tv After Words Catherine Flowers Waste CSPAN September 2, 2021 2:01pm-3:03pm EDT
>> yeah, amazing accomplishment, and i've come out around the same time as this book, which we're going to discuss today. just curious, you have been working in lowndes county now, for 20 years or so, what made now the right time for this book, and what made you want to write it? >> very interesting. i've always wanted to write a book, and those people that have known me for a very long time know that i have been talking about writing since i was in high school. this book, it just felt right for me to do it. i started writing it last year and had no idea of the events that were going to happen in
2020, but i felt like 2020 was the year that this book needed to be, you know, needed to be out there, and i had no idea that the historical gods would be in my favor in terms of making it more receptive to audiences than it may have been had it been at another time. so i just felt that it was time to write it and tell the story. >> what was the -- what's the key message you wanted to convey, and who is the key audience that you had in mind as you were writing? >> well, i had the option of either writing an academic book or i could reach a mass audience. i wanted to reach a mass audience. i had to write it in such a way, coming from my country girl perspective, in a way that it could communicate with everyone and that everyone could see themselves in it, and no matter where you're from, whether you're from a rural community in
lowndes county, alabama, or new york city -- [inaudible]. >> that's really an important message, and much of the book takes place in lowndes county, alabama, which i believe you were there currently. i'm curious, can you speak a little bit about the region which you have known for decades, and of course your specific connection to it? >> well, lowndes county is located between selma and montgomery. it is about 714 square miles. it's a very rural county. it has six small towns, the largest being the town of fort deposit which is in the southern part of lowndes county. the major interstate highway that goes through this is i-65, going north and south, as you go into mobile or to the gulf, you will probably go through lowndes county, if you are on 65.
the other famous road that most people know about is the selma to montgomery route which most of which goes through lowndes county. in addition, lowndes county's history is very much tied to slavery. i'm associated with the equal justice initiative. eji has recorded racial lynchings in lowndes county, at least nine. there were probably even more, most of which were probably not documented, but montgomery at the end of -- when they ended the international slave trade, montgomery became one of the hubs for the domestic slave trade, and people would be brought in by rail or by river to montgomery and then auctioned off at the square, and a lot of those people, which i'm descendants of ended up in lowndes county. the interesting part about this history is that i'm learning
more recently, i'm starting to hear from people that were actually descended from the slave owners who have reached out as well, and i believe that the history of the region makes it so compelling and makes the story even more compelling right now, at this particular time. >> you know, you mentioned earlier about the importance of the year 2020 and how the events of 2020 served as more of a backdrop for the book. so i'm curious, what's the situation in lowndes county related to covid-19 and the racial protests that we saw throughout the summer? you know, it's been a really remarkable year in good ways and bad. and i'm just curious like how is
lowndes county weathering that? >> well, in terms of covid-19, lowndes county is at the highest per capita [inaudible] in the state of alabama. there have been lots of people that have passed on and in some cases it struck more than one immediate family member because of the poverty, people living in small homes, small mobile homes where they cannot socially isolate or people that were able -- that had to go to work, and they're working on so-called essential low-paying jobs because they have to support their families and got sick at work and brought it home. it's been a really intense impact on lowndes county. in terms of lowndes county's history, of racial justice, i
think it's time [inaudible] lowndes county right now because lowndes county at one point, because of the racial terror that existed, it was significant that during the voting rights movement which is also still significant that lowndes county organized the lowndes county freedom organization, former sharecroppers who were kicked off the property when they registered to vote. the lowndes county freedom information [inaudible] people associated with the black panther party in oakland but it actually started in lowndes county. all of these -- i think the lowndes county became the perfect place for this to emanate from simply because of what's happened prior to 2020. but 2020 has shown us all of these disparities and has magnified it in such a way with covid that it can no longer be ignored. i think the book may have had a different reception had it not
been for george floyd murder, which never should have happened. what happened to breonna taylor never should have happened, and likewise covid should not have the impact on the communities that are most vulnerable, but it now puts us in a position where we have to do something about it. >> uh-huh. and there's an early, you know, the roots of a lot of this, you have sort of an early view of that when you moved to lowndes county in 1968, and you write about your parents and the people who would come by your house and ask for advice, members of the civil rights movement, that you sort of were in your orbit even when you were young. can you talk a little bit about that? i know you mentioned the black
panthers starting from lowndes county, but could you tell us a bit more about that history? >> yes, i call my parents the jailhouse lawyers [laughter] because everybody would come by our house at some point or another. give you background about my parents. my father was a veteran. my brother and i were discussing him the other day and we talked about the fact that my father always talked about his time in the military. he went in the military shortly after the end of world war ii, so he was impacted by what he saw in germany. >> uh-huh. >> and that had a lot to do with his value for the u.s. constitution. and as a result, he says that he spent five years, four months, and 17 days in the military, and he was going to enjoy every privilege and benefit that went along with defending the u.s.
