Catherine Coleman Flowers: Environmental justice means giving poor people a voice

Image courtesy of Catherine Coleman Flowers

An environmental justice activist from Lowndes County, Alabama, talks about the intersection of civil rights, history, environmental activism and the fight for poor people across the country.

Lowndes County, Alabama, is best-known for its role in the civil rights movement. Much of the Selma-to-Montgomery march passed through “Bloody Lowndes,” renowned for the near-total disenfranchisement of its black citizens.

It also was the birthplace of the Black Panther Party, the location of an early voting rights push by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and where an Episcopal seminarian and a Catholic priest were gunned down during protests in 1965.

But since 2000, Catherine Coleman Flowers has been fighting for another kind of justice in Lowndes County: environmental justice.

Flowers returned to her home county and discovered that many in the impoverished region were living with poor or no sewage treatment -- in some places, with raw sewage simply piped out into their yards.

Residents were told to pay for their own expensive (and, as it turned out, inadequate) treatment systems -- and in some cases, were charged with misdemeanors when they failed to do so.

In response, Flowers founded the Alabama Center for Rural Enterprise (ACRE), which works with marginalized communities to promote environmental, economic and social justice.

“I pray a lot. And I believe that God answers prayers, but I also believe that God works through us,” said Flowers, who grew up in the Missionary Baptist tradition. “My father used to tell me that you’ve got to not only pray; you have to work, too.”

Since 2008, Flowers has worked at the Equal Justice Initiative, in Montgomery, Alabama, where she is the rural development manager. She also is a senior fellow at the Center for Earth Ethics at Union Theological Seminary.

Flowers spoke with Faith & Leadership while at Duke as the 2017 FHI practitioner-in-residence, part of a three-year partnership between ACRE and the Duke Human Rights Center at the Franklin Humanities Institute. The following is an edited transcript.

Q: Tell me about growing up in Lowndes County and how that led you to environmental justice work.

My interest started as a child. I was very close to the earth. I could go and pick berries. I would walk through cornfields; I would go into the woods by myself. I liked sitting by streams and rivers.

I wasn’t much of a person to go fishing -- my parents liked to go fishing. And my parents had a garden. I would watch the sun set in the evening. I was always close to natural things.

I often wondered when I was growing up, when they sprayed the crops, why would there be dead animals in the road? We would see dead birds at that time, and I didn’t realize that was DDT. And a lot of people were living very close to these fields that were being sprayed.

So those are all, in my view, environmental justice issues and ethical issues.

When I moved back to Lowndes County in 2000, I saw that the lives of people, poor people, had not changed.

Instead of having outhouses, now people had indoor plumbing, but it was being piped out onto the ground. So it was just natural for me to make that connection and see that it was an environmental justice issue.

I want to expand the definition of environmental justice.

Generally when people talk about environmental justice, they talk about people of color, but I’m finding that these environmental injustices are taking place primarily in poor communities across this country, no matter what race or even religious background that the people might have.

It’s just that if they don’t have the money, they don’t have a voice. That’s one of the things we’d like to change.

Q: What inspired you to get involved with this issue?

I came from a family of activists. My parents were activists. If anybody had a problem, whether it was legal, a document they needed someone to read for them, interpret, write letters, that’s what my parents did. So there were people constantly knocking on the door.

So when people started coming to me asking for help, it was just natural for me to be involved. I’ve always been an activist. I was an activist in Lowndes County when I was a high school student, and it was just natural for me to evolve as an adult doing the same thing.

And it was an injustice. Nobody else was listening or paying attention.

I think that sometimes people think that’s just the way it is, if they haven’t been anywhere else to make a comparison, or see how outraged the rest of the country was when people found out this was going on.

It’s still kind of unbelievable to most people when they hear about it, but what we’re uncovering is that this is not just a Lowndes County problem. This is a problem in North Carolina, in South Carolina -- it’s a problem, really, throughout the country in rural communities.

So I’m glad that I have been a vessel, if you will, to be used to give voice to this problem. And hopefully, we can have a solution.

Q: Tell me a little bit about your faith background. Does that play a part in the work you do?

I grew up in a Missionary Baptist tradition. My father has read the Bible from cover to cover numerous times. Part of our routine in the evening was watching him read the Bible.

As an adult, I’ve evolved into trying to understand religion from a universal point of view. I think that those common principles are something that we can evolve and organize around.

My spirituality allows me to do what I do in terms of the work, because sometimes it’s hard, and sometimes you can’t see the end. You just have to visualize it and try to work toward that.

And sometimes I haven’t had any resources. But I’ve had faith. I draw on not only the faith of my parents but the faith of my ancestors. Whenever I’m facing dark times, I think about the fact that my ancestors, when they came from Africa into this country, and lived under harsher environments than I live in currently, that it was faith that brought us this far.

I have a lot of faith, and I pray a lot. I pray a lot. And I believe that God answers prayers, but I also believe that God works through us. My father used to tell me that you’ve got to not only pray; you have to work, too.

I may not see it right away, but I have the faith that I will prevail, and usually it happens. And I don’t know, I just feel that God always has a ram in the bush.

Q: What are your successes of the past 15 years?

We have raised the issue of rural poverty to the level where people are paying attention to it now.

