Published March 20, 2021

As part of the all-virtual 2021 Virginia Festival of the Book, nonfiction writers Kerri Arsenault (Mill Town: Reckoning with What Remains), Anna Clark (The Poisoned City: Flint’s Water and the American Urban Tragedy), and Catherine Coleman Flowers (Waste: One Woman’s Fight Against America’s Dirty Secret) discussed their investigations into American environmental injustices, from sewage and sanitation management systems that reinforce systemic class, racial, and geographic prejudices, to Flint’s water crisis and other industrial impacts leading to contaminated waters, illness, and loss.

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Watch the video of this event here and read the transcript below:

Thanks to our bookseller for this event, UVA Bookstore.

“Combining personal history with investigative reporting, Arsenault pays loving homage to her family’s tight-knit Maine town even as she examines the cancers that have stricken so many residents.” ―The New York Times Book Review (Editors’ Choice)

“An exceptional work of journalism. Clark delivers a thorough account of a still-evolving crisis, one with an unmistakable racial subtext…. Her book is a deeply reported account of catastrophic mismanagement. But it’s also a celebration of civic engagement, a tribute to those who are fighting back.” —San Francisco Chronicle

“Flowers exposes the true injustice of the situation and how it can be remedied, from both sides of the political spectrum. This is a powerful and moving book that deserves wide readership.” —Booklist

Community Partners

Thanks to our community partners for this event: Alabama Center for the BookAlabama Humanities AllianceAppalachian VoicesBlack Millennials for FlintCivic Engagement Subcommittee-UVA Committee on SustainabilityCommunity Climate CollaborativeJefferson School African American Heritage Center, Maine Center for the BookMaine Humanities CouncilMichigan HumanitiesPiedmont Environmental CouncilWild Virginia

Transcript

JANE KULOW: Hello, and welcome to “Environmental Injustice: Reckoning with American Waste,” a program in the all-virtual 2021 Virginia Festival of the Book. I’m Jane Kulow, Director of the Virginia Center for the Book, a program of Virginia Humanities. Thanks for joining us.

A couple of notes before I hand the program over to our speakers: Please share your questions using the Q&A tab on Zoom. This event has optional closed captioning, which you can turn on and customize by using the Closed Captions tab at the bottom of your window. If you haven’t already read today’s books, we hope you will. For details about how to buy them from our book seller for this event, UVA Bookstore, visit VaBook.org, where you can also explore our full schedule and watch past events. While you’re there, please consider making a donation to support the festival’s ongoing work at VaBook.org/Give. 

We’d like to thank our community partners who shared information about this event: Alabama Center for the Book, Alabama Humanities Alliance, Appalachian Voices, Black Millennials for Flint, Civic Engagement Subcommittee of the UVA Committee on Sustainability, the Community Climate Collaborative, the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center, Maine Center for the Book, Maine Humanities Council, Michigan Humanities, the Piedmont Environmental Council, and Wild Virginia. We also greatly appreciate the support of all of our Festival sponsors, donors, and community partners. 

Now, I’m pleased to introduce our speakers:

Kerri Arsenault, author of Mill Town: Reckoning with What Remains, is a book critic, book editor at Orion magazine and contributing editor at Lit Hub. Her work as appeared in Freeman’s, the Boston Globe, Down East, the Paris Review Daily, and the Washington Post, among others. Mill Town is a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Leonard Prize, to be announced next week. 

Anna Clark, author of The Poisoned City: Flint’s Water and the American Urban Tragedy, is a journalist for ProPublica in Detroit. Her work was awarded the Hillman Prize for Book Journalism and the Rachel Carson Environment Book Award. She also teaches in Alma College’s MFA Program in creative writing.

And Catherine Coleman Flowers, author of Waste: One Woman’s Fight Against America’s Dirty Secret, is the founder of the Center for Rural Enterprise and Environmental Justice and the rural development manager at the Race and Poverty Initiative of the Equal Justice Initiative. In 2020, Catherine was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship, and she lives in Montgomery, Alabama. 

Thank you all for joining us today. Anna, it’s all yours. 

ANNA CLARK: Well, first of all, let me say that it is a thrill and an honor to be here, part of the whole book festival, this wonderful community of writers and readers that are coming together, and it is also just a great joy to be here with Kerri and Catherine, who I feel like I have, through their books, been talking to them for quite some time, but this is the first time we’re doing it live and more or less in person. So, I have a million questions; I’m sure you do too, folks who are tuning in, and I hope you will share them in the Q&A thing—we’ll thread those through the conversation. 

But I guess where I thought we might start is wheeling back truly to the beginning. So, Mill Town, Waste, The Poisoned City, we’ve all found ourselves in different ways becoming environmental storytellers, but I wonder if we can remember back to one of the earliest times where we ourselves were touched by someone else’s place-based story, whether in a book or shared on a porch or in a film, wherever it was. For Kerri and Catherine, I’m curious, what is one of the very first times you can remember feeling moved by an environmental story? And whoever wants to jump in first. Let’s start with Kerri, and then Catherine.

KERRI ARSENAULT: Okay. I know right away it’s The Jungle by Upton Sinclair which I read in high school, and I have the copy—it’s right there above my desk. I just realized that, “Wow, writing can do something, can actually make change.” I remember thinking that when I read it, and also the writing was so incredible and so visceral and so muscular. I mean I know it’s a novel, but it felt real to me back then—it still does—because of what it’s done. So, I’d say that book, the first.

ANNA CLARK: That’s a really interesting one. I love that. What about you, Catherine?

