Broken Ground | Season 4 | Episode 2

Catherine Coleman Flowers: When Listening Becomes Activism

Catherine Coleman Flowers was recently named to the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council. A 2020 MacArthur Genius Grant recipient, her environmental health research brought to light the failing wastewater infrastructure in rural parts of the South. She spoke with Broken Ground about how systemic racism and classism have played a large part in this crisis and how it led her to found the Center for Rural Enterprise and Environmental Justice. 

Episode Transcript

Catherine Coleman Flowers was recently named to the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council. A 2020 MacArthur Genius grant recipient, her environmental health research brought ot light the failing wastewater infrastructure in rural parts of the South. She spoke with Broken Ground about how systemic racism and classism have played a large part in this crisis and how it led her to found the Center for Rural Enterprise and Environmental Justice.






HOST: This is Broken Ground, a podcast about environmental stories in the South and the people at the heart of them. I’m Claudine Ebeid McElwain. In this episode, we continue our series about women in the South who are taking on environmental injustices through their work, their engagement with communities, their contributions at the government level and their words.

CATHERINE COLEMAN FLOWERS: This is where we see the intersection of climate change and environmental justice. Is that the more melting that we see of ice caps and the more problems we see with global warming, we’re going to have higher water tables. And when these septic systems fail, what it does is bring the sewage back into the house.




HOST: Catherine Coleman Flowers is an internationally recognized activist and advocate for environmental justice. She lives in Montgomery, Alabama. She’s the founder of the Center for Rural Enterprise and Environmental Justice. Flowers was awarded a MacArthur Genius grant in 2020 for her work, which is chronicled in her book, Waste: One Woman’s Fight Against America’s Dirty Secret. Flowers’ book tells the story of her life, as well as the story of an ongoing catastrophe across the country that leaves people without functioning sewage systems, leading to poor health outcomes, including asthma, anemia and decreased growth rates in children. According to the U.S. 1990 census, roughly 25% of American households were not connected to public sewer systems, but rather relied on septic systems. And for many of the rural poor, this means failing systems or none at all. This conversation was recorded in November of 2020.


CLAUDINE EBEID MCELWAIN: Catherine you’ve exposed a health and environmental justice problem that unsurprisingly is found in poor and rural parts of America and that not many people know about. You describe escorting, a UN rapporteur to an area in Alabama that he said were conditions he’d never seen in the developed world. Can you describe what he saw? And can you tell me what it was like to hear him say that about a part of the country that you yourself grew up in?


CATHERINE: Well, first of all, uh, thank you for, for having me as a guest, because I think the only way we’re going to solve this problem is by talking about it and letting other people know about it. Uh, when the UN special rapporteur visited Lowndes County, uh, the first area that we went to was a home where there were a group of mobile homes. There were about three mobile homes in the area. There was a family compound. It was off of a dirt road. And as we walked around the back of the home, we started seeing the raw sewage that was running, I mean, in like paths along the back of the home. And then we went to the second home, you could see the sewage running from underneath the trailer. And then, uh, from a distance, a short distance from the trailer was a pit that was full of raw sewage. And that was the first area. The second area that we went to was even more stark because this was another collection of families that live off of a dirt road. And in this particular area, as we walked down this this incline, there was a ditch. And in the ditch, it was full of raw sewage. You can see children’s toys around it, nearby was a basketball net. And the water lines that were going to the trailer were just above the raw sewage. And it was at that time that someone asked the special rapporteur Dr. Alston, uh, have you ever seen this before? And he said that this is uncommon in the developed world.


CLAUDINE: What was it like for you to hear him say that about, you know, a place that’s close to where you grew up?


CATHERINE: I think that that is a part that was driving me to expose this because clearly this was the forgotten part of America. And this is a problem that most people don’t even acknowledge. Actually, when I used to talk about this problem prior to Dr. Alston and others coming, but prior to the release of the parasite study, some people would come up to me and tell me about the work they did on some poor area outside of this country, but yet did not recognize, or they feel it validated their lack of attention to what was happening here in America. And I – to hear him say that, just validated my own feelings about how this was very uncommon and shouldn’t be. And it, it, it kinda was juxtaposed, uh, us being in the wealthiest country in the world and it underscored the inequality that I have seen for most of my life. And it made the national and international news for him to say that.


CLAUDINE: And so Catherine, the numbers are really quite shocking in Lowndes  County. Nearly 40% of the households have inadequate septic systems or none at all. What is even more unjust is that in Alabama, you can be charged with a criminal misdemeanor and fined for not having a properly working septic system. So what does that mean for the people living in those conditions?

