The Fight for Water Justice

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S1: This is a word, a new podcast from Slate. I’m your host, Jason Johnson. Residents of Mississippi’s capital endured weeks this winter without clean running water.

S2: Imagine waking up thinking it’s raining outside. I could probably capture some water to flush my college.

S1: Water access is an issue for thousands of black communities in and outside of rural America. Now, some activists want to put this at the center of a racial equity agenda, a fight for water justice. Next on a word with me, Jason Johnson. Stay tuned. Welcome to a word, a podcast about race and politics and everything else. I’m your host, Jason Johnson. A combination of bad weather and failed infrastructure meant thousands of people in the mostly black city of Jackson, Mississippi, spent weeks without clean water in February and early March. Residents had to rely on donated water for everyday tasks. Jackson resident Kehinde Gaynor documented his family’s experience in a video. We can’t use

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S2: the water to brush our teeth. We can’t use it to wash up or wash our face, maybe wash our hands with some hand sanitizer just behind it. You can’t use it to clean out dishes that have been sitting in the dishwasher. You can use it to cook, you can’t drink it.

S1: Well, it seems like Jackson’s immediate water crisis is getting resolved. Many black communities in the rural south and elsewhere struggle to get access to clean water every day. It’s a complicated problem that doesn’t get the same national attention as other racial justice priorities or the latest black person who’s been killed in a viral video. One woman who is working to change that is Catherine Coleman Flowers. She’s the author of Waste One Woman’s Fight Against America’s Dirty Secret and a winner of a 20 20 MacArthur Genius Grant. Welcome to the show, Catherine. Thank you for having me. What are some of the issues with infrastructure, communication in government that led to this happening in Jackson, Mississippi, which is actually a state capital

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S3: which is in Jackson, is not unusual. I believe that what we will find a lot of these areas, especially in the South, is a type of benign neglect of the cities that benign neglect means. This, to me is an intentional avoidance of putting the type of of dollars and infrastructure in these southern communities is not coming from the tax base because the tax base is not there. A lot of it comes from the federal government and it’s those cities that have lobbyists or political connections. They get the money over and over again and we have to change that paradigm. One of the things that I had the opportunity to do with the Biden Sanders unity task force last summer was to talk about environmental justice and how do we make sure that the dollars get to black communities to get to communities that have been denied it for so long. And in Jackson, one of the things that I read about Jackson or the mayor was quoted, he talked about how brittle the pipes were. I mean, the infrastructure that was probably put in Jackson was put in there when Jackson was white and probably has not been replaced. And the local community cannot afford to replace it. But we have to do something about this. This is not Jackson is not the only one is like with Flint and the and the problem. Flint was just the canary in the coal mine. There’s little issues throughout the United States that have not been addressed. And likewise, the infrastructure, water issues that the United States. When you look at Jackson, Jackson was also the convergence of poor infrastructure and climate change. And we’re going to see more climate events. But these extreme weather patterns are going to be exposed like Kobe did. All of these disparities as it relates to to infrastructure issues,

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S1: have you seen climate change make clean water access even harder for rural black communities?

S3: Yes, in California. Allensworth in the Central Valley, I mean, because of the water being used by the the farming industry, their second order ground, there is a black community that historically was the first black community in California and the black vote and now they can’t drink the water because the water is full of arsenic that’s naturally forming. But the arsenic is it’s the parts of the state is greater than the parts of the water, so therefore they can’t drink.

S1: So when it comes to this kind of activism, right. We we always hear about famous white women. They get movies, we have Silkwood, we’ve got Erin Brockovich. But we don’t hear often about the black women who are on the ground doing this kind of work. So can you tell us a little bit about yourself, what you saw in Loudoun County, Alabama, and how your activism began on environmental justice issues?