CATHERINE COLEMAN FLOWERS: Well, the medium that made me more touched by environmental situations, there were actually two that were not books. One was the story of Erin Brockovich, and then the second one was about climate change, it was An Inconvenient Truth by Al Gore. That is when I started really connecting the dots. I think Erin Brockovich, it was her passion and activism and just persistence to prove what she thought she was seeing in the community that she lived in. And, of course, in Inconvenient Truth, it helped me to understand the connection between what I was seeing here and climate change, and realizing that climate change wasn’t just about animals, it wasn’t just about polar bears, but also about people, and the choices that are being made is impacting all of us.

ANNA CLARK: I’m really interested in the choices both you made because they seem analogous in many ways to the work that you did too. So much of Waste deals with the long toll, year by year by the year, the cumulative consequences personally and collectively for not coming up with a better solution to the sanitation crisis. In both Erin Brockovich and An Inconvenient Truth, those are stories where people are affected by the toll of long-tale environmental stories. And, Kerri, The Jungle, that intersection of public health, environmentalism, labor rights, all of that seems very tied to what you explore in Mill Town. So, I don’t really have a question with that, it’s just—

KERRI ARSENAULT: I know, what’s your book?

ANNA CLARK: —acknowledgement.

KERRI ARSENAULT: You can tell us what your book is, too.

ANNA CLARK: I was writing this, and I was thinking that, “I’m going to have to offer something,” and then it was like, “It’s kind of challenging.” Honestly, the first thing that came to mind: I, like you, grew up Catholic, and I think probably the first environmental story that resonated with me might have been just the Creation story. I remember, just as a kid, being very offended by littering and things like this—I was like, “It’s like you’re throwing trash at God.” I felt this sense of stakes in just the natural world and the sense of it being sacred.

And even as my personal practice has evolved over time, I think that basic understanding is still there: of just feeling a sense of responsibility towards place because, first of all, it’s our home, it’s us, it’s not this separate thing, and it just seems like such an ugly thing to treat something beautiful so terribly, so I just feel like there’s some weight with that, and I think that probably is the earliest possible story that affected me. So, that’s mine, if that doesn’t sound too—

KERRI ARSENAULT: Thank you, no. It is what it is. 

ANNA CLARK: It is what it is.

CATHERINE COLEMAN FLOWERS: And I also think that, ultimately, there are different things that have impacted us along the way because, for me, there are not a lot of stories written about Black people, books that I can refer to, but in terms of my experience growing up, I grew up in a rural area, and there was a natural appreciation for our ecosystem. But in terms of climate change and environmental justice, those terms were not being used when I was growing up. 

So, I think for some of what we’re talking about, the terminology has changed over the years. And also, there’s interest that has changed over the years because I’ve been trying to write Waste for a very long time. Nobody was interested in it, but now we’re at a point that all we hear about is environmental justice. So, I think that the environmental movement has changed over time because it was not established for the purpose of dealing with protecting anything other than public lands and maybe certain animals; it was not designed to protect people. That’s why we have a “Cancer Valley,” or a “Cancer Alley” for that matter. 

ANNA CLARK: Right. What do you think has catalyzed that kind of change? Because that seems like a pretty profound one, both that idea of there being more resonance in stories of environmental justice, and also just that wider reckoning with who’s included, who are the storytellers, who are the communities that we’re paying attention to? Do you feel like you could pinpoint some moment that you started noticing that changing?

KERRI ARSENAULT: Well, I would say there’s no moment because this is the thing about toxic disasters: They don’t have a moment. They are very decentralized and hard to pin down. But I think now there’s a very intense time-space compression. Whereas climate change used to be something we couldn’t see—it was happening geographically and over centuries—and now we see it sometimes in months now, and I think some of that’s the time-space compression that has made it feel more urgent. So even though toxic disasters, a little bit of the things that we’re talking about, have happened slowly, we’re seeing the repercussions of them faster in conjunction, I think, with climate change. Does that make sense?

CATHERINE COLEMAN FLOWERS: I’d like to add to that, I think it’s true, but I think in terms of people of color and marginalized communities, I think the two shifts, I think, occurred because of Flint and Standing Rock. Before Flint—there were areas before Flint that were suffering—but Flint was just so blatant; it could not be ignored. And even when I talked about, because I’ve been talking about this waste issue for at least 20 years now, but when people started talking about Flint, I would say, “No, it’s not just Flint.” I actually wrote a paper entitled “Not Just Flint.”

But I think that shed light on it and what was happening in terms of Standing Rock, where people started really focusing on water, and my quest was to make sure that we focus not just on water, but also on sanitation because oftentimes people divide the two and don’t realize that they’re related, and both of them are very significant to the public health and also to life expectancy. 

And more recently, the event that I think has amplified it and made people talk more about the impact that these kinds of decisions have on health and wellbeing is COVID because a lot of the communities that are suffering—I know the community that I work in especially, Lowndes County, that I write about—we’re still having deaths and funerals as recently as this week. So, a lot of those communities that are suffering health disparities because of decisions that were made to bring industries there or to not put infrastructure there, it’s causing a lot of long-term effects and loss of life because it puts people in jeopardy. It puts their lives and health in jeopardy.

KERRI ARSENAULT: I like what you said too about the things that have gotten attention—have gotten media attention is what has happened to bigger events, and I think they’ve shed light on the smaller places, like your community and my community, which nobody would have published a book about maybe before. Those bigger events shed light because normally people want to read about disasters that are bigger and more spectacular, the other ones are pushed more to the periphery, I think, because of those bigger events come up to the surface, no pun intended. 

