Ecology + Justice + Culture in the American South

‘The people suffering have to have a seat at the table’: A Q&A with Catherine Flowers

The activist and MacArthur Foundation “Genius Grant” winner discusses her new book and what she believes needs to happen to achieve sustainable and equitable infrastructure solutions for rural America. 

Catherine Coleman Flowers was an integral voice in Southerly’s first series of stories, which covered a public health crisis in Lowndes County, Alabama caused by failing water and waste sanitation infrastructure. Since then, Flowers has brought this issue —  as well as its role in perpetuating racial and socioeconomic disparities — to the national conversation, attracting the attention of presidential candidates, lawmakers, and environmental justice activists. She was recently chosen as a recipient of the MacArthur Foundation’s 2020 “Genius Grants,” and is the author of a new book, Waste: One Woman’s Fight Against America’s Dirty Secret. Flowers also founded the Center for Rural Enterprise and Environmental Justice.

Lyndsey Gilpin interviewed Flowers about her book, her activism, and what she believes needs to happen to achieve sustainable and equitable infrastructure solutions for rural America. 

Southerly: How are you feeling, looking back at those initial stories a couple of years ago and how it’s all evolved since then? 

Catherine Flowers: Well, I think the initial stories were very important to making people aware of the problem. They had a very important role, including your story. A lot of people that didn’t know about [the sewage infrastructure problem] probably read one of those stories and it kept people coming to find out about it because they found it so unbelievable. All of those stories helped to elevate what we were doing. As I reflect on what’s happened recently, like even with the MacArther Foundation, it goes back to that study. No one would have known about it had it not been for local media — whether it was a social media platform or a newsletter or whatever — before the national media or the mainstream media was even aware of it. 

Southerly: I know you’ve written about this and talked about it a lot, but, I want to ask about Pamela Rush’s untimely and unfortunate passing from COVID-19 and how that has impacted your work this year. 

CF: Well, I’m very committed to making sure that not only Pamela’s death, but all the people in Lowndes County and others that I know, their deaths will not be in vain. I’ve realized part of this problem is the economic systems put in place penalize people in rural communities or people in marginalized communities, poor people and Black people. These systems are so unfair: If you are poor and living in a mobile home, how can you socially isolate? You know, if you’re poor and your water infrastructure is non-existent, how can you wash your hands? If one is poor and they’re living around raw sewage, whether it is the suicide as being a straight-piped behind their homes, or whether it’s the sewage is coming back in their homes is coming from all the other people that are part of that collection system, it’s not fair and places people in a position where they can get sicker quicker and potentially die from those conditions. 

So all of those conditions have to be examined and have to be changed in a way that will allow for them to have a decent standard of living. And certainly not become victimized even further when we have these diseases that are surely to come because of climate change. 

Southerly: A lot of these stories focus on Lowndes County, but as you often say, these infrastructure failures are an international issue. Can you talk more about that?

CF: We had congressional briefings that included the people that came in from across the U.S. to talk about these issues, whether it was West Virginia, Kentucky… so there are people around that was one way conversations with our facility. When I testified before Congress, there were people on both sides of the aisle talking about their own experience with improper wastewater treatment. I’m learning as I go. As I have traveled to talk about this issue, [I’ve learned] that it is much, much larger. I know there is a global problem because people reach out to me virtually inviting me to come speak in India, in South Africa. I’ve been talking to people in Nigeria, people in Kenya, in other parts of the world who have similar problems. I just don’t want people to think that these issues are Southern-specific only because they’re not. 

Southerly: What do you think the solutions need to look like?

CF: What I wanted the book to be able to show is what I’ve seen so that when we talk about solutions, people don’t think that they just have to go into one area, install a few different systems and say that they were successful. That’s not true — it’s a short-term solution that is eventually going to exacerbate even further until we deal with these technological issues. The only way we’re going to have real solutions is if we have the people that are living in the communities, not just one or two people, show [this]. We went to over 2,000 houses [in Lowndes County] — that’s how we began to define that was really going on. That’s not what we were told, but when we actually went from house to house and talked to people, we started seeing the width and breadth.

