When the Earth is ill, so are its people.
Catherine Flowers saw hints of that sickness growing up during the 1960s in Lowndes County, Ala., a predominantly Black rural area with fewer than 10,000 people. She noticed how both animals and vegetation bowed and browned in death after farmers sprayed clouds of DDT, a pesticide eventually found to be lethal to the environment.
“If this is how it’s impacting animals, how is it impacting us?,” she thought.
After seeing sewage pool up in the yards of her family and neighbors, Flowers started her career as an environmental justice activist before she knew its name and became the founder of the Center for Rural Enterprise and Environmental Justice (CREEJ). She was recently named a MacArthur Foundation fellow, or “genius grant” recipient, who will receive $625,000 over five years.
Activism came natural to Flowers, who learned many lessons from the mothers and fathers of the Black Power movement, including her own parents who are buried in Lowndes County.
Lesson one: Never forget where you came from.
“My ancestors are here. They are in the soil here,” Flowers said. “I feel like part of my strength comes from my ancestors and I want to honor them by continuing to make this place better.”
The intersection of poverty and environmental justice
As Flowers details in “WASTE: One Woman’s Fight Against America’s Dirty Secret,” an upcoming memoir publishing in November, the seeds of her activism to fight the country’s wastewater problems and the diseases they cause were planted and bloomed in Alabama.
Enraged by the lynching of Emmett Till, her father, J.C. Coleman, refused to bow down to Jim Crow laws, especially after serving in the military. After being sterilized following the birth of her fifth child, Flowers’ mother, Mattie Coleman, spoke up for women who endured forced sterilization at a Tuskegee hospital.
Flowers said her parents were like jailhouse lawyers who opened their home to such activists as Stokely Carmichael, who formed an independent Black political party called the Lowndes County Freedom Organization with Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee members such as John Jackson and Willie “Mukasa” Ricks.
She didn’t know then her parents’ legacy would be the foundation of her own.
“What gives me validity were those people from the past who I look back on now and see how significant they were to history. I just didn’t know it at the time,” Flowers said.
The Lowndes County Freedom Organization increased Black voting power at a time when white mobs threatened African Americans with violence and home eviction. With a crouching black panther as it’s symbol, the organization successfully helped elect Black public officials. The logo inspired Black activists in California, who adopted it at the formation of the Black Panther Party.
The front porch functioned as Flowers’ living room as she listened to Carmichael and other activists strategize while catching up on the latest R&B songs. Flowers devoured in every word, she said.
“I was fortunate to be surrounded by people who were uncommon in their love for community,” Flowers said. “They were uncommon in their desire to help and lift up the communities where they worked.”
Their voices kept her grounded as she navigated issues revealed through her environmental justice work. After she became an economic development consultant for Lowndes County in 2001, she saw how poverty and economics intersected environmental work. Although the county – one of the state’s poorest – lacked many livable-wage jobs, the Alabama Department of Public Health threatened residents with jail time for failure to install septic tanks, which is a misdemeanor in Alabama.
Alabama Possible, a statewide nonprofit, reported that 25 percent of Lowndes County’s mostly Black population live below the federal poverty threshold, which is nine percent higher than the poverty rate of Alabama – the nation’s fifth poorest state.
Many residents couldn’t afford the between $10,000 and $30,000 it costs to install a septic tank. Even those who paid for septic tanks invested in failing systems because the soil’s high clay absorbed waste, causing system backups.
Instead of seeing residents receive federal or state assistance, Flowers witnessed the persecution of the poor by the government.
“There’s a national conversation now about systematic racism in our country, and a lot of these policies and the applications of them have been based on that,” Flowers said. “We know a mostly African-American or Latino community will less likely get the resources from the government to get the help they need. If the person who is asking for help is wealthy, they are more likely to get that help. But when poor people who can’t afford it ask for help, then it is a personal failure.”
‘My roots kept calling me back’
By the time she entered high school, Flowers was putting into practice the activism she learned about on her front porch.
During her junior year of high school in 1975, Flowers and father ousted a Black principal who allegedly shot into the home of a Black activist while riding with the Ku Klux Klan and was accused of pimping out Black Lowndes County girls to white men in Montgomery for sex. In her book “WASTE,” Flowers describes how lessons at her Black school ended at midday as the principal hosted dances and allowed the teens to watch R-rated movies for $2 each.
Before she graduated her senior year, Flowers would also help oust a Lowndes County School superintendent and change her school’s name from Lowndes County Training School to Central High School.
“In the South, the Black schools were the ‘training schools’ and the white schools were the high schools. Outside of the South, training schools were the school for delinquent kids,” Flowers said. “I didn’t want that on my diploma.”
Her work later sent her across the country as a teacher and congressional aide in Washington, D.C, before moving back to Alabama in the early 2000s.
Activism lesson number two: Reach back and help others.
“My roots kept calling me back,” Flowers writes in her book.
After seeing the government’s failure to take care of wastewater treatment in Lowndes County, Flowers started the Alabama Center for Rural Enterprise (ACRE) in 2002 to advocate for those trapped in the criminalization of sanitation issues and to hunt down funds to pay for locals’ septic tanks. The organization changed its name a couple years later, but not its strategy.