ANNA CLARK: I mean that’s kind of terrifying too, when you think about that, because to be so dependent on some sort of spectacular visual, like an oil spill or something like that, and while being very important, that can mask the seriousness of things that are not visible. One of the signature images of Flint is people holding up water that’s brown or orange, and that wasn’t even the lead, which is invisible, or the bacteria which is what actually killed people and is what most of the criminal charges are hinging on, and that part of the story is not even as resonant with people. 

And it’s strange. And I say this as a journalist—it’s very strange how distorting this spotlight can be and how arbitrary it can seem, and when you realize that there are real life-and-death stakes of where that spotlight goes—I mean it’s actually quite chilling. I mean, so much of Waste in particular, Catherine, you’re focusing on that long journey of just trying to get people to pay attention and try to conceptualize what’s going on, to be able to see it and feel it, bringing people through and being this constant concierge for journalists and cameras and things like that. 

I mean that’s a burden to carry, right? I mean it’s important and I can understand why you and others do that, but it’s a bit of a burden to be this interpreter, constantly trying to get people to understand why this matters and why these people matter and why this community matters. How do you feel like writing a book about this compares to that day-to-day interpretive work that you’ve been doing and others in the community have been doing for so long?

CATHERINE COLEMAN FLOWERS: I think, for me, what was significant about writing the book is it can reach so many more people that probably would not visit Lowndes County, and it also gave me the opportunity to share stories of people living in Lowndes County and people in other areas too who are suffering from the same problem. The biggest problem is that we feel, as Americans, that we don’t have these problems. This is where the missionaries go out of the country to solve these issues. So, one of the things that I felt was necessary was to reveal that we have issues right here too, but I think the difference is for us to be one of the wealthiest countries in the world and to have these kinds of issues that we could solve makes a lot of sense. 

And then the other part of it is as we talk about the intersection of climate change, I think that’s the other thing that drives this. Because recently we saw, in Texas, that there was an extreme weather event, and not only did the grid fail and people lost electricity, but they couldn’t use the water, and when you can’t use the water, you can’t flush the toilet either, so it’s like living in Lowndes County without the adequate wastewater system. And we were able to tie that to parasites that people generally see in third-world nations or where there’s lots of extreme poverty. I mean we had to invite the UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty to the United States to actually see it firsthand, and he was even shocked about what he saw in Lowndes County. 

But it’s similar to my visit to Flint. I had the opportunity to go to Flint and I saw Flint firsthand, I was actually there when they were still passing out water—the National Guard was still passing out water to people—and I saw people with signs up outside their homes saying things like, “$3,000 or best offer,” trying to leave town. So, the impact of these issues are something that we simply cannot ignore. And I think the bigger part of this is as we look at environmental justice and look at things through the lens of environmental justice is that how do we make decisions that are not wrapped in just jobs only? 

Do we sacrifice our communities so we can get that factory in there that’s going to kill half the people that live there? They’ll never get a chance to enjoy the fruits of their labor because they may not live to retirement. Or, as it indicates right now in West Memphis with the Valero pipeline, do we run a pipeline through an area, a traditionally Black community, that threatens the aquifer of the entire area? And if the pipe leaks, they say there’s a 1% chance there’s a leak—that’s too much. Chances are it is going to leak. I mean we shouldn’t get to this point, and I think that, even in Mill Town there’s a similar story, they’re wrapping a lot of these injustices, making it appear that the narrative is that it’s a part of economic development. But what is the sacrifice that we ultimately make? And is it worth it? It’s like not wearing a mask and knowing you could get COVID. 

KERRI ARSENAULT: Yeah. And also if you just look at the lowest-income Americans, we’re the ones that are forced to have this more disposable relationship to the goods, and then we become disposable ourselves—I mean I think that’s what all of us are writing about. There’s something you said that made me think of this, but part of this thing too is that communities like this are kept in a state of gradual and perpetual injury, like a non-deliberate exposure to the possibility of death. It’s not like direct death, and that’s part of that spectacular or media event compared to something more subtle and insidious, like talking about parasites—that’s so hard to grasp for people. But there’s a geographer in the UK, he calls it a “permanent wounding,” which is how I thought about it as I was writing my book, too. 

ANNA CLARK: That phrase, I think Stephen Lerner popularized it, of “sacrifice zones,” like this country has made a bargain basically that some region, some towns, is where we’re going to concentrate the bulk of the risk, and the people who live there are effectively disposable is the message we’re sending. Kerri, you do dig a lot into how ambivalent this is, this narrative of, “Well, some risk is necessary, we’re proud of the jobs we do, we’re proud of our town history, this paycheck helped support my family and kids,” how intimate that debate can be of how personal that is, this jobs-versus-environment/public health—

KERRI ARSENAULT:  Personal, yeah—

ANNA CLARK: It’s a war that’s happening in people. Where are you at with it now, both in the experience of writing your book, also in the conversations that have followed since it came out? Where are you at in trying to find some way through?

KERRI ARSENAULT: Yeah, it’s interesting. Your books are ahead of mine. Mine was the first revealing of “here’s an issue”; both of your books are further ahead along about the traumatic reckoning with it. I’ve had, like I said, about seventy events that I’ve talked to people and I’ve learned a lot, but I think there’s … This was a story that we believed that it was okay because it was worth the jobs, but it was really a story we were fed from the very beginning when the mill opened in 1901, part of the “American dream,” which really never existed for most of us anyway, and certainly not for the working class of America or small, rural, isolated communities. So, I don’t know, where am I at with it? 