constitution and fighting tyranny abroad. so he flew a flag every day. we had a flag in front of our house. my brother said he was a real patriot. some people call themselves a patriot today. he was a patriot supporting the constitution and felt everybody should have the access to those rights no matter who they were and fought for them. as a result of that zeal, a lot of people would come to my home. my mother was an organizer. she was a quieter person, but was very welcoming, and anyone that came to our home, not only did she talk to them, but she fed them too, so we had a lot of people who would come through, and just to give you an example, one of the people that i met is willie ricks who is still alive. people know him now as mukasa. he was actually the first person
to say black power. similar to abernathy who he was to dr. martin luther king jr., so i met him when i was very young, and we continue to stay in touch to this day. there was another household that was very influential, and that was the jackson household, the jackson family was the family that actually gave members of a student non-violent coordinating committee a place to stay, on their property. whenever people would come to town, be they activists or whomever, they would always make to it the jackson house. the jacksons would invite my parents to come, and they would take me, so i had the opportunity to meet all these people, have no idea at the time exactly the impact they were having on my life, but it was very very significant. >> and it seems like the first
instance on the path to where you are now, where you sort of started to show the activist root had taken hold was you wrote an article for a newsletter about the lowndes county training school, where you attended high school, and you credit that piece with changing your life. can you tell us about the article and what you set out to document? >> well, i had -- well, i had been invited to be a part of a local weekly television show called focus. now a city council person here in montgomery, his name is tracy larkin, and on the show, i was invited because i wrote poetry,
i thought. i thought that's why i was invited, but anyway, i was there, and i recited my poetry. he started asking me questions about my school. i didn't know my school had a bad reputation and sad. there was someone who was in the audience. her name is penny weaver who went on to become one of the founders of the southern poverty law center approached me and asked me would i write an article for a newsletter she was doing about my school? and i wrote the article, and i talked about the fact that i wanted a quality education and how the principal has shown a movie about pimping during school hours and charged to us go see it. of course we went to see it because the movie was a movie we could not see in montgomery in the theaters without a parent being present at the time because of the rating.
it was at least an r rating. so we were -- and from that, we got a call from the two organizers with the american freedom service committee in montgomery, and they asked come to see me. they called my parents and asked to come to see me. they started telling me about my school and about issues they saw in the article and gave me a copy of the alabama code about education and asked me to read it and then taught me how to document every violation that i saw at my school, and that began my active career. activism is learning how to change things. >> and then you carried that right into college with your work for alabama state university.
