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Posts Tagged ‘MacArthur "genius"’

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MacArthur Fellow and environmental health advocate Catherine Coleman Flowers of Alabama.

Today’s article is about an environmental health advocate from rural Alabama who was honored recently by the MacArthur Foundation. One thing her story suggests to me is that when parents demonstrate concern for the world around them, later generations can work miracles. The parents of Catherine Coleman Flowers were civil rights activists in the 1960s.

Sarah Kaplan writes at the Washington Post, “To Catherine Coleman Flowers, this is ‘holy ground’: the place where her ancestors were enslaved and her parents fought for civil rights and she came of age. …

“Yet this ground also harbors a threat, one made worse by climate change. Untreated sewage is coursing through this rural community, a consequence of historic government disinvestment, basic geology and recent changes in the soil. On rainy days, foul effluent burbles up into bathtubs and sinks, and pools in yards. Some residents have hookworm, an illness rarely seen in developed nations.

“It’s America’s ‘dirty secret,’ Flowers said. … Heavier rainfall caused by climate change is saturating soil and raising water tables — confounding septic systems. From the flooded coasts of Florida to thawing Alaska towns, an estimated half-million U.S. households lack adequate sanitation.

“Now Flowers, a MacArthur Foundation ‘genius,’ is partnering with environmental engineers at Columbia University on a solution. They are working on a new kind of toilet that will act as a mini sewage treatment facility.

Instead of flushing waste, the system they’re working to build will filter, clean and recycle waste on site. Instead of sending raw sewage into the soil, it will turn it into water for use in washing machines, and into nutrients for fertilizer, and perhaps even energy for homes. …

“What was once a problem can become a solution, Flowers said. And the change will start in Lowndes County, as it has before.

“To Flowers, 62, the Lowndes County of her childhood was part rural idyll, part activism hotbed. … In 1965, about 80 percent of the county’s population was Black, but not a single Black person was registered to vote. …

“But then protesters from Selma marched down Lowndes’s dirt roads on their way to Montgomery, and a wave of activism erupted. … Flowers’s father, a military veteran and salesman, and her mother, a teacher’s aide, were heavily involved. Civil rights leaders streamed to their cinder-block home. …

“Her parents’ activism connected Flowers to the world beyond Lowndes County. As a teenager, she joined the Alabama Students for Civil Rights and spent a summer in D.C. as a youth fellow at the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Foundation. She read ‘The Autobiography of Malcolm X,’ wrote politics-infused poetry and dreamed of becoming the first Black woman on the U.S. Supreme Court.

“In 11th grade, frustrated with subpar conditions at her high school, Flowers wrote an exposé for a local newsletter. That led to the formation of a community group, then a lawsuit and, ultimately, to the resignation of the principal and school board superintendent.

“ ‘My father’s famous thing he would always say was, “Catherine, if you take one step, God will take two,” ‘ Flowers said. It meant that change was possible, but you had to do the work.”

The article goes on to say that after Flowers had moved away, she learned her home county was suffering and that part of the problem was that the soil had changed and no longer worked for septic systems, which “require permeable soil. … All over the county, septic systems were breaking down. Heavy rainfall would seal up the soil until effluent had nowhere to go but up onto lawns or back into homes. …

“Flowers — then director of the nonprofit Alabama Center for Rural Enterprise (ACRE) — set out to determine the scale of the problem. …

“ ‘This is America,’ Flowers said. ‘We’re not supposed to have these kinds of problems — at least, that’s what we tell ourselves. But we do.’ …

“Climate change is making existing deficiencies worse. Rising sea levels have elevated the water table in coastal areas, shrinking the depth of leach fields and increasing contamination. Days of extreme rainfall — which have doubled in the Southeast as a consequence of warming — stymie septic systems. …

“ ‘Climate change is like a magnifying glass for everything,’ Flowers said. It exacerbates neglect, widens inequality and exposes problems once hidden. …

“Flowers has a vision for a better septic system. It’s cheap to buy and easy to run. It’s equipped with sensors that can monitor for signs of pathogens, including the coronavirus. Instead of allowing sewage to seep into the ground, the system separates waste into its component parts, which can then be recycled. …

“In Kartik Chandran, she found a partner who shares that vision. They met five years ago at a conference on wastewater issues. Chandran, an environmental engineer at Columbia University, was struck by how similar Lowndes County’s waste problems were to those in his native India. Flowers remembered hearing about Chandran’s research and thinking, ‘This is the technological solution we need.’ ” Read how it would work here.

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