In fall 2014, Catherine Coleman Flowers from the Alabama Center for Rural Enterprise (ACRE) spoke on environmental justice issues in Lowndes County, Alabama, at Duke University. During the talk, Flowers described how community members live with raw sewage that at times backs up into people’s homes or floods their yards. She spoke of failing septic tanks, straight pipes, and lagoons filled with raw sewage that abut, and often spill over into, adjacent neighborhoods. She described the legacy of institutional racism that impedes economic opportunities. She told of the history of community organizing in the county that sits along the path of the historic Selma to Montgomery march that occurred 50 years prior.
Students were shocked that such conditions could exist in the United States. This was long before Flint or Standing Rock entered national news. The students in the room realized how important these issues were before it was popular to talk about the plight of rural communities, neglected tropical diseases, or the lack of access to water and sanitation.
As a university located in the American South, these stories of raw sewage and absence of functioning sanitation systems echoed the history of racial, economic, and environmental injustice in our backyard. As scholars and staff coming from an institute that honors the legacy of scholar-activist John Hope Franklin,1The Duke Human Rights Center at the Franklin Humanities Institute (FHI) seeks to foster collaborative, cross-disciplinary, and critical thinking about human rights in both local and global contexts. As part of FHI, the humanities provide an essential frame for engaging in environmental justice research, pedagogy, and practice (https://humanrights.fhi.duke.edu/). FHI was built to honor the legacy of John Hope Franklin, whose life and work focused on questions of race and social equity (https://fhi.duke.edu/john-hope-franklin). we hoped to collaborate on a project that centered on ACRE’s goal of building new solutions to this decades-old sanitation problem. Here, we explain how we cocreated a community-based research partnership between Duke and ACRE by working collaboratively on the goal of finding solutions to the issue of raw sewage in Lowndes County.
Read Nikhil Anand’s essay on how the banal nature of infrastructure can lead to neglect, which ultimately hurts poor communities.
Lowndes County background
In Bloody Lowndes, Dr. Hasan Jeffries documents Lowndes County’s rich civil rights history, chronicling the development of activism in the area in the 1960s in the form of the Lowndes County Freedom Organization.2New York: New York University Press, 2010More Info → This group’s tactics, ideas, and black panther symbol would inspire black activists around the country, as well as the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense. Flowers experienced this history of activism firsthand, and continues to promote the rights of all the county’s residents.“Located in the Black Belt, Lowndes County remains underserved when it comes to basic infrastructure.”
Lowndes County is also illustrative of rural communities facing a number of social and environmental inequalities including endemic poverty, lack of economic opportunity, hazardous health conditions, and inadequate infrastructure.3Also see, Robert D. Bullard, Dumping in Dixie: Race, Class, and Environmental Quality (Westview Press, 1990). These inequities stem from and are further compounded by political inequalities, including lack of access to financial resources and decision makers. Located in the Black Belt, Lowndes County remains underserved when it comes to basic infrastructure.4Inga T. Winkler and Catherine Coleman Flowers, “America’s Dirty Secret: The Human Right to Sanitation in Alabama’s Black Belt,” Columbia Human Rights Law Review 49 (2007). Only two municipalities in the county maintain centralized wastewater treatment plants, while the remaining rural population is served by on-site septic systems or lack adequate sanitation. The UN Rapporteur for the Human Right to Water cited in her 2011 report that “the Alabama Department of Public Health estimates that the number of households in Lowndes County with inadequate or no septic systems range from 40 to 90 percent.”5Catarina de Albuquerque, Report of the Special Rapporteur on the Human Right to Safe Drinking Water and Sanitation, A/HRC/18/33/Add.4 (Human Rights Council, 2011), 6. What is striking about Lowndes is the number of failing on-site septic systems across the county, often caused by soil that holds water—a barrier to proper drainage. Poor sanitation is pervasive and poses serious health risks to residents. A 2017 National School of Tropical Medicine (Baylor College of Medicine) study found evidence of five tropical diseases, including hookworm (previously thought to be eradicated in the United States), in fecal samples from county residents.6Megan L. McKenna et al., “Human Intestinal Parasite Burden and Poor Sanitation in Rural Alabama,” The American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene 97, no. 5 (2017): 1623-1628. Once we were all aware of the county’s history and the complexity of the problem, we began to discern next steps in the development of our collaborative partnership.