it was an interesting spot where they were looking to merge it with a couple of other schools, and you became active in the effort to help it retain its identity. i would love to hear more about your relationship to that particular school because it seems like you went there initially and then left and came back, and it seems to have been an important place, much like lowndes county itself where you would leave but then find yourself coming back. >> alabama state university has a very rich history in this area, a very rich history of activism. a lot of people that were involved in the modern day civil rights movement emanated from alabama state university and attended alabama state university. some of them were quite active -- alabama state university professors and students were quite active in the montgomery bus boycott, as
for the flyers that were distributed, they were actually printed at alabama state university. alabama state university was so important to me because some of the professors there had a profound influence on my life, and that's where i was really introduced to african american history, got to know [inaudible] with my professor there. i became a history major honestly because of that. that's when i was introduced to john franklin and read his "from slavery the freedom" which i still have a copy of because of alabama state university. so when there was an effort to merge the university, i sprung to action. i didn't think about it. i didn't think about it, but i had influential people in my life, like joe reed -- his son was just elected the first black
mayor of montgomery. but he talked about a lot of the things as it relates to the history, but he also helped me to understand the policy part of it which i didn't understand as a student at that time. my role was an activist. what i did was i organized a march to save alabama state university. i pulled together a group of my friends initially, and we started organizing. i think i was sick at the time when i came up with it. i was in the hospital. that's where we had our first meeting. >> uh-huh. >> at st. jude which is where i was in the hospital at the time, and there we pulled together a group of students, and more people got involved, and that march included a young man named randy anderson who was a vet who had returned to montgomery. his father was a former tuskegee airman, and we pulled together students and had the largest march they had had in montgomery since the days of the civil rights movement. we also organized not only students from alabama state
university, but we went around the state and organized students from other hbcu's who showed up. it was like very [inaudible]. for me it was rewarding as a young person to see those many people come together to try to save this legacy. >> that's amazing. and through that you met people like dr. joseph lowery and james orange. i happen to live in atlanta, about a mile and a half away from the martin luther king, you know, birthplace and museum, and these people are legends here, and so to walk amongst them when you're a relatively young adult, how did that influence you in your work now? >> oh, wow, the way that has
affected my work is being able to pass on to young people. i think from them and from dr. lowery and his staff and randall osbourne and all those folks that took me under their wing when i was very very young was outstanding because i actually met james orange in selma. i had no idea who he was. i was with a gentleman named leon hollow. i was sitting with leon at the time. james was sitting at a table nearby because they were there for a voting rights march, and james and i became friends and stayed in contact through the years. but i had -- i had met dr. lowery prior to that time because of the work that i was doing at alabama state university because we actually
established a chapter. we had a charter to establish a chapter at alabama state university. so to be around these folks, i had no idea they were bigger than life. you know, it was not even till more recent times that i realized that james orange was very very -- what happened to him was instrumental to the selma to montgomery march. he never talked about that. he was very humble. every time he saw me anywhere, i remember once i saw him in washington. this is for one of the marches on washington, one of the anniversaries, and he was standing behind an area that they had blocked off for the dignitaries. and he saw me. he said come here baby sister. that's where he always called me. and brought me back there where everybody was. he was always that kind of person. and reverend lowery was probably one of the reasons why i spoke english a little bit better than i did before because he was always correcting me.
[laughter] i this i have gotten to the age now where i can look back and reflect and think wow, these are like forrest gump moments. i didn't know these people would be such giants in history. i feel very fortunate to have been around them and have learned from them. >> yeah. it seems like when you left college and became a teacher, those types of connections and ability to expose students to leaders and people who are out in the world making change seemed really important to you. i was really struck by the, you know, the experiences you tried to -- you went through great pains to put together for your students. you know, taking middle schoolers from d.c. to the 25th
anniversary of the selma to montgomery march or students from north carolina to bill clinton's inauguration. i'm just curious, you know, when you were thinking about that, as an educator, what was driving you to create those moments for these students? >> i wanted them to see history in action. you know, i think that with young people, sometimes it's hard for them to, you know, we talk about the other things that happen that they need to know about, american history, but to actually see how activism can make a difference, to actually see people -- we were talking about the constitution, freedom of speech, to actually go and see the impact of it, but also to be around people that could have an influence on them. when we went to the 25th