We have to have the technologies in place, no matter where people are, to deal with sea level rise, to deal with rising water tables, to deal with all the rain [and heat] that we may have that impact how these systems function. The most important thing is that from concept to deployment, the people suffering from these problems have to have a seat at the table. We have to change the way we deal with the built environment. [For instance,] the way we educate engineers, they just go in, build something and leave. We don’t go back and look at the impact of what they do and whether or not it really works. By the time we figure it out, it’s too late; people are already suffering. That’s why we need to change the paradigm. That’s why we have to keep talking to people in Appalachia, in the Central Valley in California, in Illinois, in New York state, in Florida — we have to have people really listen and take those lessons to develop something that works.

Southerly: What has been the most challenging part as this issue has gotten more attention?

CF: I would say the most challenging parts are those people that want to sell us something. You know, I’m hearing from all these folks and some of them are even being bullies because I don’t respond to them fast enough. That has been the most challenging part, figuring out how to communicate with folks who feel that they have a solution, but have never been to these areas, who don’t even live here. I think the other part is that we have to learn how to manage all the attention that we’re getting from people reaching out to us, looking for solutions, and we have to find people in their regions who will listen to them and work with them. 

Southerly: What’s the media’s responsibility for improving how we cover rural areas?

Even with good media coverage, systemic racism doesn’t just go away. So there has to be a lot of work engaged in that. I think the role of the media is to make sure that first of all, [they] hire people from this community to report stories. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve talked to people who said, “But why aren’t they connected to a municipal system?” Well it’s a rural community. They don’t have some systems that they can connect to. And then the second one is when people ask me, “What town are you from in Lowndes County?” I’m not from a town. I’m from an unincorporated area. Then I’ll have to explain to them what an unincorporated area is. I don’t think that people are trying to be mean. It’s just that they don’t understand because their urban experience has excluded or provided them with blind spots when it comes to rural communities. 

Southerly: What are your plans for the Center for Rural Enterprise and Environmental Justice? 

CF: We plan to educate and train grassroots leaders about how to do what we’ve done. How to document a problem, and how they can use that to have an impact on policy. We are also interested in helping them to collaborate with people in their region who want to be part of the solutions. For instance, our collaborators were researchers at the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College. They did a lot to validate what we were seeing all the time, the science of it. And then of course, the second part is to be able to train policymakers to provide seminars and workshops, with the instructors being the folk that live in these communities. The other thing that needs to happen is that we need to help the academic paradigm shift to where it’s not about coming in, writing the paper and leaving, and not even trying to determine whether or not the information was correct, but to make sure again, that people living in these situations are actually doing the training and that we recognize them as experts. 

Southerly: What’s the response from your friends and family in Lowndes County?

CF: They have always been open and have always cheered me on — that’s where I got my inspiration. People forget that I’m from Lowndes County and most of the people I’m related to. If we go to funerals, we are all sitting on the family side. I’ve not only heard from people still in Lowndes County, but also people who have left, and they continue to cheer me on, telling me, “I’m glad that you stuck with it.” I’ve been able to do the work and uncover what I’ve uncovered because people trusted me, because of what my parents did before me. I never lost contact or never stayed away from home, even when I was living other places, I was always going back and forth. I was always involved. I was always in touch with folks. I don’t think that I could have done this type of work at any other community without having those family ties and having the trust that had been built over the years. 

Southerly: What do you hope people take away from your book?

CF: I want them to understand the importance of persistence, the importance of talking to everyone, and the importance of highlighting these technological problems because I think a lot of times people think that it’s a personal feeling because that’s the narrative they get from the regulators who approved these things. Out of this, I’m hoping that we will actually come up with the type of partners that are really dedicated to finding long-term, sustainable solutions that they know are not going to fail in a few years. As we build back better, we [need to] include wastewater infrastructure and ensure people understand that infrastructure includes more than bridges and roads, and that people in rural communities should have access to that too.