The irony of this is that people come through Lowndes County every year going to Selma -- and may be doing it for 50 more years -- yet these problems still exist. So I think part of the success that we have is taking the blinders off the folk who haven’t looked in that direction.

We have university professors; we have students; we have Engineers Without Borders; we have associations that represent the people that make the on-site systems involved in trying to find a solution.

I think that’s success. And what I’ve learned in all of this work is that we have to define what success is. If we don’t have benchmarks to reach, then we’re just turning our wheels.

Q: And as far as the specific issue of the sewage systems, has that been resolved?

No, that hasn’t been resolved, but we’re working on that. We’re now working at the highest levels of government; the environmental justice office of the EPA is involved, and has been involved for a time now.

We’ve gotten a lot of international attention. The U.N. actually sent a special rapporteur to Lowndes County; she included what happened in her report to the U.N. Human Rights Council.

Q: Lowndes County has a complicated history. Talk about that.

Most people know about Selma because of the Selma-to-Montgomery march, but there were activities going on in Lowndes County long before Selma.

In the 1930s, W.E.B. Du Bois actually went to Lowndes County to study its labor history. There was also a strong sharecroppers movement, a sharecroppers union that was put down by violence.

And because Lowndes County had a largely African-American population at the end of slavery, as was true in most of the Black Belt region of Alabama, violence was used to control the labor, and Lowndes County was to become known as Bloody Lowndes.

People come from around the country and around the world to learn about Lowndes County -- a place where all the conditions were against the rise of people, black people in particular. Despite all of that, people struggled and worked for change. And I think that what we’re doing is a continuation of that.

Q: What’s the connection to the work that you do now?

A lot of the people that were my influences in Lowndes County, and I still consult with, were members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, which set up a beachhead in Lowndes County.

One of the persons that I talk to on a regular basis is former mayor John Jackson, whose family hosted the SNCC members. As a check, whenever I wanted to make sure that I was true to the community, I would always check in with someone from SNCC.

Part of the philosophy includes working on the grass-roots level, letting the people themselves have a voice. A lot of that, I think, I adapted from SNCC, and I always have to check in -- not only with the people from SNCC but with the people from the community -- to make sure that I’m still articulating what they want me to articulate and working on the problems that they feel that I need to address.

And part of that means going sometimes and sitting on Ms. Shug’s porch and being able to, as I say, understand what “mom and them” want, and also be able to translate it to people who may not understand.

Q: Who is Ms. Shug?

Ms. Shug was a woman who lived in our community. She had nine children, and she used to work in the fields, but when SNCC came to Lowndes County and organized the Lowndes County Freedom Organization, she was very involved. And she used to tell us stories about going to the mass meetings and organizing for the election for the Black Panther Party.

All the children in the community used to gather on her porch, because she had a lot of children. We were all friends with them, and we would sit there and listen to music and solve all the problems of the world.

I always said if I have to write my autobiography, there will be a chapter titled “Ms. Shug’s Porch.”

Q: In what way are you pushing beyond that tradition and that history that you came from?

The first thing is we can’t discard those things that work. So I’m still applying some of the things from that tradition. What I bring to it now is knowledge from outside the area that can help us expand our capacity to solve these problems; I’m reaching out more.

But that’s also part of the tradition, because a lot of the SNCC students didn’t live in Alabama, so that I’ve been able to acquire some skills that would be helpful in solving these problems.

I’ve also learned to try to build bridges. I think that in order for us to get beyond where we are today, we have to climb over some of the walls that have been put in place.

One of the things that I had the privilege of doing was going to Appalachia, and I went through West Virginia and Kentucky and Tennessee. And in West Virginia, in those hollows, I met people that reminded me of people in Lowndes County; they were just white.

One of the things I would like to do is to bring people from West Virginia to Lowndes County and people from Lowndes County to West Virginia so we can see the commonality.

I would like to make positive steps toward bringing forth some unity. We have to bridge those differences, because that’s the only way we’re going to be able to have the kind of future that I want my grandson to have, and not have to go back and relive the ’50s and ’60s all over again.

Q: How did you connect with Union Theological Seminary?

I became connected to Union through Karenna Gore. I met Karenna Gore during the 50th anniversary of the Selma-to-Montgomery march. Karenna’s father is Al Gore, former vice president.

When I saw “An Inconvenient Truth,” it resonated with me. And when I met Karenna and she started talking about earth ethics and sacred knowledge, and especially indigenous rights and indigenous knowledge, it brought to my understanding another level of spirituality that I didn’t have before.

Q: Is there anything that I didn’t ask you about that you wanted to make sure to add?

The students here at Duke University for the past three years have been such an inspiration to me, their interest in coming to Lowndes County and spending time. Some who have graduated are still in touch with me and still would like to be able to use the skills that they’ve acquired to help us find those solutions.

Also, the faculty here, and some of the administrators, have been trying to help us connect those dots and find the resources that are necessary to bring about that change that we need to have. I think that they’re really redefining the role of the academic community and its relationships with grass-roots communities.

And I wanted to give them a shoutout for that, because I think that’s a template for the way to go. And for other universities that haven’t figured it out yet, there are some people here who can help them.