March 22 2018
In a talk entitled “America’s Dirty Secret: Poverty and Parasites,” environmental justice activist Catherine Flowers shared about severe — and surprising — wastewater problems faced by many of America’s rural communities. Flowers spoke during this year’s Human Needs and Global Resources (HNGR) and Science symposium on March 14.
Flowers’ home community in Lowndes County, Ala., which is located along the famous Selma march route, has an enduring legacy of civil rights advocacy. Yet some poor residents currently lack access to municipal sewer systems and cannot afford septic systems, which causes raw sewage to pool in lawns and parasitic diseases to arise. Flowers, a former history teacher, never expected to be doing what she is today — her job has involved both speaking in D.C. and transporting fecal samples across Alabama in her trunk — but after seeing the problem, she knew she needed to take action.
The founder of the Alabama Center for Rural Enterprise Community Development Corporation (ACRE), Flowers works at the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Ala. and is a senior fellow at the Center for Earth Ethics at Union Theological Seminary. We sat down with Flowers to talk about her activism, faith and how students can participate in environmental justice projects.
How would you define environmental justice?
Environmental justice is making sure people have equitable access to clean air and clean water. That’s the general way of describing it. Because if you have clean air and clean water, everything else is fine. But if you have dirty air filled with toxins and all that, and your water is contaminated, you’re not going to have a healthy environment and they’re not going to be productive and thrive on the earth. So environmental justice is looking at those communities that have been denied that type of access, even based on their income level or based on their race or ethnic group.
Tell us about your childhood in Lowndes county and how you became interested in environmental justice.
My parents were activists and they were involved in the voting rights movement. So I grew up around a lot of history and around a lot of activists. It was a rural community where everyone was very family oriented, very religious. They were people that shared whenever. If anybody came to visit you’d leave usually with something from their garden or something they baked or cooked. Sometimes you’d leave with something they made, like an apron or something they would give you to take with you. That was the community I grew up in.
I’ve always been interested in justice. Environmental justice kind of evolved later, when I learned about the wastewater problem in Lowndes county. I always knew that things were different but I always thought it was different because we were in a rural community. I didn’t realize things were different because there hadn’t been an effort to find technology that works or an effort to ensure that people had equitable access to technologies that would treat wastewater.
I didn’t become interested in that until 2000, when some people brought it to my attention. That’s when I learned about the wastewater problem and learned that people had been arrested because they could not afford on-site sanitation.
So I had to learn everything I could about that in order to be an effective advocate. The more I learned about it, the more I learned the approach we were taking was not correct. So I decided to embark upon a different approach to solve this problem.
And I’ve also learned since then that this problem is more widespread than we know, and not just in Lowndes county, but it’s a problem throughout the United States. People are not getting adequate treatment of wastewater. If [the wastewater] is not coming back into their homes, it’s being straight piped out into the ground.
What approach have you taken to address the wastewater problem?
Through my observation, [I discovered] that people weren’t interested in this issue until we did a study. And [for] the study, we didn’t just come up with the idea and go, “We’re going to do a study.” What happened was I was bitten by mosquitoes, my bite broke out into a rash and my doctors couldn’t determine what was wrong with me. That’s when I started to wonder whether or not there was something American doctors were not testing for, because these mosquitos were on raw sewage. [Dr. Peter Hotez] suggested that we do this study to see if they have hookworm. The study shed light on the wastewater problem, because that’s what [hookworm] is associated with.
So I discovered that in order to validate our concerns and focus people’s attention on it we have to have valid information through research. And that’s what we do, working with students and young people to gather the information where local people may not have the skills to do it. But the students have the skills and we found they have a lot of passion for this work. And they’re helping us to find new solutions.
So that’s the approach that we’re using. We’re working with the academy: universities and young people, and the communities themselves, to chronicle what has been seen, what has been observed and also to do testing when necessary, and then give them those results so they can get it to policy makers to change the policy. We’re also working on trying to find technological solutions to the wastewater problem. So it’s a multipronged approach.
What obstacles do you face?
I think part of the resistance has come from shame from the elected officials who have ignored the problem or don’t really understand the extent of the problem and want to pretend like it’s not a problem. We’ve also found that there’s an issue with state officials or regulators who were supposed to make sure this didn’t happen, or at least [that] people have equitable access to the technologies as well as to funding to repair this.
The policies are not really helping; the policy actually makes it worse because they don’t have quantifiable information about how great the issues are [since they] want to fine or arrest people that have these [wastewater] issues.
What keeps you going?
The hope comes from, first of all, my faith. I trust. And I know that if I work, my father used to say, “God said if you make one step, he’ll make two.” So I try to make two or three steps so he can make four or five. I stay focused. I stay prayed up. And if it’s something that I can’t handle, I’ll pray about it and I have the faith that God is going to send the answer through someone.
I’m also inspired by my grandson, who is two years of age. I feel that he has to have a better world and my hope is for him. In order for him to have a better world, I have to help create it. And my hope also comes from people, because I see passion and fire that is coming from young people that really want to do good and care about more than themselves. That gives me a lot of hope.
How do you see faith intersect with environmental justice?
I think God called us to be good stewards of the earth. As good stewards of the earth, we have to take care of the earth so that other people can enjoy the earth too. Sometimes people get stewardship confused; they think it means that they can extract and destroy, and don’t replace or replenish. But I think God calls upon us to be replenishers, not to be extractors. And in order, I think, to be a good Christian, we have to replenish what we take for the future generations to come.
Any words of wisdom for student activists?
I think, first of all, go into it for the right reasons. Go into it for service: Service to your fellow [humankind.] I think that you also have to remain faithful. Change is not going to come overnight. And there will be times for self-care where you have to withdraw and pray, and meditate. And then go back and work some more. And know that the work that you have done is not in vain.
Someone told me once when I was teaching and I was talking about how I could not see the immediate success in my students and she said to me, “You’re planting seeds. You may not ever see the results, but they’re going to grow.” And likewise, for budding environmental justice advocates, you’re planting seeds. Some of you may be lucky enough to see the results right away, and some of it you might not see until some time later, or you may not ever see it at all. But those seeds are going to sprout plants and flowers.
How can students get involved in this project?
They can contact their professors in the science department or the HNGR program and let them know they have an interest in working with us. We are working on, right now, defining which ways [to go and] which students at Wheaton would be able to work with us.
The other way, the more direct way, is to friend us on Facebook (Alabama Center for Rural Enterprise). They can keep up with what we’re doing. They can also message me directly there. My next step is to set up a call by the end of this month with professors here at Wheaton about how do we move forward to allow students to participate in this project because a number have already reached out to me. I’ve gotten emails and Facebook messages since last [Wednesday] night from young people who want to be a part of this.
And I think that it’s those kinds of things that give me hope and encouragement that we’re going to find a solution … God has moved, and he’s moved certain people to reach out to us. And we’re looking forward to having that partnership and being able to serve together.
This interview has been edited for length.