anniversary of the selma to montgomery march, we actually had a chance to meet a lot of people. because we had a school -- we had a bus that took our students there, a charter bus, we -- there were people, the older people that were on the march, we would let them get on our bus while our students were marching because it was cooler, and a lot of them couldn't make that walk again. >> uh-huh. >> so one of the persons that they met was a woman named annie cooper. annie cooper, if anybody saw the movie "selma", oprah winfrey played annie cooper in the movie, but annie cooper had shared with them her story, and the children became so, you know -- they became so in love with her, they started calling her grandma, and some of them continue to write her even afterwards, but we never knew the historical figure that she was, so i just felt it was very important for my students to have the opportunity to go to
selma, to meet people there. their assignment on that trip was to meet someone who participated in their original march and write an essay about them. >> uh-huh. >> and they did that, and now a lot of those students are now in their 40s, and they reach out to me. i remember one student reached out to me and told me that when obama ran for president, he went and volunteered and worked in his office. >> uh-huh. >> and he said the reason why i did that is because i thought about selma. this is a student that i had taken there when he was in the 8th grade. so when we plant theseless -- these lessons, plant these seeds, sometimes we don't know till later in life. one thing i said to the
principal, i said no matter who wins, ross perot, clinton and bush were running, no matter who won that year, i was going to take the students to the inauguration. i felt it was an opportunity for them to learn what the electoral college was and how it worked, and it was also an opportunity for them to see the process in terms of the transition. bill clinton won. i wrote in the book that the way i even got to go was that i went to washington during my christmas break and volunteered at their inauguration headquarters, at the navy yard. i volunteered there and got the opportunity -- i was invited to come back as a hostess for the arkansas bar, what was the coveted ticket that year but also gave me access on
information about everything else, and i was able to organize the trip and take my students. >> there's a lot -- it's interesting, the book as i was reading it, felt like it had two specific sections. one where, you know, you were sort of coming of age and going through a series of formative experiences. and actually really traveling and living extensively throughout the eastern half of the u.s. and i guess also in oklahoma. it was a very personal journey for the first half of it. we learn about, you know, your parents, and we learn about your husband, the accident that he suffered, and then your advocacy for him. and then when we get to the year
2000, shortly after your dad passes, you're still the vehicle for the story, but it becomes much much more about lowndes county and the people who live there, and, you know, we don't hear again about your husband thurgood and we don't hear very much about your daughter taylor. was that a conscious decision? did you see yourself switching from, you know, the making of katherine flowers to your work in lowndes county, as you were writing? >> well, i think that i wrote it to help people to understand how i got to that point. and i felt it was important to tell that part of the story. i just started off as a normal person. >> uh-huh. >> and things just evolved. it was almost like serendipity, the way things happened.
i was still a mom. by that time thurgood and i were divorced, but the story shifted because my activism kind of took off. lowndes county to me is like a family member too. but it was a family member that has always been there because of the love that i have for the county that my father instilled in me and i have so many relatives in lowndes county because that's where a lot of family is, so that was -- i just thought it was so important for people to see that my evolution took me back to where i started. >> and there's so many -- there's a few little nuggets in the book where you mention the book [inaudible] and how that struck you personally. you mentioned at some point
quietly wanting to be an astronaut. you note that you have this adventurer within you, and yet your story came full circle back to sort of where you were as a young person. i'm curious how -- because it's become extremely focused, right, in the last 20 years, and i'm just curious how that -- how that whole sort of arc went for you. >> well, i still have a love for nasa and space travel, and hopefully one day i will get a chance to have that experience. but i think that the evolution itself was a natural one to happen because of all of the other events that were -- you know, that i had no control of. i just happened to be in the place, in the space at the time and had the opportunity to take everything that i've learned and apply it to help deal with that
problem. in terms of my love for adventure, i still have that. [laughter] city ill have that very much -- i still have that very much, but the activism part is more of a heart felt thing. the things that i have gravitated towards, i believe, has been in lowndes county, it was more or less because i'm from lowndes county. i had an opportunity to live in other places, and when i went back and saw that things had not changed that much, and also still have relationships that i still have, relationships i have had since a child, that pretty much gave me the information that i needed to connect with my activism, to try to bring about the change that needed to happen because in lowndes county, i learned how to listen. >> uh-huh. >> and listening is a very very
