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Catherine Coleman Flowers reveals America’s dirty secret

Flowers discusses the inadequate management of wastewater in rural communities, bridging partisan divides, the ways those two topics intersect — and how Rotarians can be part of the solution

Illustration by Viktor Miller Gausa

Pamela Rush, a single mother, lived with her two children in Lowndes County, Alabama, in a mobile home she had bought for about $113,000 in 1995. After more than 20 years, she still owed $13,000 on a home that was essentially worthless. “The trailer was musty, poorly ventilated, and dimly lit, with water-stained popcorn ceilings and exposed electrical wiring,” writes Catherine Coleman Flowers, who grew up in Lowndes County and whose book, Waste: One Woman’s Fight Against America’s Dirty Secret, was released in November. “At the rear of the home, overlooking a small yard and dense woods, was a collapsed deck. Beside the deck a pipe spewed raw sewage onto the ground. The toilet paper and feces told a story of the lost American dream much more clearly than Pam ever could.”

In Lowndes County, low-income residents like Rush face the threat not simply of fines but of criminal charges for failing to install costly septic systems. Flowers — who in 2020 received a $625,000 “genius grant” from the MacArthur Foundation for “bringing attention to failing water and waste sanitation infrastructure in rural areas and its role in perpetuating health and socioeconomic disparities” — often brought people such as U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders and Poor People’s Campaign co-Chair William Barber to Rush’s home to see the situation firsthand. In June 2018, Rush testified before Congress about the perils faced by households like hers with failing or inadequate wastewater systems.

Providing clean water, sanitation, and hygiene is one of Rotary’s causes. Learn more about the cause and how to get involved.

On 3 July 2020, at age 49, Rush became another victim of the global pandemic. “The official cause of death was COVID,” Flowers writes, “but the underlying causes of her suffering were poverty, environmental injustice, climate change, race, and health disparities. They would never be listed on a death certificate.” In Waste, Flowers recounts how her own education as an activist began in childhood; a touchstone of the book is the civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery in 1965. Only six years old at the time, Flowers remembers the righteous outrage that ran like a current through her childhood home. “My parents, Mattie and J. C. Coleman, were active in the civil rights movement,” she writes. “Our house was a place other activists, including icons like [Stokely] Carmichael, would visit to talk about strategy and issues of the day. I loved those front-porch conversations, and I soaked them all up. … Most of all, I learned about serving my community for the greater good.” Flowers left rural Lowndes County — “a place,” she writes, “that’s been called ‘Bloody Lowndes’ because of its violent, racist history” — to attend college. She eventually got her bachelor’s degree from Cameron University in Oklahoma, with detours along the way to get married, intern at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change, serve in the U.S. Air Force, and march with fellow members of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. In 2015, she would earn a master’s in history at the University of Nebraska. Flowers also spent several years teaching in Detroit, North Carolina, and Washington, D.C.; she still considers teaching “the best job in the world.”

In 2000, Flowers returned to Alabama’s Black Belt, running the NAACP’s voter empowerment office and serving as an economic development consultant to Lowndes County. In 2004 she founded a nonprofit known today as the Center for Rural Enterprise and Environmental Justice. “Our mission,” she explains in Waste, “is to reduce health, economic, and environmental disparities and improve access to clean air, water, and soil in marginalized rural communities.” In 2008, she also began work at the Montgomery-based Equal Justice Initiative, a nonprofit that works for criminal justice reform, where she continues to serve as rural development manager. A networker extraordinaire, Flowers has enlisted former Vice President Al Gore as an ally in her fight to right rural inequities. She has also worked with Peter Hotez, the renowned vaccinologist, to document the resurgence in the South of tropical diseases such as hookworm, which was long believed to have been eradicated from the region. She has established a strong working relationship with conservative activist Robert Woodson, whose Woodson Center helps low-income individuals and neighborhood organizations solve the problems within their own communities. And she has learned from Barber “how we should not get hung up on terms like ‘right’ or ‘left’ but instead choose right over wrong.” As she explains in Waste, “I made a conscious decision not to allow political differences to limit my ability to talk to people about issues.”

  1. Catherine Coleman Flowers regularly brought visitors to homes in Lowndes County to see firsthand the area’s sewage problems.

