” on July 27, 2021 at 8 a.m. Central European Summer Time (2 a.m. Eastern Daylight Time in the US). This global online forum will present the Coalition’s findings and recommendations to improve food security and access in conjunction with the United Nations Food Systems Pre-Summit in Rome. The Pre-Summit—which will engage policymakers, advocates, NGOs, healthcare leaders, and others from around the world—is part of the lead up to the UN Food Systems Summit on September 24 in New York.

“Values and ethics must be included in the global policy-making conversation about food,” said Karenna Gore, executive director of the Center for Earth Ethics. “We are honored to convene this forum with people who bring real insight about this essential dimension of human life.”

From top left: Chris Elisara, Marium Husain, Lina Mahy, Gopal Patel, Andrew Schwartz

Speakers will be Dr. Chris Elisara, director of the World Evangelical Alliance’s Creation Care Task Force and a senior fellow at Duke Divinity School’s Ormond Center; Dr. Marium Husain, president of the Islamic Medical Association of North America and a hematology/oncology fellow at Ohio State University’s Wexner Medical Center; Lina Mahy, technical officer in the World Health Organization’s Multisectoral Action in Food Systems Unit; and Gopal Patel, co-founder and director of Bhumi Global. Andrew Schwartz, the director of sustainability and global affairs at the Center for Earth Ethics, will moderate the discussion.

“Planting Seeds for Change” builds upon five interfaith dialogues that CEE convened in May and June as part of a formal UN process to engage diverse stakeholders in the Food Systems Summit. The Food + Faith dialogues explored how faith communities—including Indigenous communities—could support the transformation of global food systems toward something that was truly sustainable, accessible, equitable, and regenerative. They engaged grassroots organizers, farmers, food advocates, and policymakers to gather insights and develop holistic, inclusive recommendations.

“Engaging faith-based groups and Indigenous communities is essential to shifting worldviews toward food and the natural world,” says Schwartz. “We’re delighted to have been invited to organize this forum alongside the Pre-Summit.”

“Planting Seeds for Change” will review key findings from the five Food + Faith Dialogues, identify crucial topics for the Summit to address, and issue calls to action.

The Food + Faith Coalition comprises seven groups—the Center for Earth Ethics, Bhumi Global, Buddhist Tzu Chi Foundation, Interfaith Public Health Network, Islamic Medical Association of North America, Parliament of the World’s Religions, and the World Evangelical Alliance’s Creation Care Task Force –that came together to create a platform for faith groups and Indigenous communities around the world to contribute to the UN Food Systems Summit.

The forum is open to all without charge, but registration is required.

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Gore Speaks about Faith Communities, Values, and Development at G20 Interfaith Forum

On Wednesday, July 14, Karenna Gore, executive director of the Center for Earth Ethics, was a panelist at a webinar, “Interfaith Initiatives to Achieve the Agenda 2030 Environmental Goals,” sponsored by the G20 Interfaith Forum. The other panelists were Arthur Dahl, president of the International Environment Forum, and Astrid Shomaker, director for global sustainable development in the European Commission’s Directorate General for Environment. Pasquale Annicchino of the Bruno Kessler Foundation moderated the discussion.

Listen to the panel discussion.

“Everyone is experiencing climate change,” Gore said. “It is important to acknowledge inequities and those who are suffering and dying right now.”

She emphasized two global megatrends in play: depletion, including the deforestation of the Amazon, and pollution, most importantly the rise in greenhouse gas emissions. “This is about more than data and science,” she said. “It’s about belief systems and values.” Even the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, Gore noted, have sometimes been used “to justify the continuation and even expansion of fossil fuels.”

“Money is often confused with virtue,” Gore said. But she sees faith communities playing three main roles in reframing the conversation. They can be prophetic, in the sense of “telling the truth” about climate and sustainability during a worldwide “crisis of fact and knowledge.” They can be pastoral, being there in communities, caring for those who are suffering, and helping “shepherd people into new ways of being in ecological balance.” And they can be practical, mobilizing their organizational and physical resources.

