Profile in Justice : Catherine Coleman Flowers

Activists come in many forms. An activist can be defined roughly as “one who advocates or practice activism a person who uses or supports strong actions (such as public protests) in support of or opposition to one side of a controversial issue“. Activists may be seen as nuisances or annoyances to society at large, but their perseverance as changemakers drive society forward by bringing attention to the real issues that affect marginalized groups within our society. Alabama, a southern state with a rich and diverse history, has produced many an activist. There are a multitude of reasons for this, including Alabama’s long history of racial injustice and other issues which affect the working class. Alabamian activists include titans of American history such as Rosa Parks, famous civil rights activist, and Hellen Keller, author and disability rights activist. Despite Alabama’s current national reputation as a backwards and deeply conservative state, many Alabamian activists are fighting the deep inequality still present in our state. One such activist is Catherine Coleman Flowers, who came upon the defining issue of her advocacy “by accident”.

Catherine Flower
Catherine Coleman Flowers is an Alabama native and environmental advocate who has spent over twenty years fighting environmental racism after discovering horrific sanitation conditions in Lowndes County, Alabama. SOURCE : Yahoo! Images

Crisis in Lowndes County

In the early 2000s, Flowers was working as an economic consultant in Lowndes County, Alabama. Lowndes County is a historically black county in rural Alabama, and was part of the route during the historic civil rights march between Selma and Montgomery in 1965. Visiting with some of her constituents over threats of eviction and arrest, Flowers was shocked to find “a stream of brown fluid flowing down the road…a pool of dark foul-smelling effervescent water that had collected around a pipe running from the church” that she was visiting. She quickly discovered that Lowndes County, deeply entrenched in generational poverty and harsh neglect from local officials, had a severe lack of public sanitation. Flowers was shocked to discover that the burden of sanitation needs fell on residents, and private septic tanks were often beyond the means of Lowndes County residents. In what she later came to call “America’s dirty secret”, Flowers was seeing that basic sanitation was not a guarantee for all citizens in the wealthiest nation in the world.

Flowers, who quickly reported the incident, saw little action from the “predominantly white and Republican-controlled local government”, who instead continued to threaten Black families in Lowndes County with eviction or even jail time. While shaken by the horrific sight, it set Flowers on a path of working towards environmental justice for BIPOC Americans. She states that her mission is to “expose the reality of life for the rural poor, and the racism and negligence that lies behind it”, saying “We see this as a third world problem, whereas in actuality it is right among us in a country that has allowed such inequality to exist since our founding as a nation”.

As Flowers continued her work, she came across more and more violations of human dignity. She spoke with the mother of an autistic child who was being threatened with jail time because she did not have a septic tank, though the cost of installation was more than ten times that of her monthly income. Other families she spoke with had no proper air conditioning or heating systems, and would huddle together in the winter time to keep warm. After one house call in which she came in close contact with an open septic pool filled with mosquitoes, Flowers developed a severe rash over her entire body, and she began to wonder if tropical diseases, which are considered extremely rare in the United States, may be affecting people in Lowndes County.

lowndes county map
Lowndes County is a historically black county located in rural, Central Alabama. Lowndes County was part of the route between Selma and Montgomery during the historic 1965 Civil Rights March. Today, over 90% of Lowndes County residents do not have access to proper sanitation. SOURCE : Yahoo! Images

International Attention and Continued Advocacy

Flowers organized a scientific study to reveal the affects of improper sanitation of the health of residents within Lowndes County. Horrifying results awaited her. The study found that “34% of those surveyed tested positive for genetic traces of hookworm, a parasite that thrives amid poverty and that had been thought to have been eradicated from the US in the early 20th century”. The disease is thought of as normally associated with central and southern Africa and Asia, and is known to have lasting negative effects on physical and cognitive growth in children. Hookworm treatment, which normally consists of one dose of albendazole, has a high cost in the United States and is unattainable for many residents of Lowndes County. Flowers confirmed her dark theory with this study, and her advocacy for the end of discrimination against poor, Black Americans in rural counties led to a wake-up call for America. Through Flowers’ work and advocacy, the United Nations became involved in an investigation of extreme poverty that centered around Lowndes County, Alabama, as well as areas in California, West Virginia, and Puerto Rico. Despite criticisms from those in local government, Flowers continues to work towards eradicating the “deeply ingrained inequality” in our nation, authoring a book entitled Waste: One Woman’s Fight Against America’s Dirty Secret. Flowers has also founded an advocacy group – the Center for Rural Enterprise and Environmental Justice. Many prominent figures in U.S. politics, including former Vice President Al Gore and U.S. Senators Cory Booker and Bernie Sanders have taken Flowers up on the offer to tour Lowndes County, increasing awareness for the extreme poverty that still exists in our nation today.