Building a collaborative partnership and initial research findings
At the start of our collaboration, we focused on building on ACRE’s previous work to help us better understand the scope of the raw sewage problem. ACRE had completed a house-to-house survey in 2013 that was funded by the FY ’02 appropriations bill as part of the EPA’s National Decentralized Wastewater Demonstration Project. Working with community leaders who had conducted the survey, in August 2015, a group of faculty, staff, graduate students, and undergraduates from Duke University traveled to Lowndes County to carry out a preliminary household survey primarily in the Town of Hayneville. The survey was conducted on a sub-sample of households previously surveyed by ACRE. Community leaders who administered the original ACRE survey reviewed and revised the new questions, and coordinated all of the home visits. Their deep knowledge and experience helped bridge the divide and build trust between local residents and Duke students and faculty.
Through our survey, we sought to understand household perceptions of water infrastructure (e.g., sewer, septic, drinking water) and communication with local government and nongovernment officials regarding water infrastructure concerns. Though the United States is often touted as a country with near universal access to clean water and proper sanitation, most Lowndes County residents—despite being connected to municipal drinking water—are not served by a municipal sewage system; rather, they are responsible for their own on-site systems. Indeed, the local government does not oversee on-site systems. In response to our questions about raw sewage, we found that approximately half of the 42 survey respondents in Hayneville perceived raw sewage as a severe problem for their community. About a quarter of respondents said their septic system was not functioning properly, and five individuals remarked that they have noticed bad smells from the town’s waste-treatment lagoon.
Responsibility for regulating on-site sewage treatment and disposal systems lies with the Alabama Department of Public Health. Yet, because most people live in unincorporated areas in the county and most towns are poor, households often lack funds and the tax base to pay for municipal systems. Thus, when we asked respondents if they had contacted or been contacted by government staff or officials about their water or wastewater systems, it was not surprising that only 20 percent said that they have contacted local government officials, with the average satisfaction of the communication a 3.2 on a scale of 5, 5 being most satisfied. Likewise, only 30 percent of those surveyed said that they have contacted their water utility; here too, on average, satisfaction with these communications was poor (2.2 on a scale of 5, 5 being most satisfied).
These results reflect the findings of the broader survey conducted by ACRE as well as comport with the findings of the UN Rapporteur for the Human Right to Water.7Albuquerque, Report of the Special Rapporteur on the Human Right to Safe Drinking Water and Sanitation. This lack of functioning infrastructure, coupled with low satisfaction with communication with water-system officials, community members by and large remain frustrated with the presence of raw sewage in their community, which in many cases has been a persistent problem over many years.
Challenges of carrying out community-based research
Building a partnership requires building trust and demonstrating a long-term commitment, especially when students are involved in the research. Flowers underscored the mistrust in outsiders coming into the community due to the history of universities or entities coming in for their own gain. Whenever a group from Duke travels to Lowndes County, it includes Lowndes County residents to ensure that we are all accountable to one another and the communities, institutions, and organizations we serve.
Conducting solution-centered environmental justice research in a partnership also presents a number of challenges, from data collection, publication to solution development. Given that we know the problem of inadequate sanitation persists, there are limitations on publishing this data, especially when it could be georeferenced down to the actual home, as there has been a history in Lowndes of community members being criminalized for not having properly functioning septic systems dating to 1999.8On the criminalization of inadequate sanitation, see Winkler and Flowers, “America’s Dirty Secret.” Flowers became involved in 2002 when a number of Lowndes County residents were arrested. Thus, while our work has been focused on problem solving, solutions are constrained by institutional path dependencies that put vulnerable populations at risk for calling out social and racial inequities and injustices.
Lessons of an evolving partnership“This project has pushed the partner faculty, staff, and students to investigate their own individual perspectives that they bring to this work.”
Environmental justice scholars have been at the forefront of developing community-based participatory models for research.9→Peggy M. Shepard et al., “Preface: Advancing Environmental Justice through Community-Based Participatory Research,” Environmental Health Perspectives 110, no. S2 (2002).
