Climate change is now impacting every part of the country, especially the rural South. Rising temperatures bring an influx of tropical disease and heavier rainfall causes flooding—overwhelming already failing infrastructure.
In Lowndes County, Ala., Catherine Coleman Flowers has been organizing to reverse these trends, and the health and racial inequities that result, for decades. In 2021, she was appointed to President Joe Biden’s Environmental Justice Advisory Council.
She sat down with her brother Jay C. Coleman to remember where they came from, and the home they never stopped protecting.
Jay C. Coleman: What are some of the things that you remember about growing up in Lowndes County?
Catherine Flowers: When we first moved to Lowndes County, most people didn’t have water, but we had an electric pump. Daddy was trying to be neighborly and let everybody come and get water. So people were backing up their cars with big containers to take it to their home. A lot of people don’t know that, but he was one of the founders of the Black Belt water system.
Daddy would always take us around and introduce us to folk and say, “These are your folk.” They would always look out for us, and we always looked out for them. And that still informs my work today.
Jay: I know you’re doing work now with the failing sewage systems in Lowndes County. How has that affected people’s health?
Catherine: I mean just think about it—when we were growing up, people had outhouses, so the sewage was away from the house. Now a lot of people are living in mobile homes and when they flush their toilet, the sewage goes out onto the ground. And along with that comes disease.
Jay: Then we get this heavy rain…
Catherine: And whatever’s upstream goes downstream. We didn’t have the type of storms that we have as often as we have them now. The weather is definitely changing. And my concern is that so many people are living in substandard housing or in mobile homes. We’re going to have to prepare for climate change and the only way that can happen is for the government to provide some type of septic system that would allow them to deal with wastewater.
Jay: Then comes COVID-19 and you have to deal with that, too.
Catherine: Lowndes County had one of the highest Covid infection and death rate in the state of Alabama. As you know, relatives of ours, they lost the father, the daughter, and just recently a brother died. So it’s been devastating.
But with climate change being an amplifier, we’re going to see more and more diseases.
You look at the fact that there are health care disparities. We started hearing more often of people having both diabetes and high blood pressure And now, almost every household, someone has asthma—that makes it harder for them to fight Covid. So all of these things created a perfect storm of tragedy and trauma.
But I think that our voices are being heard because I was asked to serve on the climate change task force, and out of that came the White House Environmental Justice Advocacy Council. It will provide funding for infrastructure to those marginalized or underprivileged communities.
And hopefully what we’re going to see in the future is the investment that has avoided Lowndes County for all of these years and other rural communities.
Jay: I’m so proud of you and the work that you are continuing to do and the difference that you’re making in people’s lives.
Catherine: One time I wanted to stop doing this work, right before Mama died. And I remember calling her, and I said, “I can’t do this anymore.” And she told me, “Your father would be proud of you because you’re continuing the work that he’s done.” That was what kept me going.
No matter what I do, where I go, I’m always connected to Lowndes County because Mama and Daddy inspired us to make change.
Learn more and watch other videos in the series about health, climate, and equity at http://www.rwjf.org/climatehealthstories.
This segment was produced by StoryCorps, a non-profit whose mission is to preserve and share humanity’s stories in order to build connections between people and create a more just and compassionate world. The recordings are archived online and at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress. It was made possible with support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.