‘We Need to Focus On People As Well’

In one of the wealthiest countries in the world, access to sanitation still isn’t a guarantee. Catherine Coleman Flowers has been working to fix that.

Catherine Coleman Flowers grew up in rural Lowndes County, Alabama — which is often called “Bloody Lowndes” for its violent, racist past — where her ancestors worked the land as slaves. This legacy has left its mark on her and on the county in the form of low wage jobs, lack of sanitation infrastructure, and enduring poverty.

In 2019, Coleman Flowers founded the Center for Rural Enterprise and Environmental Justice to address the health and environmental conditions of rural Americans. From her time outside of Alabama she brings access to new partnerships and a willingness to cross race, class, and party lines to fight for poor, rural communities. She is a senior fellow at the Center for Earth Ethics at Union Theological Seminary, a board member at Al Gore’s Climate Reality Project, and rural development manager for the Equal Justice Initiative.

Speaking about her love for Alabama, Coleman Flowers once said, “There is something about that black dirt that gets into your soul.” With its searing legacy of slavery and the Civil War, her Southern roots are crucial to understanding Coleman Flowers’ love of community and the fight for rural environmental injustice that is her life’s work.

Coleman Flowers is the author of a forthcoming memoir, Waste: One Woman’s Fight Against America’s Dirty Secret, winner of the Studs and Ida Terkel Prize for a first book in the public interest. She lives in Montgomery, Alabama. In a recent Zoom conversation, Coleman Flowers shared with me her thoughts on rural poverty, race, and the environmental movement.

Coleman Flowers in front of a blackboard
Most people tend to think the lack of proper sewage systems is a Southern rural problem, it exists many other parts of the US, including big cities, as well, says Coleman Flowers. Photo courtesy of Center for Earth Ethics.

In your forthcoming memoir, you chronicle your evolution from country girl in Lowndes County, Alabama to environmental justice advocate for the South and beyond. What secret did you expose and why has this become a human rights issue?

The dirty secret that I expose was the fact that there are parts of the US where people are living with wastewater on the ground, raw sewage, human waste, something that’s generally associated with people living in underdeveloped nations, not in one of the richest nations in the world. And it’s a human rights issue. People in Lowndes County specifically [were living like this], but there are other places across the US [where people] don’t have access to water and sanitation.

Even if you look at the larger places like Detroit, they were having massive water shutoffs, but when people think about that, they think about it only in terms of drinking water. But if your water is turned off, you can’t use the toilet either. That deprived them not only of drinking water … it also took away the access to sanitation. So the book was really about … the lack of sanitation in one of the wealthiest countries in the world. It underscored the inequality that exists.

Tell us about your parents’ participation in the Black Freedom Movement that centered in Lowndes County in the 1960s. How did the political lessons you learned at home influence the work you do today?

As a result of his military service, my father talked a lot about the tragedies committed by Adolph Hitler. And he talked about the lynching of Joe Buck Sellers in Lowndes County. He was determined not to submit to the type of oppression that existed in the county of his birth. My mother had taken part in Birmingham protests in 1963. The longing for freedom was in them and therefore became a part of my DNA. They were like the jailhouse lawyers of their community. Everyone respected them because they sought to help everyone who asked for it. My political education was informed by my parents, and the people who visited our home like Stokely Carmichael, Donna Smith, Willie Ricks, and other members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). My leadership style, the way I feel it’s important to let the community tell their stories, was something that came out of that movement.

You are the founder of the Center for Rural Enterprise and Environmental Justice. How does the center address the human rights issues that you are working on?

The Center for Rural Enterprise and Environmental Justice is an evolution of our work. It started in Lowndes County, but a lot of other people started reaching out to us. Our work is now nationwide and we’re working with communities throughout the US. Most notably, one of the communities we’re working with is in Illinois. This community has lots of raw sewage on the ground, and they also experience flooding, because they’re close to the Mississippi River.

And you can just see that the streets are like, falling away. The sewage is on the edge of the streets and sometimes coming from people’s homes, and you can see the toilet paper and everything there. I was shocked when I saw that, because most people tend to think that this is a Southern rural problem, and not a problem in other parts of the US.

Our work has been to share with them how to document what’s going on so that people can understand that there’s a problem. And in a lot of cases, connecting them with institutions that have scientists and scholars that can help them do the research … that will validate what they’re seeing on the ground, because that’s what we had to do.

The second thing that we’re doing is focusing on policy because a lot of policy is biased against small, rural communities. If money’s made available, you have to be a town. That’s going to exclude areas that definitely need wastewater treatment … We are also helping policy makers understand that a lot of this money … doesn’t get to the communities that need it.

The third area we’re working with is technology. We’ve partnered with Columbia University and Dr. Kartik Chandran who is an internationally recognized wastewater expert and engineer. Our partners also include the Gates Foundation, the people that worked on the Toilet Challenge, the South African Water Commission, and their counterpart in India. We hope to be able to create technologies that can help address this problem.

Lowndes County is one of the most impoverished counties in the United States. Nearly 21.5 percent of its residents live in poverty. Talk about some of the people in Lowndes and the living conditions that you are working to change.

