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tv   After Words Catherine Flowers Waste  CSPAN  September 2, 2021 5:01pm-6:03pm EDT

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this morning and i look forward to the next time.
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>> catherine flower the first thing i would like to say is a huge congratulations on your macarthur grab announced recently. >> thank you, thank you. >> yes and an amazing accomplishment and it has come out around the same time as this book which we are going to discuss today. just curious, you've been working in blount county for 20 years or so and what made now the right time for this book and what made you want to ride it? >> it's very interesting. i've always wanted to write a look and those who have known me for a very long time now that i've been talking about writing
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since i was in high school but this book just felt right for me to do it. actually i started writing it last year and had no idea of the events that were going to happen in 2020. i felt like 2020 was the year that this book needed to be out there and i had no idea that the historical gods would be in my favor in terms of making them receptive to audiences that may have been in another time. so i just felt that it was time to write and tell the story. >> what's the key message he wanted to convey and who is the key audience that you had in mind as you were riding? >> i had the option of writing an academic book where i could
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reach a mask audience and i wanted to reach the mask audience. i wanted to write it in such a way that it made a difference. >> that's really an important message and much of the book takes place in lowndes candy alabama where you live currently and i'm curious can you speak a little bit about the region which you have known for a decade and of course your specific connection to it. >> lowndes county is between selma and montgomery. it is about 714 square miles and has six small towns and the town in the southern part of lowndes county. the major interstate highway that goes through their interstate 55 going north and
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south that goes through mobile and the other famous roads that most people know about was the marching route which mostly goes the lowndes county. in addition to lowndes county history is very much tied to and the equal justice initiative and ebi has recorded racial lynchings in lowndes county, at least nine and they are probably even more that weren't documented that montgomery became one of the hubs of the domestic 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 ended up
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in lowndes county. the interesting part about this history is i'm learning more recently than starting t. hear from people that were dissented from owners who have reached out as well and i believe the issue of the region makes it so compelling right now. >> you mentioned earlier about the importance of the year 2020 and how the events of 21 he served as an backdrop for the book. and so i'm curious what is the situation in lowndes county related to covid-19 and the racial protest that we saw. this summer it's been really a
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remarkable year in good ways and bad. and i'm just curious how lowndes county whether that. >> in terms of covid-19 lowndes county has the highest per-capita -- in the state of alabama and lots of people have passed on or more than one immediate family member because people are living in small mobile homes were they couldn't isolate or people that had to go to work and working in a central low-paying jobs to support their families and they would get sick at work and would bring it home so it's been a really intense impact on mt. county. in terms of lowndes county
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history of racial justice i think it's timely we mention lowndes county right now because lowndes county at one point because of the racial -- it was significant that the voting rights movement taking place this year that lowndes county freedom organization was kicked off the property and the lowndes county freedom organization took in the panther and associated with the panther party and it started in lowndes county so all of these, i think lowndes county became the perfect place for this to emanate from simply
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because of what happened prior to 2020 the 2020 has shown us all of these disparities and is magnified it in such a way with covid that it can no longer be ignored and they think it would not have gotten reception had not been for george floyd's murder which never should have happened and likewise covid should not have had this impact on the communities that are the most vulnerable but it now puts us in a position where we have to do something about it. >> and there's an early, the roots of a lot of those you had sort of an early view of that when you move to lowndes county in 1968 and you write about your parents and the people who would come by your house and asked for
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advice, members of the civil rights movement that you were in your orbit even when you were young. can you talk a little bit about that? i know you mentioned panthers starting from lowndes county but could you tell us a little bit more about that early history? >> yes. i'd call them jailhouse lawyers in their community because everyone would come by our house at some point and basically give advice and just to give you a little bit of background about my family. my father was a korean veteran. my brother and i were discussing it the other day and we talk about the fact that my father always talked about his time in the military and he went into the military shortly after the end of world war ii so he was impacted by what he saw in germany. and that had a lot to do with
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this value for the u.s. constitution and as a result he spent five years, four months and 17 days in the military and he was going to enjoy every privilege and benefits that went along with defending the u.s. constitution in fighting tyranny abroad. he flew a flag every day. we had a flag in front of our house and my brother said he know he was a real patriot. some people call themselves patriots today but he was of the patriot supporting the constitution and felt that everybody should have access to those rights no matter who they were so as a result of his zeal for that a lot of people would come to our home. my mother was an organizer. she was more of a quiet person but she was very welcoming and she not only talk to them but she fed them too so we have a lot of people who would come