key part to activism because a lot of people don't listen. they go in with what they think are the answers. they don't talk to the local folk or spend the amount of time they need to understand the dynamics of what's really going instead of what they've been told by politicians who may write a narrative that's more glowing than it really is for the residents. >> uh-huh. >> that arc that brought me back there and got me connected with the fight for justice just evolved. i did not predict that. i didn't think i would be dealing with waste, in particular. i never thought that. but here we are. >> yeah, you came back to be an
economic development consultant; correct? >> yes. >> and later in the book, you tell a story about senator elizabeth warren sort of diagnosis of what was going on in lowndes county. and it seemed to parallel your early rearrival there, in terms of being able to sum up why this area wasn't really finding new businesses to come in, and then as you're working on economic development issues, you start to realize like the literal depths of the sanitation issue there. i'm just curious, like, can you explain that sort of awakening where you come to solve one problem, and then you realize that there's so many more underlying issues related to
poverty and race than just, you know, normal human dignity? >> when i was -- one of the things i found out being the economic development coordinator -- first of all, it was very very hard, because some people who had preconceived notions about lowndes county who were in government or had access to these funds and they were using implicit bias in determining -- i didn't know it was called implicit bias then, but i've come to understand that's what it was, in terms of deciding who should get access to funding and who shouldn't, and that still exists today, because the business community can get access to funding, or they try to wrap it in that package and give it to them. they can get the economic welfare from the government, but when it comes to residents, they're left to their own devices, and that's a failed paradigm, and what i have been told initially, what i thought
and what a lot of people believe that well, if you have businesses coming into the area, it is going to bring jobs, and in the community, they will thrive and that will lift them out of poverty. that doesn't happen when we don't unpeel, undo the systemic racism that's created these situations in the first place. the reason these situations were created in places like lowndes county was to keep the labor cheap because they were used to having free labor during slavery. it's manifested and evolved over the years so they can still get cheap labor. that's what they want since they have to pay for it, they want cheap labor. people are kept poor. they are denied access to infrastructure that could bring other kinds of jobs in that could raise the standards of living and also to raise the kind of -- the moneys that the
people could have to be able to buy better things, buy better homes, to pay for education for their children, put money into the school system, all of that is part of a successful paradigm, but i think the conflict that i had at that time -- and i love elizabeth warren -- the conflict at that time was that she was espousing the same thing i had espoused earlier but i saw that it didn't work. in communities of color, in particular, in the environmental justice communities, economic development means to elected officials usually is bringing in dirty plants, laying fields, petrochemical plants and other kinds of plants that would poison the environment and of course poison the people too, who were already suffering from healthcare disparities. >> uh-huh. >> so it's a paradigm of destruction where they think it is okay to sacrifice these
communities. and that's one of the things that we have to change, and hopefully, you know, people can see that in the book is how -- and that's one reason i told the story that way because we have to unpack these layers to see that it just didn't get that way. some of it was intentional. >> you mentioned you love elizabeth warren. she's obviously an ally of your work now. perhaps more surprising to readers might be an ally that you had early on when you were back in alabama, the former attorney general jeff sessions, and also you had worked closely with bob woodson who i believe was also macarthur grant recipient but is a conservative. and i'm just curious, you know, they were very unlikely characters as i was, you know, reading the book, and i think everybody who is watching this
program probably has a good idea of who jeff sessions is and maybe less so about mr. woodson. so if you could tell us a little bit about him, but also what it was like to work with people whose political beliefs maybe didn't really square with yours, but who you were able to find some, you know, sort of collaborative common goals with. >> well, you know, growing up in a community or in a state that's now very red, it's been very red for a long time, so i've learned how to navigate in this situation, and with mr. woodson, i met mr. woodson after bush was elected president, and i was invited to a faith-based sermon because of a young man who i met
in detroit. so i was invited to a faith-based summit and i went. at this summit, mr. woodson spoke. something he said spoke to me. i had seen him on television, when they were trying to decide who the president was, and he was speaking on behalf of the bush campaign. so i went -- i saw him leave the stage, and i followed him and i asked -- and i started talking to him, and i asked him would he come to lowndes county to help me and i told him what i was trying to do. i had met him before. i had met at a leadership campus still in college when i was a schoolteacher and i took my students there. we got into a heated exchange because i could not accept the fact that he was a conservative at the time. it's so interesting how i evolved to be able to accept him for who he was, but he readily agreed to help us, and then i