ANNA CLARK: Still searching, maybe, a little bit. Go ahead. 

KERRI ARSENAULT: No, I was going to say, it took me 10 years to write, and, like Catherine, it took a long time to shuffle it up, and part of it was that ambiguity you referenced—trying to find evidence, but the evidence didn’t want to be found. And so to tell a story about ambiguity, I had to do it through ambiguous means, by like you following me through this research and trying to find it with me and not finding it. And what does that mean—that’s part of the bigger story, like where is the information? And, like Catherine said, that they allow us to be “poisoned” by percentages or whatever, always shocked me, like why are we allowed to have any of those body burdens laid upon our bodies?

ANNA CLARK: That’s a great question. Given that, there’s somebody who asked a question, who lives in Western Pennsylvania—fracking country—and this person wants to know if anybody has any suggestions for what the common person can do? This person says, “I see the jobs that are argued as so essential are “killer jobs,” that you might end up with cancer, Parkinson’s disease, or lung issues.” If you’re just a regular person in this community, you can see some of these dynamics playing out. What choices can you make to take care of yourself, take care of your neighbors, to find some truth through the often very confusing and contradictory narratives that are being … this way?

KERRI ARSENAULT: I mean the biggest thing you can do is vote for people who want you to live. I mean really it boils down to legislation, and so be involved with voting and be involved with your community, whatever that means, and if it means being an activist, that’s fine, but if you can’t be an activist, go to your town meetings. If you can’t go to your town meetings, vote. It just depends on what you … In my town, a lot of people don’t have time. Imagine them trying to do what I did over 10 years, and I didn’t even find “the truth,” so who has time for that? So, that’s my suggestion: vote.

ANNA CLARK: Vote for people who want you to live, I think that is great advice. 

KERRI ARSENAULT: I mean it’s so basic, but it’s so true. I don’t really know, from my point of view, I’m hoping to learn something from Catherine.

CATHERINE COLEMAN FLOWERS: Well, I think, first of all, I had the opportunity this past summer to work with the Biden-Sanders Unity Task Force and help to develop some of the policies that are a part of this current administration. And one of the persons who advised us and served on that task force was Conor Lamb, who represents that part of Pennsylvania. I think it’s very important that as we build back better, that we have to have a just transition so that people can transition from these so-called “killer jobs” to the type of jobs that will help us develop a green economy based on when we have renewable energy, and we can also become more resilient because we’re going to have to be. 

In my community, recently, we just had a slew of tornadoes, I mean it was so many tornadoes, on Wednesday of this past week, that one time I thought that they were relooping the same information over and over again on the local channel about the weather because one area was hit with about 10 tornadoes. I mean this is the impact of climate change. And for homes to be able to withstand that, you can’t build homes the way they used to be built. You can’t throw up a house overnight and expect it to withstand those winds or those onslaughts. It’s one thing if it’s one tornado coming through that’s an EF4 tornado, but if you got 10 tornadoes going through, there’s a possibility that most homes may not be able to stand up as they’re currently constructed.

So, there’s going to be lots of possibilities as we transition, and we’re going to have to transition. If we don’t transition, that’s multiple problems because of all of what we’re describing: what happened in Flint, what is happening in areas throughout the U.S. Cancer Alley, where I mention quite a bit, that is located in Louisiana, I mean they not only have to contend with the fact that they’ve been poisoned by air pollution, potentially water pollution from those factories in their area, but they have to worry about storms coming off the Gulf of Mexico, and we’re going to go from tornadoes to hurricanes in this region.

So, we have to develop ways in which to have a just economy, and I agree with Kerri, we have to vote, that’s going to be the key. We’ve got to vote. If you don’t do anything else, you got to turn out and vote. We also have to be visionaries. I think a lot of the solutions are going to have to come from people in the grassroots, not the politicians. A lot of them are too busy being influenced by the money that comes from the lobbies who represent certain industries that are going to not be the status quo in the future, but they’re trying to remain the status quo. So, it’s very important for us to encourage that type of ingenuity that’s necessary to move us past where we are right now. 

ANNA CLARK: Go ahead. 

KERRI ARSENAULT: I was just saying I want to tack onto that too, and I think what we’re all saying is not be silent in some way, and I address that a lot, and I know all our books do in some way. We think that freedom of speech is a cornerstone of our country, but it doesn’t take much research to see that keeping people silent has also been a cornerstone, and that’s one thing that we need to do is be able to speak out and speak up, and if a critical mass does it, by voting or by whatever means, that’s really going to be powerful, too. 

ANNA CLARK: I love what both of you are saying. I love that idea of putting the spotlight on the need to bring a new kind of ingeniousness and vision to how we do infrastructure, how we create the built environment to reconcile with the realities of what we’re facing and the urgency of climate change, as well as long-simmering needs. And I also appreciate, Kerri, what you’re saying as well, about how we need to make ourselves visible one way or another. Another suggestion that came in through the Q&A that I’ll just pass on is another participant, they suggest getting involved with organizations, like the Sierra Club, and activists fighting the MVP pipeline. There are also tree sitters in Bent Mountain that need supplies. So, just throwing that out there, based on one of our participants. Feel free, others, to add your questions and suggestions in the Q&A too, I’ll try to work them in. 