CATHERINE: Yes. I think that what makes it so unjust is that it’s been criminalized and that’s in essence, criminalizing poverty. And it’s also making people responsible for some, uh, environmental issues that’s, that’s not of their own making. I mean, they, they don’t design the technology. Uh, they don’t approve the technology. They haven’t written the laws that govern the technology. They don’t train the installers. All that’s done by the state health department. But the state health department also has policies that criminalize people that can’t conform to their regulations. And clearly the regulations need to be rewritten to take into account what the reality is. And what it does is force people in the rural communities not to talk about it. It forces them, uh, into a closet, if you will, to, to not discuss these things because they could be criminalized as a result. And the people that they tend to go after, are not maybe the wealthier people living in the same conditions and their systems are failing, but primarily after people that are marginalized already.


CLAUDINE: In your book, you wrote about this kind of like cycle of discrimination. This just seems like a perfect example of it where there’s like a blaming of the victim and then there’s the victim fearing retribution, and so the problems never get fixed because the cycle just keeps going on and on. Do you think this is symptomatic of that, you know, structural racism that is going on in America and this cycle that we can’t seem to break.


CATHERINE: Yes, I think it is symptomatic of structural racism. Um, but it’s also symptomatic of the marginalization of the poor. Uh, so we have built these structures on, I guess, a type of economic paradigm that penalizes or exploits people that are poor. And consequently, uh we’re, we continue to have the same problem. And until we change the economic paradigm to make it fair and more just, we’re going to continue to have the same problems. Because if you look at who doesn’t have waste water infrastructure, these are also the same areas that tend to, uh, be the ones that get the dirty plants.




CATHERINE: The ones where we want to put the landfills. You know, they just add and compound these problems and keep victimizing the same people over and over again, which is no surprise that COVID is, is really bad in areas like this.


CLAUDINE: You know, to help people understand the severity of this situation, I’m wondering if you can tell us the story of Pamela Rush, who you’ve written about, who was a woman who was living in these conditions with her children.


CATHERINE: Uh, yes, I, I became aware of Pamela’s situation a few years ago when one of her sisters reached out to me and asked me could I help her. And I went and met with Pamela and Pamela explained to me – first of all, to see the home that she lived in was really disturbing, uh, she lived in a single wide mobile home. Um, she did the best she could to try to make it a home and that she had to stuff things in the holes in the mobile home to keep animals out. She even showed me a trap that she had used to trap wild animals that would come in her home. And she was concerned that if she got scratched because she was a diabetic, that it could create problems for her. And she also showed me where her daughter slept in the room with her and had a, and had to sleep with a C-PAP machine. Her daughter was about maybe 10 or 11 at the time. And usually with people that are on C-PAP machines or BIPAP machines are generally older people, but this was a child, which was my first time ever seeing this. She also talked about, you know, the fact that she was straight pipe. And if you look outside at the back of her home, when she flushed the toilet, it went out on top of the ground. She was in a mobile home that when her family entered into the contract, it was well over a hundred thousand dollars. It was worth much, much, much, much less than that at this point. And she was still paying on it because of the predatory lending that was incorporated into that contract. So It was, it was almost as if there was so many layers of poverties that were there that had trapped that family.




CATHERINE: And I told her that I was, I felt that the way to help her was for her to tell her story, which was, uh, for Pamela, that was saying a lot for her to go public because Pamela was very shy, but she said, I’ll tell my story.




CATHERINE: And she did.


PAMELA: My name is Pamela Rush. I’m from Lowndes County, Alabama. And I live in a mobile home with my two kids. (crying) They charged me over $114,000 on a mobile home that’s falling apart and I got raw sewage. I don’t have no money, I’m poor.


CATHERINE: And, and, and that led to me bringing a number of people to her home, including Reverend William Barber, uh, Jane Fonda, even Senator Bernie Sanders came to her home. And that was to help people to understand this level of poverty. I mean, how it is so restrictive and how it – even as she tried to dig out of it, there was always a factor to push her back into poverty. And ultimately, uh, Pamela became a victim of COVID and died at the age of 50. She had just turned 50 and she left two children.


CLAUDINE: And when did that happen?


CATHERINE: She died July 3rd, 2020.


CLAUDINE: And she had been telling her story up until that point. And did things get better for her before she passed or for her family?