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S3: Well, my activism began on environmental justice issues because that came from activist parents as coming from an activist family. We just the tools that you picked up for addressing problems. And when I moved back to L.A. County in two thousand and I ran into the fact that there were black people that were being arrested because they could not afford an on site septic system, a lot of the people that are in communities are not unincorporated areas. So all the laws written to support municipalities, but in a local community generally, there’s no wastewater treatment, no decentralized system. I live in Montgomery, Alabama. So in Montgomery, Alabama, we have a decentralized system. And all I have to do when I bought a house is, you know, just move into the house and pay for the have my water turned on. Or if I was building a house in Montgomery, it would just connect to the decentralized system. However, in rural communities like Lounds County, the homeowner is responsible for their own decentralized systems. And these systems in Lounds County, especially in places like that, are very, very expensive. Especially you’re poor. Family, to give you an example, last year we were trying to work with the family prior to covid to get a septic system for them, and they took about twenty five inches in this case instead of water. And the system that she would have needed would have cost twenty eight thousand dollars. That means that you don’t go to the bank and borrow 20, even if it’s six thousand four scepticism and there’s no financing for it in a mobile home. Come with the family into a plumbing the toilets and they you can connect it to a straight pipe or PVC pipe and have it protruding from the home. And when they first the toilet, it goes out on top of the ground that as one of the the things and they have criminalized that here in the state of Alabama and in a lot of states. Then the second problem is people that have scepticism begin to fail. And when they fail, they can also be criminalized in a way. I got involved back in 2002. I had gone to visit a family inside for risk. Actually, they had been arrested, was a husband and wife, had been arrested because they had a failing septic system. And then later we found out that there were lots of people in the county that either had already been arrested or were facing arrest because they didn’t have a working septic system. So I got involved. But by stopping the criminalization, at least in Loudoun County, stopped the criminalization of poor people could not afford onsite sanitation.

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S1: It would seem to me also that this is a structural issue, because as black folk were segregated or kept out of certain neighborhoods in certain places in the South, they weren’t able to live in places that were incorporated that had plumbing systems. So you’re not only being punished through white supremacy and segregation forcing you out, but then being fined and criminalized again when you have to provide resources for yourself that other people are getting through tax money.

S3: Yes, but I think we have to keep in mind that in these unincorporated areas where a lot of us are living, because, you know, Montgomery at one point was one of the top slave trading places in this country when we ended the importation of slaves from outside of this country. So that is why the lynching memorial, the National War and Peace of Justice is located in Montgomery. When you walk from the river in Montgomery and walk down Commerce Street, those buildings, a lot of them were slave holding hands and people were auctioned off at square, which is not far from the Rosa Parks Museum. So those of us that that are part of that heritage were our families ended up in places like Orleans. So when I go back and look at census workers and I see that our families have been there since early. Eighteen hundreds in some places. So these rural communities, there’s a legacy and traditions where their churches and schools and graveyards where people have been there forever, an infrastructure came here. I think that was the neglect of these communities where they were the communities and then with the communities that were not communities of color and the communities that were left out with those communities of color. And and that is a major problem that we see in the south around infrastructure and environmental justice.

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S1: We’re going to take a short break. When we come back, more on environmental justice with Kathryn Coleman Flowers. This is a word with Jason Johnson. Stay tuned. You’re listening to a word with Jason Johnson. Today, we’re talking about clean water access with author and activist Kathryn Coleman Flowers. This is something that I think is really critical here as we expand outside of the United States. I know this is going to sound a little silly sci fi kind of person. There was a James Bond movie several years ago called Quantum of Solace, and the whole plot was about the villain instead of trying to create a giant laser or bomb to take over the world. He was trying to get access to clean water because he predicted that the wars of the future would be fought over access to clean water. If these issues of clean water are not addressed, what kind of problems could we see not just in the United States but globally as as large communities can’t get access to clean water, can’t get access to sanitary water?

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S3: I think that’s a good question. And I don’t think it’s a sci fi fantasy to envision that that is on the horizon right now. What is going to be an issue. And they just started trading water on the stock market that that really concerns me. And I was actually at a think tank meeting a few years ago and I raised alarm because there were people that were excited about it, buying up land around the world so that they could still water sources. And it was a discussion over the fact that a lot of places there’s no groundwater plan. What they’re looking for is to be able to control groundwater. So you buy the property like in California, you can buy the property, but you don’t have the oil on the oil underneath it. They want to do this. Some people want to do the same thing with water. So this is something that you need to watch because we could see already, based on the access to so many other things that people of color and poor communities don’t have. And if the few people control water sources around the world that make it so expensive that the only people that can get it would be those that can afford it.

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S1: Catherine, you’ve worked with Democrats and Republicans. I mean, like on all sides. You’ve worked with former Vice President Al Gore, current White House climate czar John Kerry. You’ve worked with Bernie Sanders. You work with Jeff Sessions, who’s the last person on the planet who I would ever think would care anything about the struggles of rural black people. So I got to ask you, when you’re dealing with these powerful political leaders in and out of office, when they come to you and say, what can I do to help? What’s the first thing that you tell them?