One thing I want to put out there too, just based on the story of Flint. It was an unusual story in that the people in the community did not have the power of their local democracy when the key events of this water crisis were happening, which is very integral to the story and how things played out. In Michigan, we have a very expansive emergency management law designed for an administrator to be dispatched by the state to a distressed city or school district, and they take on authority that a mayor or a city council would have, and actually additional powers besides it, no elected official has. And the theory is you need to bring an outsider with no political ties or reelection considerations to make the hard decisions to get the community back on their feet, etc. But, of course, the problem is—there’s a number of problems—but one is that there’s zero accountability when they make bad decisions. 

So, the community of Flint, when this water switch was happening, they did not have the power of their local vote to make their voices heard, make their concerns heard. It is a community that has a tradition of community organizing that goes way back, and it connects back to labor as well, like with the sit-down strike in the 30s at a General Motors factory; you saw it again in the Civil Rights era; you saw it again with the water activist who, well before the world was paying attention, were doing everything possible to help each other and get answers and do their own preliminary public health stuff. I just want to put all that out there to acknowledge that. 

Alongside the importance of voting and maintaining the infrastructures that protect our votes so that they have an impact, also I think the community in Flint offers a blueprint for the community organizing to make oneself heard when things are happening, and I just want to throw that out there for other communities that might be unsure of where to go and not confident that their local votes will have the impact of getting themselves heard and seen in the way they need to be. So, I’m just throwing that out there.

KERRI ARSENAULT: It’s interesting too because even in your towns—I know my town, I live in a town of 2,000 now, and there’s one committee they’re thinking about making it appointed instead of elected, and that’s where it starts. If people are appointed in these small little land commissions or whatever, then suddenly you have no say in what they do. So, even something as small as that, if you start really, really tiny and go out, that happened … Go ahead.

CATHERINE COLEMAN FLOWERS: I think all of what you’re saying is very important. One of the things that was very helpful to me, and I tried to chronicle that in my book, is that I come from a background of activist, and Lowndes County, it’s a special place, it’s a place that’s not known for activism. It’s located between Selma and Montgomery, and most of the Selma-to-Montgomery march went through Lowndes County, and even if you go back further than that, when W.E.B. Du Bois actually came to Lowndes County to do a labor study, and then the sharecroppers movement that took place there, there’s been an extensive history of movement.

The original Black Panther Party was founded in Lowndes County. And these things were happening at a time when Black people were not allowed to vote. But despite all of that, it didn’t stop people from organizing and finding other ways to reach those that they were trying to get to be a part of democracy. But I think what we have to watch in communities around the country now—and I think that word “accountability” is key—there has to be accountability. They’re trying to take away accountability, and they treat corporations like people and people like things. And a lot of communities now are trying to pass laws to suppress the vote, and in addition to suppressing the vote, they’re going to stop people from protesting. I think that’s how this country came about. Crispus Attucks, who was African American, one of the first to die for this country, but yet we still have to deal with whether or not Black lives matter.

But it doesn’t mean that we stop. We got to keep being engaged. And what I’m doing on the wastewater front is that I’m advising people in communities that are dealing with wastewater issues and trying to bring it to the forefront. We actually have partnered with The Guardian, which is a national newspaper, and we are documenting wastewater issues throughout the United States to show it’s not just a Lowndes County problem, and we’re allowing people to tell their stories. And we are also doing a nationwide survey because the government does not have clear numbers on how many people have sanitation and waste issues, so we’re asking people to self-report.

And we’re actually partnering with organizations, like Union Theological Seminary, the Center for Earth Ethics, and Climate Reality, and KAIROS, and the new Poor People’s Campaign, to get in communities and find out how severe this problem is because in order to solve it, some of it is not just going to happen on the local level because poor communities don’t have the money to pay for the infrastructure. We got to make sure that the government money goes to pay for infrastructure, but infrastructure that works. Not infrastructure they’re going to put in there because it’s in the spotlight right now, and two years down the road the sewage is still running back into people’s homes.

And that’s where the accountability comes in. So, we’re pushing for if you’re going to put an onsite system on somebody’s property, that onsite system should come with a warranty that includes maintenance because when I buy an HVAC system, it comes with a warranty and the maintenance. So, if that’s not going to be required for this, then people shouldn’t be put in a position where they’re criminalized if it doesn’t work. And certainly folks shouldn’t take government money and be able to walk away, knowing that they’re putting in place something that’s not going to work. And that has happened over and over and over again in a lot of these communities, and that’s one of the things that I’m hoping to stop. But the book itself has motivated and activated other people to come together to try to find solutions to these problems. 

ANNA CLARK: I love all that. And I appreciate what you’re saying too about the need to not … This infrastructure, this sense of accountability, it’s not a one-time thing. It demands an ever-ongoing vigilance, like our democracy does, to make sure it maintains its health. I just want to acknowledge one commenter who says that they think they did an interview with one of the original Lowndes County Black Panthers back in the early 90s on a Dublin pirate radio show, so we’ve got all kinds joining us here this evening. 

KERRI ARSENAULT: Can I talk about that? It’s really great hearing Catherine talk about this. But something struck me. In my town, that accountability, and it connects back to what I was saying about even just going to small town meetings. For instance, for those who haven’t read the book, Nestle had come to our town and wanted to take our town water, and the Water Commission was appointed, so nobody could have a say in who they were. And, second, they had their meetings at 3:00 P.M. on a Wednesday, which nobody could go to because that’s when the shift change was at the mill, it was 7:00–3:00. I mean they say they didn’t do it on purpose, and they refuse to change it. People kept saying, “Please change it,” and they won’t, and they still, to this day, ten years later, they still have that meeting. But those are the kind of small things that can keep people accountable, make the meetings where you can go to. 