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through just to give you an example one person that i met willie riggs who is still alive and people know him now as mikasa. he was the first person to say power and he was the stokely carmichael similar to reverend abernathy to martin luther king. 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 or the jackson family was the family that actually gave members of sncc the student nonviolent coordinating committee a place to stay on their property and whenever people would come to town via the activists -- activist or whomever they would make it to the jackson house and the jacksons would invite my
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parents to come and they would take me so i had the opportunity to meet all these people having no idea at the time exactly the impact it would have on my life. 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 roots had taken hold was, you wrote an article for a newsletter about the lowndes county training school in the high school and he credited that piece of changing your life. can you tell us a little bit about the article and what you set out to document? >> well, i had been invited to
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be a part of a local weekly television show called focus. a city councilman whose name is tracy larkin on the show i was invited because i wrote poetry. i thought that was why was invited but anyway i recited my poetry and i didn't know that my schools reputation a bad reputation in fact and 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 who approached me and asked me if i would write an article for a newsletter i was doing about my school i wrote the article i talked about the fact that i wanted a quality education and health of principal has shown a movie
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about during school hours and charged us to go and see it and of course students went to go see it because the movement was a movement. we could not have seen it in my gourmet without a parent being present at the time because it was at least r-rated. and from that we got a call from the two organizers with the american community service in montgomery and they asked to do come and see me and they started telling me about my school and issues they saw in their article and gave me a copy of this alabama code about education and asked me to read it and taught me how to document every violation that i saw at my school. that began my active career in
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learning how to change things. >> and you carried that right into college with your work for alabama state university and it was in 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 retain its identity. i'm curious, 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 it then found yourself coming back. >> alabama state university has a very rich history in this area and a rich history of activism. a lot of people that were
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involved in the modern-day silver rights movement from alabama state university and attended alec damas state university and some of them were university professors and students were quite active in the montgomery boycott and the flyers distributed to support work that alabama state university. so 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 introduced to african-american history. my professor there -- i became a history major mostly because of that. that's when i was introduced to john franklin and read his look which i still love a copy of. so when there is an effort to merge the university i sprang
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into action and i didn't even think about it. i didn't think about it but i had influential people in my life like joe reid. his son was the first mayor of montgomery but he talked about a lot of the things related to history but it also helped you to understand the policy part which i didn't understand as a student at that time. what i did as an activist i organized the march at alabama state university and i pulled together a group of my friends initially and we started organizing and i think i was sick at the time ended up in the hospital and that was where we had our first meeting at st. jude's 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 in that march including a young man named randy anderson
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who was a vet who had returned to montgomery. his father was a former tuskegee airmen and we pulled together students and had the largest march that they had had a montgomery since the days of the civil rights movement and we also organize not only students from alabama university that we went around the state and organized people from other hbcus that showed up. it was a very moment isn't for me rewarding as a young person to see that many people come together to try to save his legacy. >> that's amazing and true that he met people like james orange. i happen to live in atlanta a mile and a half away from the martin luther king birthplace and museum and these people are
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legends here. so to walk amongst them when you are relatively a young adult how did that influence you and your work now? >> to be able to pass on what i knew to young people. james called everybody a leader and he was the big leader but everybody was a leader so i think for them and for dr. larry and his staff and osborne and all those folks who took me under their wing when i was very very young was outstanding because i met james orange and soma. i had no idea who he was. i was with the gentleman named leon liam holland i was sitting with leon at the time and james is sitting at a table nearby because they were there for the
