Catherine Coleman Flowers – WASTE: One Woman’s Fight Against America’s Dirty Secret

Environmental justice advocate and 2020 MacArthur “Genius” Fellow Catherine Coleman Flowers exposes one of the least-known but most widespread environmental injustices affecting poor Americans, especially people of color, in WASTE: One Woman’s Fight Against America’s Dirty Secret.
Flowers explains how inadequate disposal systems for human waste not only subject many Americans to disgusting living conditions that have resulted in the reappearance of once-vanquished diseases and parasites, but also work to keep them poor and criminalize poverty by subjecting them to fines, arrests, and even imprisonment. She also describes the recent progress that has been made in drawing attention to this issue, and the concrete steps that can be taken to remedy it.
Flowers is the founder and current director of the Center for Rural Enterprise and Environmental Justice in Alabama. In addition, she is the rural development manager at the Race and Poverty Initiative of the Equal Justice Initiative founded by Bryan Stevenson. She was born and raised in Lowndes County, Alabama, a cradle of the Civil Rights movement, which contains most of the route of the famous Selma to Montgomery March of 1965. A seasoned social justice advocate since her teenage years, she returned to Lowndes County in 2000 after years away to address the intertwined crises of racism, poverty, and environmental injustice on her own native ground.
Shockingly, an estimated 90 percent of Lowndes households have failing or inadequate wastewater systems. Thanks to research efforts sparked by Flowers, a study revealed in 2017 that more than 30 percent of the county’s residents had hookworms, an insidious health menace that had long been thought eradicated in the United States. A septic system to correct these conditions can cost in the neighborhood of $15,000 to $30,000, more than a year’s wages for many of the working poor.
The problem happens mostly in rural areas, but even people in poor urban neighborhoods who pay for municipal sewage service often find that it is inadequate, and they are penalized in the same way as their rural cousins. In North Carolina, our neighbors live in comparably deleterious conditions.