Because this all leads to what you said too, Catherine, about poor communities not being able to maintain infrastructure. The infrastructure in our town was built in 1901, and all the water downtown—speaking of water, that’s why they got in partnership with Nestle because Nestle was going to fix all that for them. They were like, “Okay, well, if they’re going to fix this, we’ll let them come and take all our drinking water supply.” So, anyway. 

ANNA CLARK: It’s kind of like this false limitation of choices, where you feel like you’re really cornered. That seems to be just an ongoing theme in so many of these environmental injustice stories, like what choices do you actually have?

KERRI ARSENAULT: That’s a great point. 

ANNA CLARK: Yeah. One question that somebody has asked, they ask, “What can schools and students do to get educated and make change?” We have been, over the last five to ten years, been … Honestly, I might name Hurricane Katrina maybe as a pivot point too, just thinking about infrastructure and the built-in structural inequalities that our environments have and the inequitable burden of vulnerability that people … I might name that as leading us towards maybe where we’re at now, where there it does seem like there is a deeper conversation that’s beginning to happen. We’ll see where it really goes. If we were going to continue it—and especially include young folks, students in schools—what does that look like, both in communities where this is especially pressing, like your communities, and also well beyond it as well, including more privileged communities? What does it look like if we have an education model that acknowledges this? What do those conversations look like?

CATHERINE COLEMAN FLOWERS: Well, one of the things that we’ve done: I’ve been working with Duke University for a number of years now because I think it’s very important that we teach the academic community the correct way to do community engagement. And community engagement means going in, letting the people lead, and then finding out what they can do to expand their capacity—not going in to write a paper and leaving or to helicopter in for a day and leave because that happens a lot, too. 

So, I think a perfect model would be to show how to do community engagement, using the principles of environmental justice. We have lots of examples of that already that’s happening around the country, and it’s starting to expand because people see the need that is very relevant right now, that we have to do it. And what’s even more promising to me is the fact that, on the federal level, Biden issued an executive order in January that is looking and assessing equity throughout the federal agencies, using the lens of environmental justice. 

We also have students that have helped us to expand … Our organization’s really small, we don’t have a lot of people working with us. It seems like it because people think we’ve done awesome work, and I appreciate it, but it’s been because of the partnerships that we have made collaborating primarily with students. The ones who did the parasite study, a lot of them were PhD students. We have a student who just did a study that is going to be published pretty soon, and that student, he’s earned his PhD now. But having students engaged in the summer, we plan to have a minimum of ten interns who will be working with us from around the country.

And one of the things we found out during the pandemic is that we can do work virtually. But the kind of research that we need to do, young people need to engage in it, and I’m just a believer that it doesn’t matter what I do because my time is limited. In order for this work to be done, and I may not even see the conclusion of it, but it’s going to take those young people that are committed to it to take it to the next level, and I think those are the ways in which we look at it. And using the principles—one of the key principles, I write about it in the book, that I learned at Standing Rock, was the seventh-generation principle, and we have to do things in such a way that it will impact seven generations to come. And that also means making sure young people are sitting at the table and part of finding the solutions, whether it’s in school or whether it’s young people that are outside of school, they like to work with us to bring about these changes. 

KERRI ARSENAULT: Yeah, Rob Macfarlane said something like that, he wrote that book, Underland, I don’t know if you read that. 

ANNA CLARK: Right over there.

KERRI ARSENAULT: The questions he asks his students (he teaches at Cambridge) and he’d always ask, “How can we be good ancestors?” And I think that’s kind of what Catherine’s getting at. If you are here, looking back at you now, what would you tell your now-self? How do you be that? So, that’s one way of just looking at your present from the future; it’s a great way to think about what you can do. And as far as my book and my town, you asked this before, but nothing’s really happening there, to be honest, and I can’t even really get the governor of Maine to read the book. I was told that she’s been given it a dozen times and she’s like, “Well, that’s just very negative about me and I don’t want to read that,” or some kind of comment like that. 

ANNA CLARK: She has so much love for Maine—

KERRI ARSENAULT: I know.

ANNA CLARK: I mean that really comes through in your book as well. See, isn’t that—

KERRI ARSENAULT: But that’s part of the problem. I mean to ignore it, to say, “No, it’s not happening.” But the economic developer, I should say, from Rumford, has reached out finally, he had some early criticisms about the book because he hadn’t read it yet, but he thought it was negative, again. People don’t like that “negative,” but it’s not negative, it’s like here’s a problem, let’s work together to fix it. So, right now, we’re at zero.

ANNA CLARK: I mean that troubles me because, I know I’m preaching to the choir here, but it bothers me because the reason you’re pointing out the problem is because you care about the place and care about the people, and this false binary that in talking about a place like it’s either positive or negative, it’s only one thing or the other, whereas often they’re very much braided together and is there any honest accounting that? That seems so frustrating to run up against that.

KERRI ARSENAULT: I really thought about that, too, while writing the book, even in the individual characters, not to tag anybody as a hero or somebody that’s evil, everybody’s just human, and I thought about walking that line the whole time. And same with Maine, even though there’s a lot of myths about Maine, and I was trying to break those myths, but, at the same time, to say, “Well, some of them are actually kind of great, it is beautiful.” And Ed Muskie did come from my town, which is crazy. Of all towns, he came from my town. So, we did produce something really good out of there, too.

ANNA CLARK: That actually leads me to another question. And, folks, we’ve got about 15 minutes, so if you have a question, please do put it in the chat, I’m going to get some of the others that already put in there, but I’m going to throw in one of mine because I just got to, this is a good moment. Both of your books, or all of our books really, delve into some real history, and I wanted to ask you: do you think writing environmental stories is synonymous with writing history? Are they the same thing, is it the same work?