S3: Well, what has happened is been different, different times. When I thought with Jeff Sessions the way it happened, I just happened to be at a town hall meeting. I was the economic development coordinator for the county and I attended this town hall meeting. He was a US senator and he talked about the type of grants that were available. And then I asked a question. You mentioned these grants for how to poor communities get access to them if they have the permit. And he came to me afterwards and said, you know, I’ve always wanted to know the answer to that. I’m from Wilcox County, Alabama. I grew up poor. We didn’t have a television in our house until I was 10 years of age. That’s how we started our conversation. You know, we had to be human first. And from that point, it was very helpful because I was trying to get on the side. It was going to locate in Alabama, Montgomery. And at that time when they decided to locate that state officials weren’t taken into account at all. When they had the groundbreaking ceremony, everybody was from East Alabama and there was nobody with a shovel that was black. And all the black people kind of huddled together and everybody was saying, let’s get it right over there. Was anybody from Lousiana with the shovel, weren’t they? You know, you need to deal with it. So ultimately, I was able to recruit, help recruit two tier one suppliers to Hundy to Lounds County. But we needed the infrastructure. We didn’t have we didn’t have industrial development paths to anything like that. And Senator Sessions was very helpful in that. In terms of Bernie Sanders, Bernie Sanders actually came to visit Lounds County. He went to the home of Pamela Rush, who I write about in my book. And I felt that you can’t understand inequality unless you see it for yourself. So to come into our home and see how she was living in a dilapidated mobile home that she was owed money on that did not appreciate in value, which was great. I’ve been living with two children, one child sleeping on a seat. That machine Bernie Sanders said to me, Catherine, I now understand when you talk about the intersection of climate change and environmental justice and racial justice, I told you when he came, I didn’t tell him my problems. People, I have to plan this trip because I want to make sure it is not going to be a photo op. He’s going to have to go and see people and see the situation so that he can know what kind of policies we need to have in place to address this. So I received the call last summer after he came. And they basically said to me, Catherine said that he was going to bring help and this is where he’s going to bring help, he is going to appoint you to serve on a committee because he and Biden were talking that time. He was withdrawing from the race, the presidential race. And he said, we’re going to ask you to serve on this climate change committee that’s going to be co-chair of John Kerry and AOC. And I got a chance to serve on that committee. And we were talking about climate change, that the Department of Justice, which is very easy to do, wouldn’t do it for it. Protests were taking place in the streets at this time. And as a result, I mean, now the federal government is looking at equality throughout all of the federal agencies, billions of environmental justice. So I didn’t have an ask other than for him to come and see. And then once he saw it, he was looking at what resources are, what ways he could potentially help. And it has led to a shift in government policy that I could not have even imagined when I made that request for him to come see

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S1: for people who aren’t political leaders and aren’t activists and don’t live in these particular communities. But I’m living in suburban Detroit. I’m in New York, I’m in central Indiana. And we may or may not have this issue. What can I do right here, right now after this podcast and make a difference on these issues?

S3: Well, first of all, I want to just let people know that these issues are throughout the United States, in Detroit, for example, because of the watershed of there when they shut off the water. They’re also shutting off your access to sanitation. You can’t flush the toilet. So these are problems due out the United States. What we’re doing, we have engaged a center for oil, enterprise and environmental justice, have partnered with The Guardian, and we are actually doing a yearlong series on waste water problems due out to us. And as part of that, we’re asking people to go to the site and actually self report because the government doesn’t have its figures on who has waste water issues and who does. We’re looking for three different things. We’re looking for people to self report straight if they have a feel scepticism and self report if they have a wastewater treatment facility. So what has happened as a result of this? We’re doing a series of stories around the country. You’re going to be surprised when you see the stories of people that have come forward to talk about the waste water issues that they’re seeing around us. So I would suggest that those of you that are listening to starting your own areas because there is no state in the United States of America that does not have a wastewater problem.

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S1: Catherine, thank you so very much. We will make sure that we put a link so that people can self report their water and sanitation issues in a word podcast show notes. Catherine Coleman Flowers is the author of Waste One Woman’s Fight Against America’s Dirty Secret and a winner of a 20 20 MacArthur Genius Award. Thank you so much for joining us on a word.

S3: Thank you for having me.

S1: And that’s a word for this week. If you’re enjoying a word, please subscribe rate and review. Did you know you could be listening to this show ad free? All it takes is a slate plus membership. It’s just one dollar for the first month. And it also helps us keep making our podcasts sign up now at Slate Dotcom a word. Plus, the show’s email is a word at Slate Dotcom. This episode was produced by Ayana Angel and Jasmine Ellis. Aisha Solutia is the managing producer of podcast at Slate. Gabriel Roth is Slate’s editorial director for audio. Alicia Montgomery is the executive producer of podcasts like June. Thomas is senior managing producer of the Slate podcast Network. Our theme music was produced by Don Will. I’m Jason Johnson. Tune in next week for word.