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gene wilder voting rights march in james and i became friends and stayed in contact through the years that i had met doctorow lori prior to that time because the work i was doing at alabama state university. we established a chapter at the alabama state university. so to be around these folks i had no idea they were bigger than life. it was only in more recent times that i realized james orange was very instrumental in what happened in the selma to montgomery march. he never talked about it. he was very humble. every time you saw me anywhere by simon washington for one of the marches on washington and one of the anniversaries. he was standing behind this area they had walked off so he said come here baby sister. that's what he always called me
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and brought me back there were everybody was. he was always that kind of person and reverend lowery was probably one of the reasons i spoke english a bit better than i did before because he was always correcting me. [laughter] but i think i've gotten to the age now where i can look back and reflect and realize these are like "forrest gump" moments. and i didn't know these people would be such giants in the history book and to be around them and to have marched with them. cienega seems like when you left college and became a teacher those types of connections and the ability to expose students to leaders and people who were out in the world making change
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seemed really important to you. i was really struck by the experiences. you went through great pains to put together for your students taking middle schoolers from d.c. to the 25th anniversary of the selma to montgomery march for students from north carolina for bill clinton's inauguration. i'm just curious when you are thinking about that as an educator what was driving you to create those moments for the students? >> i wanted them to see history in action. i think young people, sometimes it's hard for them and you know we talk about the other things that happened that they need to know about american history but to actually see how activism can
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make a difference and to actually see people -- we were talking about the constitution and freedom of speech and to actually see the impact of that but also to be around people that could have a name once on them. when we went to the 25th anniversary of the selma to montgomery march we had a chance to meet a lot of people and because we have a bus for the students, chartered bus there were older people on the march. it was cooler and a lot of them couldn't make that walk so one of the persons that they met with andy cooper and if anyone saw the movie the selma oprah winfrey played andy cooper in the movie but andy cooper had shared with them our story and
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the children he came so in love with our they started calling our grandma and some of them continue to write or even afterwards that we never knew the historical figure that she was. but that was important for students to have the opportunity to go to selma and to meet people there. their assignment on the trip was to meet someone who participated in the original march. they did that and now a lot of those students reach out to me. i remember one student reached out to me and told me when a bomber ran for president he volunteered and worked in his office and he said the reason why did that is because i thought about selma and this is a student that i taken when he was in the eighth grade. he'd plant the seeds and we
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don't know until years later the impact that regarding the election i felt it was very important for them to go to the clinton inauguration. i had interviewed them prior to the election one of the things i said to the president no matter who wins there are three people running ross perot bill clinton and bush and no matter who won that year i was going to take the students to the inauguration and i felt it was an opportunity for them to along with the electoral college with an opportunity for c. the whole process in terms of the transition. bill clinton won and i wrote in the book that the way i even got to go was i went to washington during my christmas break and volunteered at their and our creations headquarters at the navy yard.
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i volunteered their and i was invited to come back as a hostess for the arkansas ball which was the coveted ticket that year but it also gave me access to information that i was going to take my students too. >> it's interesting the book as i was reading it felt like it had to specific sections. one where you are sort of coming-of-age and i guess also in oklahoma and it was a very personal journey for the first half of it and we learn about your parents and we learn about your husband and the accident that he suffered in your advocacy for him.
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then when we get to the year 2000 shortly after your dad passes you are the vehicle for the story but it becomes much more about lowndes county and the people who live there and we don't hear again about your husband and we don't hear much about your daughter taylor. was that a conscious decision in did you see yourself switching from the making of catherine flowers to your work at lowndes county as you were writing? >> well i think i wrote it to help people understand how i got to that point and to tell that part of the story.
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and things had evolved. it was almost like syrian deputy with the way things happened and i was still a mom and i was a voice. my activism kind of took off. blount county is like a family member to but it was a family member that it always been there because of the love i had the county -- for the county and i had so many relatives and lowndes county. so for people to see my evolution came back to where i started >> they are a few nuggets in the book where johnson was in seigall and how you that struck
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you personally and you were quietly wanting to be an astronaut. you knew you had this adventurer within you and yet your story came full circle back to where you were as a young person and i'm curious how because it's become extremely focused and the last 20 years and i'm just curious how that whole part went for you. >> i have a love for nasa and the space shuttle and hoping one day to give a chance -- get a chance to have the experience but i think the evolution itself was a natural one to happen because of all the things that i had no control of.