In his remarks, Dahl noted the history of religious groups being engaged with environmental issues going back to the 1970s. He emphasized the challenges in translating global goals to local situations and in measuring development according to values, not GDP. “How do you measure progress on values?” he asked.

Shomaker offered a policy perspective, noting that her remarks came on the same day that the EU announced its ambitious “Fit at 55” legislative agenda to cut emission of greenhouse gases by 55% and make Europe “the first climate-neutral continent.” The EU is embracing “the people’s agenda,” she said, which means acting with “a sense of urgency” about pollution. It also means embracing equity, not only equity within society (including respecting women’s knowledge and roles) but also intergenerational equity, recognizing that this generation has a responsibility to generations to come.

“We’re all in this together,” Annicchino concluded. “Nobody is saved alone.”

Wednesday’s webinar was sponsored by the G20 Interfaith Forum, a network of religiously linked institutions and initiatives that engage on global agendas, especially the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. It was the fifth session of the group’s “Ahead of the 2021 Italy G20 Summit” series.

See also: Interfaith Initiatives to Achieve the Agenda 2030 Environmental Goals: Meeting Summary

UN Environment Programme Grants Accreditation to CEE and Union

The United Nations Environment Programme has accredited Union Theological Seminary through the Center for Earth Ethics. Accreditation grants Union observer status and other privileges at the United Nations Environment Assembly and its subsidiaries. The Center for Earth Ethics initiated the accreditation process and is Union’s official connection with this UN body.

The Rev. Dr. Serene Jones, Union’s president, was informed of the accreditation in a letter from Jorge Laguna-Celis, UNEP’s secretary of governing bodies, on July 7. The announcement, Jones said, is “a testament to the CEE’s unique ability to engage religious and spiritual communities in ecological discussions at all levels and to establish unprecedented connections between faith-based and secular concerns in order to advance the great work of protecting life on Earth.”

“We are grateful for this honor and opportunity,” said Karenna Gore, CEE’s executive director. “The Center for Earth Ethics at Union is energized and ready to join the great efforts underway at UNEP to correct course so that people can live in balance and harmony with Earth and each other.”

Accreditation is the main entry point for groups and stakeholders into the UN’s environmental policy dialogue. Schools and other non-governmental organizations must successfully meet the requirements of UNEP’s accreditation process before being granted observer status to the UN Environment Assembly, which governs UNEP, and the Committee of Permanent Representatives, composed of all accredited permanent representatives to UNEP.

The Assembly, which will meet next in February 2022, is the world’s highest-level decision-making body on the environment, with representatives from all 193 UN member states. It sets priorities for global environmental policies and develops international environmental law. In the months leading up to Assembly sessions, accredited organizations participate in Regional Consultation Meetings, contribute to Regional Civil Society Statements, comment on working documents, and participate in public meetings. During the Assembly itself, accredited organizations attend plenary sessions, where they interact with governments, circulate written statements, and make oral presentations.

CEE’s Director of Sustainability and Global Affairs Andrew Schwartz shepherded Union and CEE through the accreditation process; he will serve as Union’s point of contact with UNEP. 

“Observer status helps us advance faith-based and other underrepresented groups as full participants in the UN’s ongoing dialogues on the environment, climate, and other defining issues,” Schwartz said. “We’re looking forward to amplifying these voices at the next meeting of the Assembly.”

Union Theological Seminary Climate Emergency Community Assembly

When: April 22nd and 23rd, 2021 2:00 – 4:30 pm
As you may have heard, Union has recently declared a climate emergency, being the first seminary in the world to do so. The declaration commits Union to adopting a climate mobilization plan with the goal of eliminating our school’s carbon emissions in the next ten years. The plan will recommend changes to Union’s facilities, curriculum, and community engagement.
Union has committed to a democratic process for creating the plan, which will take the form of a Community Assembly on April 22nd and 23rd. The Community Assembly will consist of 15 students, 5 faculty, 5 staff, and 5 alums.
Attached is a copy of the Emergency Declarationthe Assembly Itinerary, and a Google Form if you are interested in participating. All students should have also gotten an email with a slightly more robust explanation and access to all the links as well.

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.

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.