found out that he was very very good at working in neighborhoods and helping formerly and currently incarcerated young people. actually a lot of the work that bob woodson does, a lot of people don't know about it and how significant he is to a lot of these communities in terms of helping young men who have been a victim of the system be able to overcome that, and i was pleasantly surprised when i found that out. but when he came to lowndes county the first time, and he saw the raw sewage issue, he immediately sprung into action to help us. and a lot of people that he brought with him, a lot of his friends were actually democrats. one of his best friends calls himself a yellow dog democrat, so that was i think through the relationship with bob woodson, i learned about, you know, bipartisanship and how people can be friends and sometimes we have assumptions that people of
different political belief systems don't talk to each other. i mean, that's not most of us. that's a rare group of people that are like that, i believe. however, with jeff sessions, the way i met senator sessions, they have town hall meetings in lowndes county and probably throughout the state, where the senators when they come back and meet with local constituents to tell them what they are doing in washington. this particular town hall meeting was in fort deposit. i went there, and he talked about these grant programs that were available to help with some of the issues, and i raised my hand, and i asked the question, well, how do poor communities get access to these grants, especially poor communities with no tax base? >> uh-huh. >> and he really couldn't answer the question, but it surprised me, he came to me afterwards, and we talked, and he said i've always been interested and concerned about that, and i don't know how to do that, how
do we deal with that, and that's how we started, and he told me that he was originally from wilcox county, alabama, which is also in the black belt, and he told me, he said, you know, my family didn't have a television in the house until i was 10. he shared the experience of poverty and rural poverty in particular, which a lot of people don't talk about. i think we need to talk about that more even though some of us have quote made it, we need to talk about the fact that we have that shared experience. but that was how jeff sessions and i connected. then after that point, whenever we had meetings, he would sent a representative to be there because during that time, i started getting death threats. somebody put a python in my apartment. so senator sessions would send people to be with me when i go places, and i felt it provided
me with a degree of security that i would not have had if senator sessions' aide had not been with me at the meeting or they had to take me seriously in a way they would have before because how many u.s. senators do that. that was my first experience in working with him, and we continue to have a friendship even afterwards, for quite sometime. >> uh-huh. >> and you mentioned that part of the connection was that sessions was also from the black belt. i want to take a little bit of a turn towards some science that was part of the story. first, i want you to just sort of explain for viewers what it means to be part of alabama's black belt and how that relates to the sanitation issue, specifically. >> well, alabama's black belt consists primarily of about 17
counties, give or take, and the soil, most of them have a heavy clay consistency, and they hold water. that's just one part of the story. i think the other part of the story that people are not telling as it relates to climate change, that we also have high water tables in a lot of these areas which are getting higher as we deal with sea level rise. but it's very hard for a conventional septic system to work there, and when these conventional septic systems fail, they tend to either have sewage on top of the ground or it brings the sewage back into the homes, especially when the ground is saturated with water. so -- but the region is also heavily populated by descendants of slaves and heavily a region populated by african americans. so -- and a lot of them do not have the waste water
infrastructure in place. it's not been the type of investment. actually one time, you know, the department -- the cabinet level department that's responsible for rural sanitation and rural housing comes under the usda. i remember the other u.s. senator from alabama telling me once katherine, find out why alabama keeps sending money back to washington for usda. so even the funding that at one point that came here because it was supposed to help families in the black belt, they would send it back, instead of making sure there was infrastructure in place that we could use instead of the -- when they do put in infrastructure in place, it is usually the cheapest infrastructure and usually fails and then the narrative becomes oh well the people don't know how to manage it, but they are selling them the cheapest most unreliable infrastructure that there is, and then blaming it on
the people, when they would not put the same infrastructure in more affluent communities. >> and that's part of this what you call an economy that had evolved to prey on impoverished citizens in lowndes county; correct? >> yes. >> so a lot of what you have done over the last 15 to 20 years is take various visitors, u.s. senators, journalists, u.n. special reps, a whole host of people to see how people live in lowndes county, and in 2009, you went to see a woman named shar, and i wonder if you will tell us about what happened when you visited her property and what that led to because it led to a very stunning discovery eight years later.