CATHERINE: No, things didn’t get better, but what did happen – I think that because of her testimony before Congress, uh, about poverty, uh, about her personal condition, her personal story – uh, there was an effort to actually purchase a home. A donor had come forward and there was an effort to purchase a home for her. Um, and we did purchase a home. This was earlier this year. And we brought in an engineering company. They did a perk test on the land. They designed the type of system that she needed, but what would happen when they went down 25 inches to do the perk test, they struck water. So a conventional septic system would not have worked there. And the system that was needed would have cost $28,000. It was during that time that she contracted COVID and passed away. So when I write about it and actually I had completed the book when, when Pamela passed away, but I asked my publishers, could I write this epilogue because I wanted to do a tribute to her because it just showed the inequalities in how these layers and layers, and every time we pull back a layer to try to free her, there was another layer that we had to deal with. And ultimately we could not place the home there because of the septic system that was needed for her family to be able to live and be free of having to put raw sewage on the ground. But it also helped us to understand why her neighbors did not have systems because if it was going to cost that much …




CATHERINE: Nobody could afford that. Most people don’t make that in one year, but to have to come up with that, all of a sudden is a lot of money. And then the maintenance cost associated with that was just too much.


CLAUDINE: Let’s talk a little bit about that layer of, um, the cost of the system, and what’s very literally underneath it, which is the soil situation in Alabama. You wrote about getting an education in the kind of soil that’s in the part of the country that you live in. And, um, it seems like it’s important to understand a little bit about what the, the ground is like there, what the environment is that’s causing this part of this problem.


CATHERINE: Yeah, it is a small part of the problem. The other part of the problem is the fact that we have high water tables, because I think that’s the part of the equation that people leave out. You know, with the water tables being high, we also have to worry about contamination, potentially the drinking water too. So, uh, in Pamela’s case, with the water table being so high, a conventional septic system was not going to, to work there. And the more – this is where we see the intersection of climate change and environmental justice, is that the more, more melting that we see of ice caps and, and the more, um, problems we see with global warming, we’re going to have higher water tables. And we not only see it in Lowndes County, we see problems around the country that people are having with wastewater treatment in Alaska because of melting permafrost and Florida because of sea level rise and in Lowndes County because of high water tables. The soil itself is very good for planting because it holds water, but the water is not just coming from the top, from the sky is also coming from underneath as well.




CATHERINE: And all of that factors into wastewater and the way the systems are designed now, in terms of septic systems, some of them are in the ground and then sometimes they bring in soils and put it on top of the ground. But if we’re going to have a lot of rain, which we’re having record rainfalls, erosion is going to wash that away. And what I’ve seen is a lot of septic systems that are sinking, you know, because the soil is washed away. And I’ve also seen the ones that are in the ground, the conventional septic systems, that are also sinking as well.And when these septic systems fail, what it does is bring the sewage back into the house.


CLAUDINE: Catherine, I feel like your work is the perfect example of how environmental justice work is cross-cutting. What lessons do you think the environmental community has to learn from people who like you are driven also by civil rights issues?


CATHERINE: Well, I think the one lesson that people from the environmental community needs to learn is how to listen to people in the community. And listening to people in the community doesn’t necessarily mean just listening to elected officials, because if I had listened to elected officials, I’d never would have learned about this because that was not their priority. So it’s very important to find those grassroots leaders in the community. Some of them are just people, just, you know, living in their homes who are not well-known, who just want to be heard. And, and to spend time sitting on the porch and spending time talking with folk. Or just plain listening, because listening is a form of activism too. A lot of times we go in with what we think the answers are based on our education, having never spent any time in these communities, but we have to spend time there and we have to listen.


CLAUDINE: I wonder if a lot of, you know, what you’re describing and the way you interact with people and listening to their stories has something to do with the people and the politics that you grew up around. Can you tell me a little bit about what it was like growing up in Lowndes County?