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i 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 it venture i still have that. but the activism part is more of a heartfelt thing. it's the things that i have gravitated toward and at lowndes county was more or less because i had the opportunity and privilege and when i went back and saw that things have not changed that much and still had the relationships that i still have and the relationships i've had since a child that pretty much gave me the information that i needed to connect with my
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activism to bring about the change and at lowndes county listening is a key part to activism. a lot of people going with what they think are the answers or the time they need to build understand the dynamics of what's really going on instead of what they've been told and they write a narrative that's more glowing. that arc that brought me back there that got me connected with the fight for sanitation. i could not projected that. i did not predict that and i didn't think i'd be dealing with waste. but here we are.
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>> you came back to the economic involvement and later in the book you tell a story about senator elizabeth warren diagnose what was going on and lowndes county and it seems to parallel your early re-arrival there in terms of being able to sum up why this area wasn't finding new businesses to come in and then as you were working on economic issues you start to realize the literal death of a sanitation issue there and i'm just curious can you explain
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that awakening where you solve one problem many realize there are so many more underlying issues related to poverty. >> one of the things i found out about economic development first of all it's hard because some people at or conceived motions -- notions about lowndes county. they had an implicit bias. the business community can get at the funding and they can get the economic welfare from the government that the residents are left to their own devices
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and what i have been told initially and what i thought and a lot of people believed coming to the area and they would bring jobs and they would lift them up by the poverty but we did don't -- that won't happen unless we until the systemic racism that created the situation in the first place. places like lowndes county would keep the labor cheap. it has manifested an involved -- evolved and so we different ways over the years i a still get cheaper labor and that's what they want or they want cheap labor so people are denied access to him structure and they bring other kinds of jobs and that could raise the standard of living and also to raise the
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money's at the people could have two by better homes and to pay for education for their children and all of that is a part of the successful paradigm but i think there's a conflict that i had at that time and i love elizabeth warren, a conflict at that time was he was espousing the same thing that i have espoused earlier. the environmental justice kennedy economic development means elected officials bringing in land fields and petrochemical plants and other plants that would poison the environment and of course poison the people who are already suffering from health care disparities. it's a paradigm of construction
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with a think it's okay to sacrifice these communities and that's one of the things we have change. hopefully people can see in the book and that's the reason i told the story. to unpack these layers of how we got that way. >> you mentioned you loved elizabeth warren and she's obviously an ally in your work and now. perhaps more surprising to readers might an ally that you had early on when you're back in alabama before returning to the attorney general jeff sessions and you worked with -- who is also a macarthur grant recipient and i'm just curious they were very unlikely
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characters as they read in the book. everybody is watching this program probably has that idea about them but it tells a little about about mr. woods and that what it was like to be one of the people is political beliefs didn't necessarily square with yours that you were able to find collaborative common goals with. >> growing up in the community which is very red and it's been very red for a long time. i've learned how to navigate in this situation and with mr. woodson i met mr. woodson and was invited to a faith-based
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summit by young man that i had met in detroit and j.c. watts was from a community are similar to lance county -- lowndes county. and at the summit mr. woodson spoke and something he said spoke to me. i had seen them on television and he was speaking on behalf of the bush campaign. i saw him leave and i followed him and i started talking to him and i asked him would he come and help me. i had met him before and when i was a teacher took my students and we got into huge exchange because i cannot could not accept the fact that he was a conservative at the time. so to be able to accept him for
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who he was, and he met me where i was. i found out that he was very good at working in neighborhoods and helping formerly and currently incarcerated young people. 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 to be able to overcome that. i was pleasantly surprised when i found that out. he's the the raw sewage here and immediately sprung into action to help us and applaud his friends were actually democrats. one of them who was his best friend called himself a yellow dog democrat so through their relationship with woods and i
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learned about bipartisanship and how people can be friends. we have an assumption that people from different political belief systems don't talk to each other. there is a rare group of people that are like data i believe. the way a met senator sessions they had town hall meetings and lowndes county with senators who would come back and meet with local constituents to tell them what they were doing and at this particular town hall meeting i went there and he talked about these grant programs and i raise my hand and asked how do committees get access to grants and that's when there was no tax base and he really didn't answer the question but he came to me afterwards and we talked and he