CATHERINE COLEMAN FLOWERS: Yes, it is. My degree is in history, so there’s even a part of history that’s called environmental history. Yes, I think in order to understand why these choices are made, why some people have water infrastructure, some don’t, why some people have wastewater infrastructure, some don’t—it has a lot to do with history. That’s why when I tell the story of Alabama and how Lowndes County came to be because it was the people from South Carolina who actually settled Lowndes County in Alabama because they wanted to spread the cotton kingdom. And at one point when they ended the importation of slaves from Africa, Montgomery became one of the major markets for slave trading, which is why if you go to Montgomery now and you go from the river, the street from the river is Commerce Street. 

And the Equal Justice Initiative, which I am a part of, the building used to be a slave-holding pen. People were auctioned off in the center of town square, and they ended up in Lowndes County, which is where I’m from, and I’m a descendant of those slaves, but a lot of people that were descendants eventually resisted. And sometimes we wonder, is the lack of infrastructure because of the systemic racism that still exists?

I was just on a call recently where, in a city, they found out that there are people living within the city limits where they have a water and sewer works, they provide water, but the people who are outside fail, and they want to connect to sewer. And the persons who run the organization were very blatant and arrogant in saying, “We are not going to let them connect. Their developers should have put it in there when they built those communities,” when we know that, a lot of times, people are in those communities because of redlining, and they were there not by choice, but because that’s the only place they could go to. 

So, the way they’re reinforcing this is through these structures that reinforce not only inequality, but just plain-old racism, and a lot of times we see that happening over and over again. I hear the same stories, very similar stories, when the folk of privilege are making decisions for the people that live in those communities and they are not allowing them a voice, and that’s why we have all these environmental justice issues throughout the United States. 

KERRI ARSENAULT: Yeah, I mean history is, like you said earlier, forty years of policy that values corporations over humans, forty-so more years, and now they’re actually considered people under the law. So, you can’t understand anything about our towns without understanding the past. It’s absolutely critical. And then, as well, leaping forward and being a good ancestor. The whole historical archive, which is another thing that can be silenced and rewritten and the real people that are … 

I’ve been thinking about this a lot, the people that have committed these crimes are the ones that seem to be memorialized in the archives, and they don’t really look at the actual true people in the community. For instance, like Paul Bunyan, we have this giant Paul Bunyan in our town that towers over everything, and then Ed Muskie, who came from our town, has a small granite stone, it looks like a grave. It’s ridiculous. It should be the opposite, he should be the giant because he really was tall, too, he was like six-something, and Paul Bunyan should be buried in a grave. 

ANNA CLARK: Not to put too fine a point on it. 

KERRI ARSENAULT: I’m just getting going. 

ANNA CLARK: God, I mean the role of myth in our sense of place and our histories and our sense of our future, that’s really powerful. One of the reasons I think I’ve gotten so obsessed with infrastructure, not just as a writer, but as a person, is because of how literally it seems to define who belongs in a community. It’s so literal, where the pipe goes to each house and then it stops, it’s defining who’s in and who’s out. And I think that’s a very powerful way of reckoning with all the different ways that we manifest that in our history and in our present, and gives us an opportunity to imagine new futures. 

I love this idea of environmental writings being both a work of deep history and also a work of deep future, having a vision both ways. I’ve been reading a lot of Toni Morrison essays, and she’s really calling for people to imagine: What does it look like for people, not just decades in the future, but 3,000 years or 10,000 years—what does that look like? She’s like, “What is a vision that we can imagine for that?” And I’m like, “What if it isn’t an apocalypse? What if it were good? What could we do to make that good thing?” 

CATHERINE COLEMAN FLOWERS: I’d like to add to that. What we’re looking at doing, based on what I’ve learned about wastewater all these years, is that we want to change the engineering paradigm, and for the engineering paradigm to include having people sit at the table who are experiencing the problem because they know the problem, and they can help with the solution. And the other part of that is that what we’re doing as an organization, we’re actually going to be partnering with entities, like we are going to look at what NASA is doing. They can treat wastewater in outer space to drinking-water quality. Why can’t we do that here? 

And every time we bring it up, someone says, “It’s going to be too expensive.” I mean clean water? What’s expensive about that? To be able to come up with a process in which we can treat wastewater very, very differently that may change the paradigm of infrastructure where we don’t have to run wastewater through pipes to get to a treatment plant that might fail and dump the water into the river or into a stream that’s the drinking water source for a community. So, we’re not just defining the problem, we’re also working on the solutions, and we’re very, very interested in innovation, and we’re not going to wait for somebody else to do it. We’re going to do it ourselves because I’m just really thrilled that we’ve come up with a COVID vaccine in a year, so let’s use warp speed to try to come up with a way to solve the wastewater issue as well. 

KERRI ARSENAULT: Yay, such a great idea. I love the idea of the infrastructure and the pipes actually solving the systemic problems. I have this vision of this complicated thing, it’s like as complicated as the human heart, which is really what environmental storytelling and environmental justice is about. And like you said earlier, yes, we all love polar bears or whatever, but these kinds of stories need to really orbit around humans and the heart, and I love the imagery of these pipes pumping blood into the right places instead of the wrong places. Not wrong, but … 

ANNA CLARK: Just to acknowledge a few other comments, some folks were thinking about the youth engagement. Somebody tells a story from Fredericksburg, Virginia, where they say that they’re “proud that a local student did research on the cost, environmental and fiscal, of plastic straws. Armed with statistics, she convinced a school board to ban plastic straws in schools, with exceptions for students with disabilities and others.” This person’s saying, “so students can make a powerful case,” which is true. Catherine, in Waste, has some interesting student activism stories that fit right in this, as well as her role as a school teacher and building future activists. 