    Courtesy of Catherine Coleman Flowers

  2. Flowers addresses a Capitol Hill crowd during a pre-pandemic Fire Drill Friday, a weekly event organized by actor and activist Jane Fonda (a Flowers ally) highlighting the climate crisis.

    Courtesy of Catherine Coleman Flowers

  3. Catherine Coleman Flowers (left) visits the home of Pamela Rush with then-Senator Doug Jones of Alabama; at an emotional congressional hearing in 2018, Rush described the devastating impact of untreated sewage on her family.

    Courtesy of Catherine Coleman Flowers

The month her book was released, senior editor of Rotary magazine Geoffrey Johnson talked to Flowers about America's dirty secret, bridging partisan divides, the ways those two topics intersect — and how Rotarians can be part of the solution.

What is America's dirty secret?

America's dirty secret is that there are people living in communities here in the United States that do not have access to wastewater treatment. They're living among raw sewage, something that most of us would expect to find in developing countries and not in the wealthiest country in the world.

Why is lack of sanitation a problem in the United States?

Because we put more emphasis on addressing wastewater in urban communities and less on rural communities. Wastewater policies have been directed at densely populated areas. Other areas, especially unincorporated communities, have been excluded from those policies, so they can never get at the public funds to address these issues. It's hard for most residents to address wastewater on their own. There has to be some type of public investment as well. The government has a lot of programs available to deal with wastewater, but generally they do not get down to the level of small communities — poor communities, communities of color, communities that have been marginalized.

Why do people in America not know this problem exists?

So many people have an urban perspective. They don't have a real sense of what happens in rural America. Often, people ask me questions like, "Well, why aren't they connected to a municipal system?" Because we're talking about a rural community. They may have small towns, but small towns don't have big budgets. They don't have a big tax base to fund their infrastructure, and therefore they're left behind.

Is part of the problem the fact that the people most affected are either impoverished or people of color or both?

That's the worst part of it, because a lot of the people who are impacted are the most vulnerable people in our society. I think people assume that it's a personal failing of the individual as opposed to a failing of the infrastructure. The problem is more complicated if people don't have access to infrastructure, or the infrastructure they do have access to does not work. We're also finding that when the infrastructure fails, the government blames the individuals and protects the people that made the money off them. There are so many different layers that have to be peeled back so that we can get at the source of the problem — and then try to find some real solutions.

People may not want to hear the other part of it, but it's true: With climate change, this poor infrastructure is failing more and more. Look at what's happened where I live in Alabama. With these big storms comes a lot of rain, and that's when the septic systems that individuals have at their homes are more likely to fail. The sewage backs up into their homes through the bathtubs or elsewhere. Along with more rain, we're getting warmer temperatures, and diseases and parasites will become more prevalent and will probably move further north. So it's something that all of us should be concerned about.

You've worked with leaders across the political spectrum, including former Senator and U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions. How do you find commonality with people who have differing views from yours?

Well, I went to a town hall meeting where Senator Sessions was speaking. He was talking about grants and the programs that were available to potentially help the community that he was speaking to. And I asked a question: How can the community get access to grants if they require a match? Because most of these communities don't have money to get the match. He came to me afterward and said, "I've always been interested in trying to figure out how to get these types of funds for folks in poor communities." He said, "I grew up poor in Wilcox County" [Alabama, where today nearly a third of the population lives below the poverty level]. He just started telling me things. At that point, we were both human. And I listened to him; I wasn't trying to argue with him. He made himself available to me, and his staff made themselves available to me as I started to expand my work. Every time I reached out to them, they responded.

In your book, you describe how your first meeting with Bob Woodson devolved into a partisan back-and-forth. How did you make it work the second time you met him?

In 2001 I attended a faith-based summit in Washington, D.C., where Mr. Woodson was one of the speakers. After he spoke, he came off the stage and I followed him. I said, "We met before and it didn't go very well. But I need your help." I explained to him what I was doing, and he gave me his card. He said, "Call my office and we'll set up a meeting." And that's what happened. He came to Lowndes County and saw for himself. He was committed to helping us. Although he's a staunch Jack Kemp Republican, the team of people that he brought to assist him were both Republican and Democrat. So that's how I worked with Mr. Woodson. He believes in family; he believes in supporting a business community; he believes that there should be a Black middle class. We have a lot of things in common, but there also are things that we do not agree on. So we don't talk about those things. We don't spend time arguing or trying to change each other.

Is that a skill that you acquired over time?