CATHERINE: Well, Lowndes County was a, at the time we were living in Lowndes County, this was in the 1960s, and it was a time of a lot of massive change, but it was also a time of a lot of trauma. Um, I just remember in, in one year, the, the death of, the death of Dr. King and then later the death of Robert Kennedy. And just so many people that were, um, a part of forging the change that would come around my parents and my parents’ home and there were families like the Jackson family. Uh, John Jackson and his family were very, very instrumental in making sure that I was exposed to people who were part of, uh, bringing about, you know, economic, hopefully economic and political change. They were very successful at the political change that took place in civil rights, changes that took place – people that were members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. My parents themselves were activists. So everybody in the community was an activist. I mean, there were times we would be sitting on, like, on Miss Shug’s porch. I talk about Miss Shug a lot because I didn’t realize those stories that I was hearing her tell about how they organized the Lowndes County Freedom Organization, uh, and, and the kinds of things that they did about voting rights, how important that was. Because at that time, these were just stories to me. But now I realize it was a significant part of my development and also a significant part of history. And I had the opportunity to experience all of that, which I think shaped my philosophy as a teacher. You know, I later became a history teacher. But it also shaped how I taught history, because I think that these oral histories are very much a part – and these memories – are very much a part of helping people to, to see, uh, to hear and to visualize what the change should be.


CLAUDINE: Not unlike a lot of other, I think, environmental disaster type situations, the story about the septic problem and the waste problem in Lowndes County really started to get more attention when it was discovered that people living in these conditions were suffering from hookworm. I mean, this is an intestinal parasitic disease that’s common in countries that have inadequate access to clean water and sanitation systems, not a disease we think of as being in America. How did you help uncover that revelation, um, about this neglected, really tropical disease that had taken hold in this part of the country?


CATHERINE: Um, there are a few things that I have to share. I didn’t really know about hookworm, but there was an official within the State Department of Public Health that actually gave me a paper that had been published about hookworm in the U.S. A lot of people don’t don’t know that. And the person who wrote it had been, uh, the state environmentalist for the state of Alabama. So I, I never connected the two. And when I had my own experience, when I was bitten by mosquitoes and, but my body ended up breaking down in a rash. I had been around raw sewage, I had been around raw sewage quite a bit, but in this case, these mosquitoes were nesting on the sewage. And when my body broke out in the rash, that’s what indicated, that was the first time I ever got kind of concerned about being this close to raw sewage and whether or not I could have possibly had exposed myself to something. And I know people were always talking about having intestinal problems and so forth. They, there would be hints of that that would be dropped from time to time when people would talk to me, but I never made the connection. But once I had my own experience and the doctors, my, my doctor, I asked her to order a blood test and make sure that there was nothing wrong, although I have this rash on my body. And nothing came back and it came back negative. And I asked her, is it possible that there are diseases in this country that we don’t know about, because we don’t expect these kinds of conditions to exist in this country. And she said, yes, it is possible. Then later I saw an op-ed in the New York Times that was written by Dr. Peter Hotez, who was the founding dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor. So, I googled him, got an email address, wrote him, told him about what I was seeing in Lowndes County, asked him a number of questions and we met the next week. And he said, I’m going to send my parasitologist to Lowndes County, we’re going to collect fecal, soil, water and blood samples, and I’m going to look for hookworm.




CATHERINE: And that’s how we did the study. And we were surprised, of the people that gave us their fecal, soil, water, and blood samples, uh, we found that at least a third of them were infected. Using PCR technology, same kind of technologies they’re using now with COVID, um, they found evidence of hookworm and other tropical parasites.


CLAUDINE: Was that when the media finally started paying more attention?


CATHERINE: There, there were various media outlets, primarily those that were, uh, on social media platforms that had been trying to tell the story. Even Al Jazeera tried to tell the story. But what made the story more impactful is when we saw this stark example of poverty here in this country, at a time when we probably have produced more billionaires than ever before.




CATHERINE: And in addition to that, we had, uh, coming from the highest level of government, people saying things like, ‘Why do we have people, uh, coming here from shithole countries? Why – instead of places like Norway?’ Uh, and even when the U.S. government, uh, decided that it was going to lead the Human Rights Council, using the term cesspool. So all of you kind of set the stage, I believe, for the kind of attention that we received. But even with when the study came out, the media, uh, was not clamoring to do the story, not, not the American media. But the people that reached out to us were from The Guardian. And The Guardian ended up breaking the story. And I believe because of the international attention that we received at that time, it was hard to ignore. It was that and, of course, what was happening, uh, on the human rights level with the UN special rapporteur coming and I think that those are the things. And even now there are people that are still calling me – this is three years later – people calling me because of me winning the MacArthur award, from the major media now are paying attention to it and want to do stories on it, but this was a long time coming.


CLAUDINE: I mean, it, it clearly takes an incredible amount of tenacity to keep telling this message over and over and to keep working to get the press to pay attention. How do you maintain your energy?