>> yes. well, i had actually gotten a call from the person, from one of the regional environmentalists for the state health department, and he called me and told me that there was a young woman who was in her 20s and pregnant, and they were threatening her with arrest because she didn't have a septic system. what i did know when i went there is that her family had somehow scraped together, i think it was like $800 [inaudible] to keep her out of jail, so before going there, i called the associated press, and i took a journalist with me because i had learned as mr. woodson has said, sometimes you have to shed light on situations for it to be radioactive to keep things from happening. >> uh-huh. >> and in this case i felt like i needed to have that witness,
and we went there, and we met the state person who had called me along with a person who was a county environmentalist at the time. we went into her home, and she explained to us that she had one child who was autistic and she was pregnant with another one. she was only getting disability. she didn't have -- disability for a child, and she didn't have a big income. >> uh-huh. >> which she could have put in a septic system. the property that she lived on was her mother's property, and it was more than a few acres, so there was nobody close by. i was wondering who reported it. they probably smelled it, but they weren't that close. nobody lived that close to them. >> uh-huh. >> and i asked to see, you know, where the area was because we were inside of her home, so we went outside -- she was in a single wide mobile home. we walked around to the side. it was during the month of october, which it was still very warm then. there was a pit right outside
her back door. someone had dug a pit, where the sewage would come from the house because in the mobile home, it comes with the plumbing. they get pvc pipe -- when they flush the toilet, it will go outside the home. in this case, it was right outside her back door. and it was teaming with mosquitoes. i had a dress on and stockings, but those mosquitoes bit me through the stockings. i had so many bites on my legs at the time. i didn't think about it right away until my body started breaking out in a rash, where i didn't have bites, i started to breaking out in a rash. i went to my doctor, who was a nurse practitioner. i told her what happened. i said look, i was around this raw sewage. it had mosquitoes on it. these mosquitoes bit me. and i've broken out.
i want you to test my blood and make sure i don't have anything because, you know, i know with blood being involved, and it was on feces, you know, what potentially could be wrong with me? so all the test results came back negative. >> uh-huh. >> and when the test results came back negative, i asked her, is it possible that i could have something that american doctors are not trained to look for? these are not issues that you expect to find in the united states. we don't even acknowledge that we have this problem. >> right. >> -- said yes, so later i saw an op-ed that was written in the new york times by a doctor who has now become kind of one of the spokespersons about covid because -- >> right. >> -- he's an infectious disease specialist. he's also a creator of vaccines. >> uh-huh. >> and he wrote about tropical diseases being on our shores. >> uh-huh. >> and i saw in this op-ed, he
mentioned waste water. >> yep. >> so i googled him, found an e-mail address, e-mailed him. he e-mailed me right -- and told him about what i was seeing in lowndes county, about my own experience. he e-mailed me right away. and he was going to be in atlanta for a conference. the next weekend we met at that conference, and we talked, and he said i'm going to send someone there because we're going to look for [inaudible]. he said katherine, these are neglected diseases of poverty. anywhere you find poverty in the world, you are going to find these diseases. >> uh-huh. >> anyway, that's how we ended up doing the parasite study, which we were -- we collected fecal soil water and blood samples from people throughout lowndes county, and we were able to -- in their lab in houston,
they were able to find evidence of hook worms and other tropical parasites. >> how shocked were you when that result came back? i think it was a third of the people tested or more? >> i was shocked that there was so many, but i wasn't shocked at the finding. i wasn't shocked at the finding because people had been complaining about illnesses, and i -- one of the things that i noted, i went to -- i had gone to lowndes county, accompanying some of our partners with partners in health, the organization was founded by paul [inaudible], and we went there, and some staff members, and when we went to visit some of the folks, about everywhere we went, people were sick. >> uh-huh. >> and they were in my age group. i remember one of the persons on the trip saying katherine, they
look so much older, but it was because they were sick. >> uh-huh. >> i was trying to figure out why are so many people sick? why are so many people, you know, [inaudible]? i mean it seems like when illness takes place, takes hold of folks, it is worse. i couldn't figure out why. so this result helped me to understand part of it and why there was so much asthma. a lot of people had respiratory illnesses. >> right. >> there's probably more that we simply haven't looked for yet. >> and towards the end of the book, you say that a few years ago, you would have identified yourself as an environmental justice activist. but i'm curious what you identify yourself as now because we're coming to the end of the interview, because i want to just ask, like you have gone through this amazing, you know, last 20 years of work, and you've done so many things, to call attention to what's going
on in lowndes county, what has that turned you into, i guess, if not an environmental justice activist? >> i'm a teacher activist. i've always described teaching as being activism in a different way. >> uh-huh. >> so i think my role now is to pass on what i've learned, the knowledge that i have learned because i do believe in transitioning and transformational leadership, and that is making sure that young people don't have to start at where i started at, that they can take it to the next level. >> uh-huh. that's -- i mean, it's amazing how all your formative experiences from the first half of the book just like you can see how each one left you with a tool that was used in the second half of the book. so i think that part about how you lay everything out is really
clear and impressive. the one sentence that really stuck with me -- and i will make this my final question, but the one sentence that really stuck out with me came from the first chapter of the book. and it was four words long "meanwhile poor people wait". and, you know, the theme comes back throughout the book, you know, the federal civil rights case about the conditions of lowndes county that hadn't been responded to by february 2020. you know, eight years waiting for an epa grant to come through, even the time that it takes to do the hook worm study.
