(This is the third installment in The Stakes 2020, a series of interviews with community leaders, organizers, and advocates highlighting what's at stake for Southern communities during this year's election. We're going beyond the candidates on the ballot to dig into how elections influence the policies, budgets, and regulations that affect Southerners' everyday lives. Find the rest of the interviews here.)
The rural South is plagued with the interconnected problems of failing infrastructure, poverty, and poor health, and the situation is particularly dire in the Black Belt — a region stretching from Virginia to Texas where many Black descendants of those enslaved on plantations still live.
Catherine Coleman Flowers has worked to research and provide solutions to these problems for years, first as a resident of the rural Black Belt community of Lowndes County, Alabama, and then as the founding director of the Center for Rural Enterprise and Environmental Justice. Her work to expose failing waste management and water systems has made Lowndes County — once a site of pitched battles over civil rights — a focal point for politicians and policymakers concerned about poverty in the rural South. She also helped discover that hookworm, a parasitical infection common in countries with poor access to sanitation that was thought to have been eradicated in the U.S. South, was still prevalent in Lowndes County. Last month, she was named a MacArthur Fellow, receiving a no-strings-attached $625,000 award commonly known as a "genius" grant.
We spoke with Flowers about her life's work in environmental and climate justice, and how she has leveraged her grassroots organizing to impact federal policy and the national conversation on poverty. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
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You've been doing grassroots environmental justice work for years, and recently you won a MacArthur Foundation "genius" award. Do you take this as a sign that more people are realizing the importance of the environmental justice movement — especially in the South?
Yes. I think that it sends a clear signal. Another signal is the excitement I've gotten from people that have called me, like Sen. Cory Booker, who expressed that it not only elevates the environmental justice (EJ) movement in the South, but it elevates environmental justice.
I think that environmental justice has not been given the kind of attention that it should be given. And the people in EJ communities have proved that they're on the front lines of all kinds of injustices — especially climate injustice.
Right! I know some of your behind-the-scenes work had already received international attention, like the 2017 report on hookworm showing up in Alabama.
To be quite honest, I was the one who came up with the theory for the hookworm. I reached out to Dr. [Peter] Hotez [the founding dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor's College of Medicine] because I realized something was going on, and I wondered if it was something American doctors were not testing for.
He decided to look for hookworm, and that's how we ended up finding it. Because of the relationships I have in Lowndes County — where I'm from — we were able to get people to participate in the study.
We found out that the U.N. special rapporteur on extreme poverty was coming to the U.S. on an official visit, so we wrote him and asked him to come to Lowndes County.
Speaking of Lowndes County, how did growing up in such a historic place inform your activism?
Both of my parents were activists, and that was a large part of it. I also was an activist as a teenager. I had the opportunity to meet with people from the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). A lot of my organizing techniques and strategies are based on what I've learned from SNCC and how they organized in Lowndes County.
The other thing that helped me is the fact that I'm a native, and a lot of my cousins are in a community where everybody is related to each other. Even today, people can look at my face and tell that I'm a Coleman; there are not many places in the world that are like that.
You are an environmental justice activist, but a lot of your work also involves looking at the intersection of race and poverty. Why is that important?
Because one informs the other, and in a lot of cases, one could not exist without the other. A lot of the poverty is because of the issues around race, white supremacy, and slavery. There were systems that were put in place to keep people of color poor, so that they could get their labor for next to free. All that's connected to slavery.
On top of that, a lot of these communities are without infrastructure that allows them to have a decent standard of living. That puts them in positions to be preyed on by unscrupulous lenders, or by people not giving them access to housing that would allow them to build wealth.
Then on top of that, a lot of dirty industry is located in places where people have been deprived of the kind of infrastructure that they would need to have the type of green industries that would want to go there. They have also just been deprived, period, to keep the labor cheap so they can also be a source of essential jobs that don’t pay a living wage.
All of this is connected at the intersection. We also found that it's in these same communities that we see high rates of COVID.
What are some of the misconceptions about the South that you find yourself battling against in your work?
That we are not as smart as we really are. There's a lot of victim blaming and there's a lot of shaming, but the people that are being blamed didn't put these systems in place. They didn't entrap themselves. These are systems that were designed to do just what they are doing.
Oftentimes I have to fight against these stereotypes of people in the South. People just assume that we don't know what we know, but I've found that a lot of people in the South are very smart to even have survived in the South all these years. It took a skill to exist in what I call a "parallel universe."
I think that the other misconception is that the only place you will find racism is in the South. That's not true. It's like Malcolm X said — anything south of the Canadian border is down South.
Can you talk about the Biden-Sanders Unity Task Force you were appointed to? What work needs to be done to uplift climate change as a key policy in election issue?
I was appointed to be on that task force by Sen. Bernie Sanders. My role is to provide a perspective that was not present: a grassroots activist that has worked primarily in the South to talk about environmental injustice and climate justice and how it was impacting people on the ground, and to make sure that whatever goals that were put in place were goals that could have a direct impact right now on frontline communities.
Oftentimes when we talk about climate change and climate justice, the benchmark is set to be measured 10 to 15 years down the road. But what about the people who are suffering from cancer? How do we make sure they get the resources they need right now? That was my role — to make sure that that was always at the forefront. It was assumed that these things would just happen, but our systems are not designed this way, no matter who the president is.
Regardless of who is elected president, what do you imagine the environmental justice movement will look like over the next few years?
I think the environmental justice movement will continue to put the pressure on — and even put more pressure on — the politicians and the structures that allow these communities to exist in the first place.
Now that more attention is being placed on this issue and people are starting to understand environmental justice, we can lift up the voices of those communities that have been crying out in the darkness for years and hopefully bring about the change that needs to happen. I believe that most Americans, if they really knew how folks were suffering from industrial contamination of the air and water where people live — especially marginalized people and people of color — they would not stand for it.
We have to continue to bring the pressure. The systems will still be in place after the election. Our goal is to try to dismantle and modify those policies and structures that have allowed this to exist for so long.
Are there any specific races you're watching because of their potential implications for environmental justice?
I'm following all of them. We have to pay attention to not just the presidential election. One thing that COVID has taught us is that where the leadership is not coming from the federal level, we can get it from the city level or the state level.
A lot of times it's the local leadership partnering with the state leadership to bring in these [polluting] plants. Then there's the federal policy that allows these plants to exist and go unchecked. A lot of these plants, especially if you go to places like Louisiana's Cancer Alley, these are multinational corporations that are existing in these communities. So there has to be a federal role. The EPA plays a role, but there are other organizations that play a role, too.
We have to watch each and every one of these elections because they are all important
How do we best honor people like Pamela Rush, a Lowndes County resident who died an early death of COVID this year because of bad policy decisions and neglect?
Vote. The way we honor Pamela and people around the country who are in the same situation as Pamela is to vote. Vote for people who have a shared value system. That's what's going to make the change in terms of the policies. My message to people is to vote and take 10 people with you to vote as well.