CATHERINE: Well, first of all, I have a lot of faith. You know, one of the things that my parents instilled in me, other than activism, was faith. And they believe in a, um, a type of liberation theology, uh, that was inspired by their faith. And in talking about our religion – and we come from a Christian background – uh, we talked about helping the poor. That was instilled in me. We talked about loving the neighbor. That was instilled in me as well. And one of the things my mother always talked about, um, is how faith the size of a mustard seed can move mountains and I believe that.


CLAUDINE: People are going to hear about this problem and they’re going to be aghast. They may even want to mobilize to help. What do you see as the solutions to this problem and what needs to happen to get there?


CATHERINE: Well, I think the first thing we have to do is diagnose the problem. You know, whenever a student came into my classroom, I thought it was so wrong for a student to come in my classroom and we assumed that every student knew the cardinal directions, north, south, east, and west. Or we assumed that every student knew the bodies of water or the continents. Because if that student came to my classroom without knowing that, they weren’t going to understand history. And I had to, I had to develop my own diagnostic instruments where I can find out what their knowledge level was and made sure that when they left my classroom, that they knew all of this. And I think the American approach right now is just to do a little bit, put out fires wherever they are, instead of finding out how deep and widespread this problem is. So I think the first step is to find out how deep and widespread it is. It’s more than the over half million households that we tend to quote, because we don’t know how many people have this problem because that item was taken off the census in 1990. And we need to, first of all, know the extent of the problem, where it is, and then find solutions. Because some solutions may be place-based. Then other solutions may be just based on the type of technology that’s available. But I think it’s, it would be wrong to try to diagnose long-term solutions without, first of all, trying to figure out what the problems are, unless we are talking about technological solutions that don’t take into account water or soil. And, and, and those types of solutions are being looked at. Uh, and we have to look at innovation. I think if we can look at what is happening in outer space, when they go to outer space and they treat wastewater, they can treat it to drinking water quality. We got to start thinking like that and be out of the box thinkers and reimagine how we treat wastewater now. And imagine having devices that could also monitor for diseases like COVID, which are emitted in wastewater, so that we can contain them before they become epidemic, like what we’re dealing with right now. So I think there, there’s a light at the end of the tunnel. The question is how many people are impacted so that everybody can get access to whatever those solutions are. At the same time, they’ll be partnering with, um, some of the great thinkers of not only the U.S., but the great thinkers of the world, cause this is a global problem and see if we can find a solution akin to the way we have come together around the world to come up with vaccines for COVID. We need to do the same thing about coming up with technology that works to treat wastewater differently from the way we’re doing it now.


CLAUDINE: Can you tell me about the connection of your face and environmental work?


CATHERINE: Yes. Um, you know, when I think about environmental justice, I think about the garden of Eden. And in the garden of Eden, if there were mountains there, would we be blowing the tops off of them? In the garden of Eden, would we be placing landfills there? In the garden of Eden, would we be burning coal? And mother earth is our garden of Eden. It’s our common home. It’s something that we all share. And we’re going to have to find ways in which to protect this garden that nurtures life. It’s like even protecting water because water is life. So I think it’s part of my faith walk to protect the garden that God has given to all of us to share and not for a few people to exploit for financial reasons and then the rest of us have to bear the consequences of that. So part of protecting the environment to me is inspired by, by my faith. And, and, and it’s my way of, uh, paying homage to God that made this available for all of us and me showing respect for it. And I think that we should all do that, no matter what our faith walk is, no matter what our religion, and even if we’re non religious. But there’s something spiritual about the earth and the way it supports all of us, and we should be respectful of that and protect it so that it can protect not only us and provide life and nurture us, but the seven generations to come.


CLAUDINE: Catherine Coleman Flowers, thank you so much for talking with me today.


CATHERINE: Thank you. Thank you for this opportunity.


HOST: Catherine Coleman Flowers is the author of Waste: One Woman’s Fight Against America’s Dirty Secret. Join us next time for a conversation with the Southern Environmental Law Center’s Chandra Taylor.


CHANDRA TAYLOR: Everybody wants the water out of their tap to not cause them harm when they drink it. Everybody wants to be able to go for a walk or run and take a deep breath and not feel winded. Everybody has an expectation that their environment shouldn’t hurt them.


HOST: Broken Ground is available wherever you get your podcasts.




KELLEY LIBBY: Broken Ground is a podcast by the Southern Environmental Law Center. It’s produced by Emily Richardson-Lorente, Jennie Daley and Kelley Libby and hosted by Claudine Ebeid McElwain. The theme music is by Eric Knutson.