Decades of Trash Activism

Decades of Trash Activism

The founding director of the Center for Rural Enterprise and Environmental Justice presents her saga of fighting for the rights of impoverished people in Lowndes County, Alabama. It all started with waste disposal. 

In this part memoir, part exposé, MacArthur genius grant winner Catherine Coleman Flowers chronicles her decades-long battle to raise rural Lowndes County, Alabama up to modern sanitation standards. Her descriptions of raw sewage pumped into the backyards of the poor and powerless serve as a metaphor for the injustice heaped on forgotten communities throughout the United States. Shockingly, despite many victories, Flowers’s struggle to bring standard sanitation to impoverished people remains a work in progress. 

Flowers founded the Center for Rural Enterprise and Environmental Justice and served as the rural development manager at the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Alabama. Her book, which Smithsonian Magazine named as a Top Science Book of 2020, presents her singular journey. Flowers’ dedication and evocative prose led The New York Times to say, “Waste is written with warmth, grace and clarity. Its straightforward faith in the possibility of building a better world, from the ground up, is contagious.” Senator Bernie Sanders said, “Catherine Coleman Flowers’s important new book shows us how ordinary people can stand up, fight back, and build a government and an economy that works for all of us.”

Adequate Sanitation

Flowers describes how, in places like Lowndes County, Alabama, soiled toilet paper, raw sewage and other effluents flow from ramshackle houses and mobile homes directly into yards where children play and families gather. Open cesspools breed tropical diseases, and people who are too poor to install septic systems face arrest for living in conditions they cannot escape.

We have people living next to cesspools here.Catherine Flowers 

Flowers explains how these horrors led her on a decades-long effort to provide working sanitation systems, clean water and livable homes to residents of her home county and beyond.

Impoverished Communities 

Coleman grew up in a working-class family in Lowndes County in the 1960s and 70s. Like other Black children in the rural south, Coleman reports that she received an inferior education. She credits her activist parents for fueling her determination to make a difference.

When we make important decisions, we must think not of ourselves, but rather of the children yet to come. We should think ahead for seven generations.Catherine Flowers 

Flowers attended Howard University and became a teacher. She talks of her work as the first teacher in the United States to file a civil rights complaint on behalf of her students.

Lowndes County, Alabama 

Flowers discusses leaving her marriage, teaching in Detroit and, after her father’s death, returning to Lowndes to help the community. She tracks her increasing awareness of the sanitation problems facing the county’s impoverished residents. The local police, she reports with outrage, arrested Black homeowners who could not comply with court orders to repair their septic systems. Flowers argued in court on behalf of those arrested. 

Flowers offers details of her meeting with every Alabama member of Congress. Her efforts brought a formal appropriation in the 2002 federal budget. But, Flowers laments with frustration, eight years passed before the funding arrived, and restrictions limited those funds to research only. 

Tropical Diseases

Flowers recalls connecting with Bryan Stevenson, founder of the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) – who secured the freedom of improperly prosecuted Black men on death row. She educated him about conditions in Lowndes County, and happily accepted a job with his organization. Flowers refers to Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions [US attorney general at the onset of the Trump Adminstration] and explains that he helped minimize arrests as the county waited for federal funding. 

We are slowly killing our future through greed, abuse of precious resources, reckless consumption and irresponsible behavior.Catherine Flowers

Flowers portrays in horrid detail her door-to-door survey of Lowndes County’s shocking sanitation problems. As she was reporting on unsanitary conditions, she developed a rash that spread across her midsection; a tropical disease expert identified it as hookworm, a parasite from the local mosquito-infested cesspools. In 2018, she filed a still-outstanding complaint to the US Department of Health and Human Services asserting that hookworm in Lowndes constituted a human rights violation.

Decades of Work

Flowers points out that Lowndes’s situation worsened as increasing rainfall due to rising temperatures exacerbated the sewage problem. She speaks glowingly of her bond with Karenna Gore, daughter of former US Vice President Al Gore. Ms. Gore, the author celebrates, invited her to speak in New York to an audience including Al Gore, Bill Bradley, and Judith and Bill Moyers.

Flowers recounts that, in 2018, Senator Bernie Sanders invited her to speak at a town hall meeting with himself, Senator Elizabeth Warren and filmmaker Michael Moore before an audience of two million viewers. She was glad to get her message out particularly as she discovered that other rural towns across America face similar neglect, from Centreville, Illinois to counties in Puerto Rico, Alaska, Texas, Ohio, Hawaii and elsewhere.

Not all monuments to injustice are built of stone. Others exist in practices and institutions, actions and inactions that undermine the dream of equality.Catherine Flowers

Even though citizens have brought down statues of Confederate soldiers, markers of systemic racism and social injustice remain and Flowers’s work continues.

Superhuman Dedication

There’s only one Catherine Flowers. Her dedication, discipline and determination to help seem almost superhuman, though she portrays herself with modesty and focuses on the problems she wants to solve. Despite her years of activism, she does not write in a preachy or didactic way. Flowers wants readers to understand the suffering of those she helps, and her evocative descriptions bring unspeakable conditions in Lowndes County to vivid life.

Is this a political book, and worth reading only by those already inclined to help the less fortunate? Yes and no. Flowers may be a liberal, but her primary stance is humanism, underscored by her insistence that all Americans have the right to live in dignity. That belief crosses party lines. This is an inspirational work; students of policy, NGO leaders, professors and public officials will all benefit from engaging in Flowers’s ongoing fight.

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