Flowers conducted door-to-door surveys in the community and tapped into her network of advocates, politicians and journalists to lure more eyes towards the Black Belt. She partnered with tropical disease expert Dr. Peter Hotez to conduct a peer-review study which revealed in 2017 that, out of a sample of 55 adults and children, around 35 percent of them tested positive for hookworm.
However, Flowers said the other grassroots groups fighting environmental justice issues are overlooked and underfunded. But winning the genius grant can start to turn funders’ compasses to finance the environmental justice work going on in the South.
According to a study conducted by Building Equity and Alignment for Impact, a group that unites grassroots organizations with national, or “Big Green,” companies and philanthropists, $12 million was awarded to a variety of organizations by six environmental grant makers in the South between 2016 and 2017. But only 1.3 percent, or $155,000, of those funds went to environmental justice organizations advocating for Black, brown, or indigenous communities.
Flowers has seen the same trend during her 18 years in environmental justice work.
“The kind of funding we get is not the kind of funding that “Big Greens” get. They get millions of dollars. We never get that,” she said. “But I think you’ll find that to be true, especially to the people that are doing climate and environmental justice. They don’t get that kind of money, but they do the work.”
People of color also aren’t represented well in national environmental groups and nonprofits. According to a report by Green 2.0, a group advocating for diversity in the environmental movement, about 80 percent of the staff at the 40 largest environmental nonprofits, foundation and government organizations is white. The report states that companies have a hard time keeping people of color on staff due unfairness in development, promotional and evaluation practices.
Companies can also do a better job recruiting, Flowers said. There are many Black environmental justice activists who have been doing the groundwork longer than Flowers. Organizations must get out and meet them. She said a lot of the larger organizations have not visited the South, and if they have, they haven’t traveled off the beaten path and onto the dirt roads of her communities.
“They may go to Montgomery and drive through Lowndes county, but not stop. Some people haven’t been to Cancer Alley. They’ve heard about it, but they haven’t been there,” Flowers said mentioning the 85-mile stretch between New Orleans and Baton Rouge where chemical plants dot the edge of the Mississippi River. “Once they go there, they won’t forget it because to me, it looked like a Disney World of a petrochemical plant.”
Listening to the people to promote policy
Flowers said one of the principles of environmental justice work is letting the people speak for themselves. So she lets Black Belt residents have the microphone as people like Sen. Bernie Sanders, fashion designer Khaliah Ali and actress and activist Jane Fonda tour the home. By centering local voices, the visitors can use their platforms to push for policy change.
As the public listens to local voices and stories on the ground, Flowers combines their experiences with her expertise elsewhere. It was Sanders’ visit to Lowndes County that led to Flowers appointment to former vice president Joe Biden’s climate change task force. The position gives Flowers ability to influence policy that could solve the country’s most pressing environmental issues of today, which includes COVID-19. Flowers said the lack of access to clean water and the presence of industries causing health disparities in Black, brown and low-income communities is fueling the devastation of the pandemic.
“We all need water to live, but we also need sanitation,” Flowers said. “If you don’t wash your hands. If you’re in the case where you have raw sewage in your backyard, when there’s evidence that sewage, especially raw sewage, has COVID-19, how vulnerable does that make you?”
Physically or emotionally, everyone has been touched by the coronavirus, Flowers said. At the time of her appointment, Lowndes County had the highest infection rate in the state. Throughout the year the pandemic claimed Flowers’ family members and friends. One of those deaths was Pamela Rush, a soft-spoken mother of two who guided both politicians and activists through the realities of rural poverty in Tyler, Ala. She brought those realties to Washington, D.C., as she testified in front Congress in June 2018. She passed away due to COVID-19 complications in July.
Despite the county’s infection rate restaurants, gyms, salons and bars eased into normalcy after Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey lifted health restrictions. Conversations in Congress to put economy over people made Flowers pause.
“We don’t have to sacrifice,” Flowers said. “It really was disheartening to me to hear members of Congress tell people you have to sacrifice yourself for the economy.”
“Most people who have sacrificed are the same people that are dealing with environmental and climate justice issues,” she continued. “They have already sacrificed by becoming the essential workers the country cannot function without, but they can’t get the kind of health care they need, or the kind of quality education they need for the children, or even the financial help they need when they were unable to work when it was closed down.”
Amid the traveling, advocating for her communities, making sure no one is poaching her organizations’ ideas and work (that can happen sometimes, she said) and making sure the residents’ experiences aren’t discredited, life can be draining.
Flowers said she relies on her faith to refuel herself, just as her ancestors. Churches were the war rooms of the Civil Rights Movement. She watched as those leaders spoke prayers of protection as they faced police dressed in riot gear during marches. Those rituals took root in Flowers’ spirit.
Final activism lesson: Pray.
“I am a Christian. I’m not a political Christian, one who bends politics to try to make it Christianity,” She said. “I make that part of my work in my mission. But also, that’s where I get my strength, because it’s the people who don’t have the access that I have who made me who I am.”