→Meredith Minkler et al., “Promoting Environmental Justice through Community-Based Participatory Research: The Role of Community and Partnership Capacity,” Health Education & Behavior 35, no. 1 (2008): 119–137. Drawing upon this literature, we have sought to prioritize developing our relationship. The partnership, while always rewarding, has not always been easy. Building a partnership between a historically white and Southern academic institution and a community organization devoted to solving environmental justice issues in the American South has taught us to be more reflective and deliberative in this work. This project has pushed the partner faculty, staff, and students to investigate their own individual perspectives that they bring to this work. This reflection has occurred both in formal (equity trainings) and informal (nightly debriefing sessions while in Lowndes) settings. The deliberativeness of our collaboration requires frequent honest communication, discussion of expectations, clarity, and recentering of roles. These conversations, while at times challenging, have been essential to the trust-building critical to the development of the partnership.
Another lesson is the importance of frequent in-person meetings. We make sure to visit Lowndes County at least once a year, and found a way to have Flowers visit Duke each semester. In 2017 the Franklin Humanities Institute at Duke created a practitioner-in-residence position for Flowers so that she could be on campus 5–7 times a year and interact with students. During each visit, we have team meetings for the over 30 faculty, staff, and students from across the university to present updates and work with Flowers on next steps. Projects vary from mapping the presence of raw sewage in Lowndes County to analyzing patterns of infrastructure funding from state and federal programs.
Our partnership—now in its fourth year—has taught us to keep communication at the heart of everything we do, so that there is always trust, mutual respect, commitment, and clarity about the collective vision. We are learning to be flexible and find ways to work within and around the university’s established structures to develop solutions. Together, we reprioritize what is most important and involve students and community members in research we hope will ultimately lead to policy recommendations and technological solutions.
As the partnership has continued, we have gained a greater appreciation for the institutional and structural barriers that must be overcome to introduce viable solutions. When it comes to the expansion of sanitation worldwide, donors often in the developing world focus on ways to reinvent the toilet. For places like Lowndes, where the soil is a physical constraint, many potential design solutions reinvent wastewater systems without fully surveying what type of solutions community members would want. Effective solutions require a nuanced understanding of community member concerns about and preferences toward household sanitation practices—a topic that is highly personal, sensitive, and challenging to discuss openly. Thus, when composting toilets, for example, are proposed as a green solution, Flowers has echoed the feelings of many within the community when she noted that composting toilets are not far from the outhouses of her youth. Rather, the technological solutions must be affordable, sustainable, take into account climate change impacts, and work in Lowndes County soils. It is also a matter of respecting the dignity of residents and let them have a voice in the pursuit of those solutions.“Requirements such as financial matching by communities can disproportionately disadvantage communities such as Lowndes County.”
Compounding the lack of investment in technological solutions are political constraints (i.e., rules) that have restricted the ways in which federal funding can be accessed by under-resourced communities. Requirements such as financial matching by communities can disproportionately disadvantage communities such as Lowndes County. As environmental justice scholars and activists, we recognize that solutions are not only technical or political, but must also be discussed within the context of broader social inequities and injustices. This is not simply a question of how to expand sanitation infrastructure, but also recognizing that the problems that exist in Lowndes County and other parts of the United States are linked to decades of policies that have perpetuated a system of structural racism and poverty.
Finding solutions, at a minimum, requires innovative partnerships. And partnerships, such as ours, change over time. What started as an invitation to speak in a seminar series has evolved into an organic collaboration that continues to adapt to the needs of the partners, as the broader context of media and political attention blossoms. Such a partnership between a community-based organization and a university could offer a template for expanding the type of collaborative research necessary to arrive at meaningful policy and technological approaches that can impact not only rural Lowndes County, Alabama, but rural communities throughout the United States.
Students that were involved in our initial data collection include: Bryce Cracknell, Jeff Feng, Chandra Christmas-Rouse, Priyanka Kanal, Jacob Rosenberg, and Farah Hegazi. We also acknowledge the contributions of Danielle Purifoy and Katy Hansen to this partnership.
→Meredith Minkler et al., “Promoting Environmental Justice through Community-Based Participatory Research: The Role of Community and Partnership Capacity,” Health Education & Behavior 35, no. 1 (2008): 119–137.