Another person shares a story about Reverend Barber, the Poor People’s Campaign, joining with Al Gore in Buckingham County to protest the compressor station that Dominion was going to build there. We have another one—

CATHERINE COLEMAN FLOWERS: I was there. 

ANNA CLARK:  We got allies coming together here. This is the thing, so many of these stories can feel so heavy, they’re so heavy. It’s one reason why some people, like in Maine, might just be like, “I’m not even going to open that door, I don’t want to know it, I’m going to just rationalize why it doesn’t matter.” How do we have hope without being glib about it? 

KERRI ARSENAULT: I was going to say, I don’t know if that’s the answer to my book, having hope. I mean this in a really serious way, because if people close my book and there’s some kind of hope at the end, they think something’s being done, and, like I said, we’re not anywhere, this is the first step right here. If people think it’s okay, they’ll just be like, “Everything’s … [clap]” and push it aside. I’m not saying there isn’t hope, but, right now, currently, not in my situation, there’s nothing being done. I mean the first part of the first step in conflict transformation is a revealing, and that’s something that I studied a lot in Sweden when I was studying development issues.

But this is just the first step, and we’re not even close to hope yet, at least in Maine, in paper-making and paper manufacturing. I mean everybody look around the room, what white paper do you see around your room? And I should tell people that haven’t read the book that the paper-making, the evil thing in the book is that paper is made white by bleaching it with chlorinated toxics basically, and it creates one of the most dangerous byproducts known to humankind, except my book is not printed on that kind of paper.

ANNA CLARK: There’s a little caveat here, she’s like, “I’m not going to contribute to this problem.”

KERRI ARSENAULT: Yeah. That’s one way, too. I mean if all paper-makers … If all people started making paper more responsibly, that’s another way, and so voting and market demand. And I’ve had a few people—I’m going to try to reach out to publishers, governmental agencies, you imagine, and schools, there’s something schools can do: buy paper that’s not made bleached by using chlorine dioxide. It’s going to save a lot of people’s lives. It’s the same ingredient in Agent Orange that’s made by paper-making. It’s basically as evil, maybe even a little worse, than PFAS chemicals, which is the new thing that—dioxin, anyways, is the toxic. So, anyway. I don’t know, hope is a four-letter word. 

CATHERINE COLEMAN FLOWERS: Well, for me, I’m very hopeful. I wrote the book because the book was just part of my activism. I was active before I wrote the book and I continue to be active, and I continue to be able to use what has happened as a result of writing the book and the use of activism to motivate people that come after me or the people that’re going to be working with me or the people that are in other communities with the same problem. And I do feel that we have to support each other.

I worked with Flint, I was in Buckingham County and at the church there with Reverend Barber and Al Gore, and, likewise, the other areas that we’ve gone to, whether it was Cancer Alley in Louisiana or Flint or Detroit, where they’re having water turn-offs and working with people there with the People’s Water Board or the Michigan Welfare Rights Organization. There are different groups throughout the U.S. And one of the things that I think we can all do: all to be supportive of one another. And I’ll be willing to reach out to anybody that would like to, through social media; I am accessible. If you have a problem in your community and you want us to support you, we can support you directly. I know people we can connect you with that will provide support. 

ANNA CLARK: I appreciate that we’re all in this together, right? This siloing of these environmental issues, it’s like you can care about paper-making or you can care about sewage or you can care about drinking water, and—trying to connect this all as part of one common fight, which I think is probably the truest way to do it, rather than turning them into one cause or another, as if they’re binary. 

KERRI ARSENAULT: Right. I guess going back to hope, not to sound hopeless. The book does something, it does lift out a silence that has been in these kind of communities, and I’ve heard from people all over the United States in similar communities, so the silence is being slowly cracked.

ANNA CLARK: And it’s teaching people, too, like I learned things I didn’t know. It was great. And that’s a powerful place to start asking questions and imagining new possibilities. This is one of the things I felt like when writing the Flint book, I was like, “At minimum, I want this to be true,” and having a true chronicling document is a way of honoring this place and these people, and that in itself is sometimes a pretty significant contribution when places have been neglected, when truths have been obscured and erased, when voice is silenced. That’s a powerful and essential step, and then the idea is how do we make that not just the beginning of a process, but have it be integral in our ongoing solutions. 

I know that we have just a minute to go, so folks whose questions I didn’t get to ask, I’m sorry, I have some unasked ones myself, but we’re going to have to continue this conversation in all other ways. I like to think we’ll gather together in another form. Thank you to everyone who is watching. Please consider buying our featured books from your local independent book seller or using the link provided. You can also check out other events at this ground-breaking all-virtual 2021 Virginia Festival of the Book at VaBook.org. I’m going to, I think it’s a lot of fun. Thank you everyone for joining us, we’re grateful.

CATHERINE COLEMAN FLOWERS: Thank you. 

KERRI ARSENAULT: Thank you. Thank you both. It’s been great. 

CATHERINE COLEMAN FLOWERS: Thank you. 

KERRI ARSENAULT: I’ll see you on social media somewhere. 

ANNA CLARK: Bye, everyone.

CATHERINE COLEMAN FLOWERS: Thank you. 

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