If you don’t have infrastructure in an area, you’re not going to attract the type of development and growth that would provide good paying jobs. A lot of people in Lowndes County aren’t making a living wage. As a result, they have to live in mobile homes. In the case of Pamela Rush [a well-known local activist and distant cousin], she was living in a mobile home that had mold and mildew. It was falling apart, literally. And she still owed a lot of money on it. There was predatory lending involved. All these factors trap people like Pamela in poverty.

And then septic systems are very, very expensive. In some cases, a septic system may cost more than a mobile home. So, if people aren’t making a living wage, and I’ve seen families that are making less than $1,000 a month, [they’re] shopping at the dollar store, Family Dollar and places like that, where they’re not getting the most nutritious foods. They can’t afford to shop at Whole Foods. And consequently, you see a lot of diabetes. You see a lot of high blood pressure. Those kinds of illnesses that … make it harder on people if they catch Covid.

Tell us more about Pamela Rush, who died in July of Covid-19, leaving behind two young children.

Pamela actually worked with us and she was so humble about exposing her world to people not familiar with that type of poverty. I think that her work really encapsulates what we’re about. We’re about pulling the covers back and letting people see that side of the world. It was a stark reminder of the people that we’ve left behind. Pamela’s legacy is going to live on. And I think it should live on through us changing these structures that made it so hard for Pamela to get out of poverty, out of the conditions that she was living in which eventually led to her death. It was a death that should not have happened.

You commissioned a parasitology study of Lowndes County. What did you learn from the study?

We actually did a house-to-house survey. So many people had stories to tell about having problems with diarrhea and other kinds of issues that they thought were related to wastewater. Somewhere along the way, there was an op-ed in The New York Times [in 2012] by Dr. Peter Hotez. He’s an expert infectious disease doctor.

So I reached out to him. My question [to him] was whether or not it was possible there could be some tropical diseases associated with raw sewage and American doctors are not trained to look for it. And he said, “Yes.” ... We collected fecal soil and blood samples and we found evidence of hookworm and other tropical parasites. [A report about] the study was published in The Guardian. And that’s one of the turning points in terms of my fight to expose America’s dirty secret, because then it became international news.

The environmental movement began with a focus on protecting land, water, and animals from adverse human impact. How does your work change that narrative?

We focus more on people. There are a lot of environmental justice activists that precede me, who have been out there in the field for years, but because they have not caught the attention of major media, they’re not as well known. [They] have been doing this work at the intersection of climate change, racial justice, and rural bias.

A lot of the communities [we work with] have been suffering for a very, very long time. Climate change has just made it worse. If you’re in a community, for example, in eastern North Carolina, where they have CAFOs [Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations] and there’s factory farming, now you’re seeing more hurricanes off the Atlantic Ocean. When these hurricanes come to shore, all the feces and the waste from these CAFOs end up in the water, end up in the air, and it causes illnesses that are not documented. So that’s just one example, and I feel that, yes, we should focus on Mother Earth, animals, vegetation, on water, which is life, but we should also focus on people, and the people who are suffering now are those frontline and fenceline communities, as we also see with Covid.

How does your faith inform your work and your connection to the Earth, and perhaps, a larger purpose?

My faith is very much a part of what I do and who I am. I think it is consistent with my faith to protect Mother Earth, and I come from a Christian tradition. Out of that Christian tradition we know that man was made from the earth, and so was woman. I find it so very hard to believe that a lot of people have been able to reconcile in their minds that it’s okay to destroy the Earth … Why would we destroy the garden, the garden that sustains us? It doesn’t make any sense to me. So I’ve just been very intentional about connecting to my faith … I have to walk in faith and speak up against those things that I think are destructive. I think that more of us have to show that what has been accepted as the norm is not normal. And hopefully, be able to focus and re-center the theology on what’s real and not what is to the advantage of people who want to exploit the resources of the Earth.

Since the tragic murder of George Floyd and the subsequent uprisings seeking racial justice, there has been a dramatic shift in America’s consciousness about health, race, and privilege. How do you see your work in the context of this confluence of events?

I think that it underscores the importance of the work [we do]. For those people that did not believe that this was such a problem, I think it underscores it a lot. A lot of people have reached out to me because, some of these things, I’ve been talking about for at least 18 years. I think it’s a moment of reckoning for us to remove those structures that allowed George Floyd to happen, or allowed people to live in Lowndes County or other places with raw sewage on the ground. So it’s a chance for us to be reflective and be very intentional about removing those policies that maintain the structures that I think are legacies of slavery.

You often speak about your four-year-old grandson KJ, in relationship to your work. What kind of world do you envision for him as he grows up?

I want him to live in a green world. A world where we have renewable energy and people recycle. A world where everybody has access to clean water and sanitation. Where the world is in balance, the way it should be, and we’re living in harmony with the Earth and with each other, that’s the kind of world I want him to have.

I want his children to say they had a great-grandmother who fought for all of these things. And I would like for him to live in a just world, where he could run in his neighborhood and not have to worry about being killed by somebody who thinks that he’s a criminal, where poverty is not criminalized, and people don’t think it’s normal for dirty industries to be located in communities of color, rural communities, Indigenous communities, or places where people are poor. That’s the kind of world that I envision for my grandson.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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