Catherine Flowers has spent much of her career fighting the legacy of racism and neglect in the American South. As the founder of the Alabama Center for Rural Enterprise Community Development Corporation (ACRE) and a senior fellow at the Center for Earth Ethics, Flowers works to get poor counties in Alabama’s Black Belt access to basic resources like clean water and sewage disposal that so many Americans take for granted.
Through growing up in rural Alabama and her work now, Flowers has witnessed what climate change means not just for the Southeast, but for the health of those who call it home. As part of 24 Hours of Reality: Protect Our Planet, Protect Ourselves, she spoke with Emmy and Peabody Award-winning journalist Sam Champion about how she’s seen Alabama transformed, the health threats ahead, and engaging a new generation of activists in the climate fight.
Interview condensed for brevity.
Sam Champion: So, you grew up in a rural county in Alabama. Tell me about the changes that you saw in that area over the past years.
Catherine Flowers: Well, I grew up in Lowndes County, Alabama. Lowndes County is located between Selma and Montgomery. Some of the changes that I've seen over the course of time has been a longer growing season. There were times when we had four seasons and now it looks like we may have two. And then lately it seems like it's so erratic you don't know whether it's going to be fall or summer or spring.
I'm seeing stronger storms, more rain. We're getting the kinds of rain events in a short amount of time that we didn't have before.
I noticed the type of animals. I used to teach geography, so in teaching geography to junior high school students, we would look at the topography. We look at the type of animals that would be in our environments. We would see animals now like armadillos that we generally didn't see there before. So clearly there's some changes.
In my yard, for example, I have palm trees growing. There was a time even several years ago when I first planted those trees, I had to cover them every year when the winter came. I don't have to do that anymore.
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SC: Well, I can tell you from forecasting weather for 35 years, what you're experiencing a lot of other people are talking about as well.
Health and equality for your community and those like yours became kind of a strong life’s work for you because of an experience that you had. I'm talking about when you were bitten by mosquitoes. And it's much different than it sounds, so explain that story.
CF: Well, I've been an activist for quite some time in Lowndes County, because a lot of people there have raw sewage on the ground. I was called to a site by some members that worked at the state health department and they wanted me to go to this home. It was during the month of October and it had rained a lot so there was a pit of raw sewage that was in the back of this woman's mobile home of the trailer.
The raw sewage was teeming with mosquitoes. I had on a dress at that particular time and they bit me – they actually bit me through my hose because I had on hose that day. I went to my doctor because I broke out in a rash and I asked her to run you know tests on my blood to make sure I hadn't caught anything. Because these mosquitoes were on raw sewage and it's more than a little bite.
Over the morning, I had several bites but what happened was I broke out in a rash throughout my body. Even places where the mosquitoes didn't bite me. So she ran the test to try to figure out what was wrong.
The test came back negative and I asked her, “Is it possible that there's something going on here in the United States the doctors in this country are not testing for?” Because first they don't expect to deal with raw sewage. Second, it was October with mosquitoes. You know, we didn't have a freeze. We wouldn't generally have mosquitoes in October.
So, anyway she said, “It's very possible.” Then later I read an op-ed piece that was written by Dr. Peter Hotez who is the founding dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor. I found his information, emailed and told him about my experience.
I met him and he said “We're gonna look for hookworm.” He's a tropical disease expert and we collected fecal soil water and blood samples. We found evidence of hookworm and other tropical parasites in Lowndes County, Alabama. Which is between Selma and Montgomery.
SC: It's stunning and I don't think that people understand until they hear a story. I think people will say maybe it's not real until they hear your story. Diseases that are more typically found in tropical areas or developing nations like Sub-Saharan Africa and Asia have crept into new areas just like you're talking about.
What kinds of tropical diseases other than the hookworm are people telling you that we're finding?
CF: Well, I know we also found toxocarea. We found entamoeba histolytica. We found strongyloides. I mean these are illnesses that people tend to associate with someone who may have gone out of the country to a tropical region.
SC: I’m not even familiar with them in this area.
CF: You know and most American doctors aren't even trying to look for them. But as the temperature gets warmer, as we experience more climate change, we're going to have more of these kinds of illnesses.
Actually, one person I met when I shared my story about the mosquitoes said that the symptoms that I exhibited could have also been the symptoms of Zika. Because it's very similar, of course.
SC: Now why are poor areas kind of more prone to feeling the effects of these environmental issues that we're talking about? You know why is it one area and not another?
CF: Well, a lot of these poor areas, especially the poor rural areas, there hasn't been a sustained investment by the government and infrastructure to address these issues.
First of all, people were not expected in the United States of America there are people that have raw sewage on the ground.
CF: That's something that they would expect to find in other parts of the world. Most people would say they wouldn't believe it if you told them. Well actually, I invited the UN special rapporteur on extreme poverty to come to Alabama last year. And when he went to Lowndes County and saw these conditions, a reporter asked him, what were his feelings about this? He said this is very uncommon in the first world.
But even with that in these poor communities where there have not been a sustained investment and putting in place infrastructure for those communities – working infrastructure at that – we're going to have more and more of these problems.
Also, the other problems that a lot of infrastructure that's in place was not built to sustain climate change. This was infrastructure that was put in place years before and people didn’t take into account climate change, and we're going to have to redesign the way we deal with infrastructure.
Even if we put in place the infrastructure that was designed for 20 or 30 years ago in these areas that never got it, it's not going to work. Because we get these deluges of rain. What is happening in places like Lowndes County and other places is that the sewage – is those that have it, it fails and it runs back into their homes.
SC: So, what is your goal as an environmental advocate. I mean if you want to bring diverse people together, young people together, how do you do it? What's your goal?
CF: Well, what I have done, I've been working with Duke University and other universities by actually bringing young people out on the front line so they can see this firsthand. And when I say I'm from the country – you know I'm a country girl – so what I do, I tend to connect young people with people living in these communities where they can sit on the porch for mom and them and let them talk about what they see. Because oftentimes they're validating. They're saying the same thing the scientists are seeing there on the ground. They're being impacted by it and their stories can be lifted up. So that's one way in which we're doing it.
We're going to announce in the coming months, the Center for Rural Enterprise and Environmental Justice, where we're going to actually institutionalize the work that we do and try to get more and more young people involved. And hopefully part of the change that needs to come or come from young people and those of us that are older working with them to help find solutions to the climate crisis.
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