i'm just curious, like those four words like in a matter of speaking could sum up a lot of what's in the book, so i'm curious how those four words make you feel. >> well, it's a testament to what we have to do to solve these problems. i think the reason that people wait is because some people get frustrated, and we have to be persistent because conditions are part of a failed economic system that excludes people that are poor, whether they're black, white, whether they're in the south, the north, whether they're on indigenous lands, i mean, it excludes them. it excludes from the decision-making process, and there's usually at the end of the line if they are in the line at all when it comes to getting access to those things that are needed for a better quality of life, including clean air and clean water. >> uh-huh.
>> and we have to change that. we have to change that. i think that is a good way to say that part of the book is a charge to young people. >> uh-huh. >> to make sure that we can unpack the systems that have created these conditions because we can do better. >> uh-huh. and have you -- you know, you have met people who were working for other communities throughout the country, who are in similar circumstances, facing environmental injustices just like -- or similar to those in lowndes county, have you guys formed any sort of working relationships where you are able to share best practices, or is there any -- i want to leave viewers with a little bit of a sense of hope. are you guys talking about what's worked on the ground, and like, where the levers of power
can be pushed effectively? >> well, actually we have formed the center for rural enterprise and environmental justice, and our goal is to be able to work with communities and collaborate with communities around the country, with them being the oning driving it, not us, but what we n do is all the community organizers that helped us organize and collect information in lowndes county, to pass on those techniques and practices to those communities and help them to understand and have access to policymakers. and then our third goal is to also work on technology and partner with collaborators, hopefully people from nasa and places like that to come up with something that's earthly that we can use and everybody would have access to because the waste water problem is not just a lowndes county problem or just a southern problem. it's a national problem, and it's also a global problem, and this is an opportunity for us to solve it. i'm very hopeful.
i'm very hopeful because i have people reaching out to me from around the country that want to be a part of the solution. people are reaching out from around the world saying we have that same problem too. we'll work together on finding something that works. so that's our effort now is to engage with young people at universities and hopefully eventually young people -- going back to my roots, young people in high school and middle school that want to work on the technology side, to work on the scientific side, to try to find something that works because we're going to need out of the box thinkers because the current [inaudible] does not work. key in all of this is learning how to engage with communities on the ground. had it not been the fact that i listened to people in lowndes county, i would not have written this book. i would not be -- i would have received an award. it was because of the people on the ground who were living in this situation who told me what was going on, and i listened to
them. and i'm very very hopeful that's how we find a solution. >> yeah, i think that's the thing that -- that's the key message to me is that being able to listen to what people's experiences are and share them with others, and you took people to actually see what the conditions were on the ground, and i think that was a lot of the power to very clearly illustrate it to people who might be able to help you do something about it. so thank you very much for your time. the book is really really -- it's quite optimistic, especially given what it's about and how scary and horrifying some of the scenes are.
>> well, thank you. thank you for, you know, for taking the time to read it and ask me these questions because at the end of the day, i think that we have to -- i want people to -- after they read the book to be hopeful because whatever we do, we have to do it in a way that it can have a positive impact on generations to come, and i believe we can do that. :: >> and watch this and all previous afterwards interviews at booktv.org and just click the afterwards button near the top of the page.
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