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said i've always been interested and concerned about this. i don't know how to do that and that's how we started. he told me he was originally from wilcox county alabama and he said my family didn't have a television in the house until i was 10. and share the experience of rural party. if people talk about that more even though some of us have quote we talk about the fact that we have that shared feeling but that is how we connected and at that point whenever we had meetings he would send a representative to be there because during that time i started getting death threats. someone put a pipe -- in my apartment so mr. sessions would send people to be with me when i
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would go places and it was a degree of security in a very red state that i would not have had had senator sessions aid not done with me at the meeting or take me seriously and know which in a way they wouldn't have before because how many senators do that. so that was my first experience and we continued to have a friendship for quite some time. >> you mentioned part of the connection was sessions was also from the belt so i wanted to look at the science about this part of the story and here's one that i want you to sort of explain for viewers what that means to be part of alabama and how that relates to identification issues physically
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>> alabama's black belt is in 17 counties give or take and most of them have a consistency and they hold water. that's just one part of the story. the other part is the people not telling the story of climate change. we are dealing with sealevel rise but it's -- when these septic systems fail they tend either have sewage on top of the ground or bring sewage back into the homes especially when the grounds are saturated with water. the region is also heavily populated by descendents of slaves and a region populated by
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african-americans. a lot of them did not have a wastewater infrastructure in place. one time the department, the cabinet level departments are sponsored a for rural sanitation and housing. i remember the u.s. senator from alabama telling me once catherine find out why alabama keep sending money back to washington so even the funding at one point they came here because they were supposed to help families in the belt and instead of making sure there was infrastructure in place that we could use when they put infrastructure in place it's the cheapest infrastructure and then the narrative becomes well the people don't not a manage it but
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it the most unreliable infrastructure would -- and blamed it on the people when they didn't put the same infrastructure more affluent communities. >> that's part of what you call a dichotomy that had preyed on the impoverished in the county correct? >> yes. >> a lot of what you have done over the last 15 or 20 years is take various visitors, u.s. senators and special rapporteur's and a whole host of people to see how people -- and in 2090 went to see a woman named char and i wondered if you would tell us about what happened when you visited our
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property and what that led to because it led to a very stunning discovery. >> i had gotten a call from one of the regional environmentalists from the state health department and he called me and told me that there was a young woman who was in our 20s and pregnant and they were threatening our with an arrest because she didn't have septic. what i didn't know when i went there was our family was -- $800 to keep our out of jail so before going there i called the "associated press" and i'd brought a journalist with me. i had learned sometimes yet to shed light on situations.
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i felt like i needed to have that and we went there and the same person that called me along with environmentalists at the time and we went to our home and she explained to us she had one child who is autistic and she was pregnant with another one and she was only getting disability. she didn't have a big income where she could have put in a septic tank and a property that she lived on was our mother's property and it was more than a few acres so there was nobody close by. they weren't that close or nobody lived that close to them and i asked to see where the area was because we were inside of our home. we walked around during the month of october and it was
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still very warm there and there was a pit right outside of our backdoor. someone had dug a pit and the mobile home comes with plumbing and pvc pipes so when he would flush the toilet would go outside of the home and in this case it was right outside of our backdoor. it was teaming with mosquitoes. i have unaddressed and stockings in those mosquitoes bit me through my stockings. i had so many bites on my leg at the time and i didn't think about it right away. but i had a rash and i started breaking out in a rash. i went to my doctor was a practitioner and i told our what
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happened. i told our about the land that had mosquitoes on at the mosquitoes bit me and i wanted to test my blood to make sure i didn't have anything because with blood being involved there could potentially be something wrong with me so all the tests came back negative and with the test results came back negative i asked years at possible that i could have -- because it's not an issue would you'd expect to find in the united states. she said yes so later i saw an op-ed written in the near-term spike dr. peter tag who has been the spokesperson about covid. he's a specialist enisa creator of vaccines and he wrote about
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tropical diseases on our shores. i saw in this op-ed he mentioned a wastewater. so i googled him and found his e-mail address and he e-mailed me and i told him about my own experience. he e-mailed me right away and he was going to be in atlanta for conference that next weekend and we met at the conference and we talked and one of the things he you told me is catherine beazer neglected people in poverty and anywhere you find party will find diseases. so anyway that's how we ended up doing the parasite -- we collected samples from people throughout lowndes county and we were able to go to their lab in