I think it's just a Southern way of doing things. We sit and talk and try to figure out what we have in common. For example, if I'm talking with another grandparent, we talk about our grandchildren. We all love our grandchildren. We find those basic things that people don't argue about, that we have in common. Once we find something that we have in common, we become human to each other. We start from that point of what we agree on. There is no person who will believe in everything absolutely the same way you do. There are differences. So the first thing is to respect the difference.

Are you expanding your focus beyond wastewater to water problems in general?

My focus is primarily wastewater, but water and sanitation are integrally related. One of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals is the right to water and sanitation. I have been part of the National Coalition on the Human Rights to Water and Sanitation [convened by the U.S. Human Rights Network], and we've used the human rights framework to focus on the lack of water. I know people want to focus on drinking water, but water is a part of our sanitation system too. If you're fighting COVID-19 or any other disease, you have to have water to wash your hands. If we want to end poverty and to live in harmony, we must all have access to water and sanitation. It shouldn't be where the haves can have it and the have-nots won't have it. We won't have any peace, because water is something that we all must have to live.

How can Rotarians help find solutions to the wastewater problem?

The first thing to do is identify what's going on in rural communities. Most people live in urban areas, and I don't think they realize that most of the United States is rural. So the first thing for Rotarians to do is to identify the problems in their areas — and share that with us, because that kind of information can help us craft solutions that work. Then they must make sure that people get access to those solutions, and make sure that policymakers know about these problems. This is not something that people generally talk about. It's out of sight, out of mind.

The second thing that Rotarians can help us with is to push for changes in the infrastructure. A lot of the infrastructure that we have built has a life span that's very short. We have to get away from planned obsolescence. We have to come up with infrastructure that deals with the reality of nature. That's something we're addressing now, and they can support us in this effort to develop new technologies to address wastewater issues. When people go into outer space, they can treat wastewater to make it drinking water. Why can't we do that here on earth? I'm looking to partner with collaborators who think like this — who are visionaries. I want to inspire and motivate and be a part of developing a toilet that, when we flush it, clean water comes out. We have to think differently now, because we need to figure out what we can reuse safely. Water is becoming more scarce, and if we don't do anything to address it, we're going to have a lot of people without water.

What is the most important lesson you've learned as an activist?

The fact that everyone has value. One of the people who have had an impact on my life has been Bryan Stevenson [founder of the Equal Justice Initiative]. And one thing that Bryan taught me is that everyone is better than the worst thing that they've ever done. If we were all to feel that way, we would be in a position where we could, at the very least, have some conversations. I'm not going to force anybody to talk to me, but some people are more receptive than we realize. That's going to be more important as we move forward as a nation, that we have these conversations with each other. But we have to start with some commonality, start with those things that we share, and from there develop a respect for one another. Later we can have the hard conversations and come to some type of compromise or agreement. That is what's going to be necessary. That's how we avoid and break through stereotypes and preconceived notions about people. That's what I've learned.

In your book you write that the greatest lesson you could teach your students was "the value of peaceful protest and the importance of voting to achieve the American dream." Is that a lesson for all of us?

Yes, I think so. It's part of having these conversations. People have to accept the right of other people to peacefully protest. This country started off with peaceful protests, and the changes that took place in the 1960s took place largely because of peaceful protests. Voting and protests are democratic principles that have ensured that we have kept this democracy for so long, and those are the principles that have made us the moral leaders of the world. If we want to continue to have that position, we're going to have to respect peaceful protests and we're going to have to respect voting — and ensure voting rights for everyone.

What is Pamela Rush's legacy?

Her legacy is that she opened her world to people who would not have understood poverty had they not spent time with her. Everybody who spent time with Pam became committed to making the type of structural changes that are needed to make sure that in the future, no one faces the problems that Pamela Rush had to face.

You once asked Al Gore: How do we ensure that our children and their grandchildren will inherit a livable world? How would you answer that question?

We have to work to make it happen. We cannot do nothing and expect change to happen. We have to stay engaged. We have to work on policy. We have to talk to people who will listen to us. And we're going to have to change to make sure that we leave a world that can support life not only for our children, but for our grandchildren and for all the generations to come.

• This story originally appeared in the March 2021 issue of Rotary magazine.

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Flowers discusses the inadequate management of wastewater in rural communities, bridging partisan divides, the ways those two topics intersect — and how Rotarians can be part of the solution