Over twenty years into her fight, Flowers has still not seen the changes she has been fighting for across America. Figures from 2021 state that over 90% of Lowndes County residents still do not have access to proper sanitation. Flowers has also seen the issues of environmental justice extend beyond even Alabama or the southern United States, seeing issues in all American locales where poverty and public neglect continue to coexist. Despite this, Flowers continues to advocate for the rural poor across America. The beginning of the 2020’s decade has been marked with cautious optimism, as day one of the Biden administration saw several executive orders aimed at reversing the Trump administration’s anti-environmental legacy.

The Restoration of the Everglades: A Big Win for Environmental Rights

Just like many who grew up in the Southern United States, I spent much of my childhood outside. I was born in a suburb of Birmingham, and as a child, I would play in the Cahaba River and bask in the beauty of the short leaf pines and oak trees that towered high in magnificent forests.

I may not have known it then, but my ability to enjoy the natural beauty of my home in an unaltered way was not being protected in a concrete way. As our environment continues to degrade from the ongoing climate change disaster, human rights activists have begun championing environmental rights. Eloquently defined by the Pachamama Alliance, environmental rights can be understood as “an extension of the basic human rights that mankind requires and deserves. In addition to having the right to food, clean water, suitable shelter, and education, having a safe and sustainable environment is paramount as all other rights are dependent upon it.

2021 brought lots of bad news for the environment. Despite much more attention from activists and the general public alike, promises from the United Nations Climate Change Conference 2021 (also known as COP26) seem to ring empty, as nations who pledged to cut emissions continue to approve new fossil-fuel based plants for power generation.

Despite this, it is important for activists to celebrate victories, however small their size or infrequently they occur. In the United States, this week marked a huge victory for the restoration of the Everglades

Depicts Everglades
A picturesque view of the Florida Everglades. SOURCE : Yahoo! Images

The Everglades, a History

The Everglades, an ecosystem in southern Florida, has been called “one of the world’s most unique and fragile ecosystems”. Many people believe that the Florida Everglades is a swamp ecosystem, though this is just a popular misconception. In reality, the Everglades is actually a slow-moving river flowing over an area 40 miles wide by 100 miles long.

The Florida Everglades was formed over many thousands of years, creating a delicate balance of ponds, marshes, and forests. The Everglades have been inhabited for at least 14,000 years by human beings with the arrival of the first indigenous peoples to the area. When European settlers first arrived to the area in the early 1800s, the Everglades were considered little more than a “worthless swamp”, and work to drain the wetlands of the Everglades quickly began. By the early 20th century, much of the Everglades was in the process of being converted to farmland, and this stimulated the first “land boom” in Southern Florida.

As the Everglades began to shrink, Florida’s population began to boom as cities like Miami and Fort Lauderdale grew, increasing the demand for housing and fueling further destruction of the Florida Everglades.

As the American environmental movement began in response to extreme environmental degradation across America and the extremely important work of early climate activists such as Rachel Carson (whose 1962 publication of Silent Spring is to this day considered to be a milestone of modern environmentalism), activists began to realize the extreme importance of the Florida Everglades. According to the Naples, Florida Travel Guide, “People like author and activist Marjory Stoneman Douglas who organized the Friends of the Everglades in the 1960s to battle the federal government’s plan to build an airport in the Everglades”, which thankfully worked. Activists like Douglas helped preserve the Everglades the best they could, allowing us to begin restoration work on the Everglades.

It is also worth noting that the Everglades have been classified as a national since 1947, entitling the wetlands to federal protection and further bolstering the Everglades as one of America’s most sacred national treasures.

Shows map of everglades
A map of the natural range of the Everglades, courtesy of the Everglades Foundation. SOURCE : Yahoo! Images

The Everglades Today

Once sitting at over 4,000 square miles in size, deforestation and environmental degradation have reduced the Florida Everglades to about half of their original size. The number of endangered species in the Everglades, both flora and fauna, continues to increase at an alarming rate. Among these endangered species is the Florida Panther, which now occupy less than five percent of their historic range, which once included the entirety of the Southeastern United States. It is thought that less than one hundred Florida panthers exist in the United States today.

One of the largest threats to wildlife species in the Everglades is the introduction of invasive species to the area. These non-native species are often accidentally introduced by human beings, and they can quickly destroy the balance of a delicate ecosystem, such as the Everglades. One of the most famous invasive species in the Florida Everglades is the Burmese Python, which was believed to be introduced into the area by Hurricane Andrew, a category five storm which struck Florida in 1992, destroying a python breeding facility and releasing dozens of snakes into the surrounding Everglades.

Shows when funding was added
A picture of President Biden signing the Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill into law. The historic allocation of funding towards the restoration of the Everglades came from this bill. SOURCE : Yahoo! Images

A Historic Investment into the Everglades

On January 19, 2022, the Biden Administration announced a historic $1.1 billion allocation of funds towards the restoration of the Everglades. The funding will come from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill, which was signed into law by President Biden on November 15 of last year. An announcement by the White House declared that this allocation was “The largest single investment ever to restore and revitalize the Everglades in Florida”.

