Sewage is a major issue where Catherine Coleman Flowers is from. She's working to change that.

Catherine Coleman Flowers on America’s Dirty Secret

WORDS BY CATHERINE COLEMAN FLOWERS

(AS TOLD TO YESSENIA FUNES)

PHOTOGRAPHs BY KACI MERRIWETHER-HAWKINS

The sanitation system in the U.S. is crumbling. Author and MacArthur genius grant winner Catherine Coleman Flowers tells her story in The Frontline.

I grew up in tune with my surroundings. It was natural. You had to in order to survive. We didn’t have weather radios, so we’d watch the skies to recognize the ingredients of tornadoes, which climate change is pushing farther southeast. My father hunted. The fur of the animals could tell him what kind of a winter was coming. My mother would send me outside to play, so I’d go and pick wild apples or plums. For some reason, I was especially attached to cornfields—sinking my teeth into corn harvested right off the stalk. It was always so sweet. I didn’t realize these experiences were the making of an environmentalist

 

I am a country girl from Lowndes County, Alabama. It’s a rural community located between Selma and Montgomery where people drove on dirt roads and carried their water home from wells. A lot of people had outdoor toilets then—many people straight pipe their waste onto the ground now. We boast about our wealth in America, but we don’t talk about the people that have been left behind. That’s why I call the rural waste and water sanitation infrastructure crisis America’s dirty secret. It’s what I’ve focused my career on for the last 20 years.

 

In my journey, I was a teacher and taught geography and history in the District of Columbia, North Carolina, and Detroit. When I moved back to Alabama in 2000, I noticed that many of my peers looked older than me. People were sick, but I couldn’t figure out why. Alongside the sickness, people were also being arrested because they lacked on-site sanitation. I saw two health department officials threaten to arrest a pregnant woman in her 20s. She had a pit outside her trailer where all her waste went—it was teeming with mosquitoes.

Public health officials told us residents couldn’t afford septic systems, but a house-to-house survey uncovered that many people had paid for systems that were failing them. Once I read this op-ed by Dr. Peter J. Hotez on tropical diseases being on our shores in the New York Times, I wrote to him and asked if doctors may be missing these diseases because they’re not testing for them as they’re not taught they exist. Several months later, he sent over a parasitologist whose research revealed that people in my community were infected with hookworm and other tropical parasites. Doctors thought they had been wiped out in the U.S. based on the assumption that everyone has access to sanitation, but that’s not true. 

 

Last year, the Department of Justice announced it would be investigating a Title VI complaint about the lack of wastewater disposal and infectious disease outbreaks in Lowndes County and Alabama. That was historic, but it’s not just Lowndes County that needs help. The department is now coordinating across agencies to create a new Office of Environmental Justice that will protect even more communities. Some states will do the right thing by their constituents—but others won’t. That’s true whether we’re talking about Flint, Michigan, or Lowndes County, Alabama. We need a federal player to hold them accountable and enforce the protections all Americans are afforded under the Constitution.

 

Across the U.S., states are perpetuating inequalities, whether that’s against people who are queer or people who are Black. It’s all connected to structural inequality. We must remain vigilant. My years taught me that nothing changes; we just have to stay vigilant. Someone recently asked me, When do we stop fighting? As long as we have these injustices, we’re going to have to continue to push for these necessary changes—whether it’s around sanitation, women’s rights, or voting rights. It’s all connected. 

 

And because we have not dealt with these local environmental justice issues, we now have bigger issues. We have climate injustice. Now, the whole world is impacted. We’re all in peril. It’s important to see the movements underway on the federal, local, and state levels, but those states that aren’t doing enough need to be pushed by corporations and organizations and even tourists who choose to spend their dollars elsewhere. It’s going to take all that to get us to where we need to be.

These communities are not looking for salvation to get to heaven. They want to understand how to live on Earth in harmony, too.

CATHERINE COLEMAN FLOWERS
CENTER FOR RURAL ENTERPRISE AND ENVIRONMENTAL JUSTICE

Change comes from the ground up. Local communities should feel empowered to change their situations. The people who are impacted have to be seated at the table. I see that happening more—I see more people speaking out and trying to influence what’s happening in their communities. It’s up to the government to listen to them. The federal government, in particular, needs to be careful to not waste money on cheap sanitation systems without some sort of parts and service warranty. We see homeowners having to bear the burden of failing infrastructure that wasn’t built to deal with climate change or last more than two to five years. 

 

We need new zero-carbon technologies that can bring adequate sanitation to everyone. People in African and Asian nations are already reaching out to me and my team, but we aren’t approaching them with the missionary mindset of so many people before us. These communities are not looking for salvation to get to heaven. They want to understand how to live on Earth in harmony, too. 

 

First, they need access to clean air, water, and sanitation.

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