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houston and they were able to find evidence. >> how shocks were you when that result came back as i think it was a third of the people tested or more. >> i was shocked there were so many but i wasn't shocked at the findings. people have been complaining about illnesses and one of the things i noticed, i had gone to lowndes county with partners in health and when we went there and we went to visit some of the folks they were in my age group
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and wanted people in trip said catherine you look so much older but it was because they were sick and i was trying to figure out why are so many people sick and why are so many people diabetic? i couldn't figure out why so this helped me to understand part of it and why there was so much asthma. a lot of people had illnesses. there is probably more that we simply have not looked for yet. >> correct end of the book you say a few years ago you would have identified yourself as a criminal justice activists and i'm curious as what you identify yourself as now so you've gone through this amazing last 20
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years of work and you've done so many things and called attention to what's going on in lowndes county and what did that turn you into if not in environmental justice. >> i am a teacher activists. i've always described teaching is activism so i think my role now is to pass on the knowledge that i've learned because i do believe it will really take transformational leadership. young people can take it to the next level. >> it's a amazing how all your formative experiences from the first tab of the book, you can see how each one lefty with a tool that was used in the second
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half of the book. i think that part about how you lay ripping out is really clear and impressive. the one tenant that really struck with me and i will make this my final question. what really stuck out for me came in the first chapter of the book and it was four words long, meanwhile poor people wait. and the theme comes back throughout the book. the federal civil rights case about the conditions of lowndes county that hadn't been responded to by february of 2020 and eight years waiting for a
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grant to come through and even in the time it takes for you to do the study. i'm just curious those four words you know in a matter of speaking could use some up a lot of what's in the book. >> it's what we have to do to solve these problems. we have to be persistent because these conditions are part of the failed economic system. whether they are or white in the south or the north whether they are on an indigenous land it's a decision-making process and when it comes to getting access to
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those things that are needed for a better quality of life including clean air and clean water and we have to change that. we have to change that and i think that's a good way to say that part of the book is a charge to young people to make sure that we can unpack the sequence that created these conditions because we can do better. >> you know met people who were working for other communities throughout the country who are in similar circumstances facing a barman told justices similar to those in lowndes county and did you form a sort of working relationship where you were able to share best practices and i want to leave viewers with a sense of hope.
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are you guys talking about what works on the ground and where the levers of power can be pushed? >> actually we have formed the center for environmental justice and we have collaborated with committees around the country. what we can do is the committee organizers helped us organize a public organization on techniques and practices to those communities to help them understand access to policy making and to also work on technology and collaborate with hopefully people from nasa and the come up with something that we can use that everyone would have access to. it's not just a southern problem, it's a national problem
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and 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 who want to be part of the solution. people around the world say look we have the same problem to and want to find something that works so that their effort now sting gauge with young people at universities and going back to high school and middle school for working on the technology side in the scientific side to find something that works. we are going to need out-of-the-box thinking. we will also see in all of this learning how to engage with communities on the ground. if it weren't for the people in lowndes county i would not have written this book and i have not -- would not have received
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my author award. because of the people on the ground living the situation and i listen to them. and i'm very very hopeful that we can find a solution. >> e i think that's the thing that is the key message to me that being able to listen to what people's experiences are and share them with others and you two people to actually see what the conditions were on the ground and i think that was a lot of the power that was clearly illustrated for people who might be all the help. so thank you so much for your time. the book is quite optimistic especially given what it's about
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and house gary and horrifying some of it is. >> will thank you and thank you for taking the time to read it and asking questions because at the end of the day i want people after they read the book to be hopeful because whatever we do we have to do it in a way that will have a positive impact on generations to come. and i believe we can do that.
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>> welcome to the latest in a series of streaming events and today i had the pleasure of hosting the event with steven koonin. steven is a scientist and now a famous scientist and an infamous scientist a professor of new york university and why you formerly the head of the department of energy research portfolio


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