The announcement was seen as a huge political victory for the bipartisan Everglades Caucus, which is currently co-chaired by U.S. Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-FL) and U.S. Representative Mario Diaz-Ballard (R-FL). Representative Schultz released a statement following the historic announcement highlighting the importance of the restoration of the Everglades :

The Everglades is the lifeblood of South Florida, and this historic funding commitment by the Biden Administration will ensure we can much more aggressively move to restore and protect the natural sheet flow of water that is the largest environmental restoration project in American history. The Florida Everglades is a vital source of drinking water and essential to combat climate change and this massive infusion of funding will have the added benefit of creating more jobs,” showing the real human opportunities that will be created by this new investment.

Restoration of the Everglades will also help ensure continued access to clean drinking water for Florida’s population. The Everglades currently provides water to over eight million people across the state. Activists across the state remain cautiously optimistic as the plan will begin to come into effect later this year. The future for one of the world’s most fascinating ecosystems appears to be finally be headed in the right direction, ensure access and protection for our descendants.

People of Color Live Disproportionately Close to Superfund Sites

dirt field with a dumpster and a sign that reads "EPA Quanta Resources Superfund Site. Warning: Hazardous substances present in the soil. No trespassing.
Quanta Resources Superfund Site. Source: Anthony Albright, Creative Commons.

As a Public Health major, I am often looking at disparities and inequities in the distribution of poor health. Environmental justice, which can be defined as “the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies” is one topic I’ve learned about in many classes because of the significant impact the environment has on health. Unfortunately, the color of one’s skin plays a large role in their likelihood to live and work in an area that has an unhealthy environment, and the history of people of color unknowingly living and working in areas that are hazardous is long.

The Memphis Sanitation Strike started the environmental justice movement in February of 1968 when sanitation workers in Memphis, TN organized a strike to protest unfair treatment and the effects on their health. The workers had been receiving less pay than their white coworkers, while also doing the more dangerous work. Before the beginning of the strike, two black men had been killed by the trash compactor during work. The movement eventually lead to a recognized union and higher pay. This was not the first instance of environmental racism. However, it was one of the first time that head way was made when it comes to equality and equity.

The most famous example of a fight for environmental justice, Love Canal, seems to have few people of color as part of the story as many of the vocal people involved were white women. After heavy rain fall in 1978, residents of Love Canal, NY, noticed that there was a bad smell in the air, children were returning home after playing outside with burns on their skin, and babies were being born with birth defects at a very high rate. They didn’t know that toxic chemicals had seeped from the chemical waste dump they had built their homes and school on.

However, there was a federal housing project in the area as well that housed mainly people of color, and their voices were overshadowed by people like Lois Gibbs. The movement to move people out of the hazardous area did not extend to moving the people living in the federally funded housing to a safer area even though they were affected by the hazardous waste just as significantly. Luckily, both groups were able to relocate and receive compensation for the health effects.

While the Memphis Sanitation Strike and Love Canal both happened over 40 years ago, the environmental injustice experienced during those times has not completely gone away. Today people of color and low-income individuals are still more likely to live and work in hazardous areas. Most Superfund sites, which are areas that have been deemed severely environmentally contaminated, are within one mile of federally funded housing. Even more disturbing, a disproportionate amount of these families are people of color.

The disproportionate placing of federally funded housing, and therefore low-income communities of color, into environmentally hazardous areas stems from systematic racism, or more specifically, a Not In My Backyard (NIMBY) mentality held by higher-income white communities. No one wants to live near a hazardous waste site, a factory that releases toxic fumes, or a stinky landfill. However, the people with the power to say no get their way while the people who are already more likely to have health risks are placed in dangerous situations.

A larger problem is that low-income communities and communities of color have been not listened to. In northern Birmingham, AL a recent study showed that a coke mill on a Superfund site has been releasing carcinogenic chemicals in the air for years. Many residents have severe respiratory problems, such as asthma, and now can’t survive without many medications. However, the EPA didn’t catch the extremely high levels of rarer toxins in the air because they don’t typically test for those. It took a study from a nongovernmental organization to expose the harm that the coke mill was doing to this community.

No one wants to live somewhere that is going to make themselves or their family sick, and they shouldn’t have to. While the United States has made progress towards environmental justice over the past 40 years, there is still a long way to go. Superfund sites were created in 1980, but most of the current public housing was created before then. New federally funded housing should not be put near hazardous areas like Superfund sites, and we should work on solutions to clean up Superfund sites near federally funded housing or moving that housing . By reducing the number of housing projects near hazardous waste and taking note when a whole community gets sick, we will begin to move towards racial and income equity when it comes to the environment we live and work in.