By Zoie Diana, Master of Environmental Management candidate pursuing a certificate in Community Based Environmental Management

Education has the potential to be a powerful tool. According to The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, “Education is a basic human right. It is also a catalyst for poverty reduction, economic growth, and social mobility.” Education can enable and empower. However, social circumstances, such as injustice and racism, have created inequalities in the education system that disempowers marginalized groups. According to Catherine Flowers, Executive Director and founder of Alabama Center for Rural Enterprise (ACRE), the social circumstances, including a history of slavery and structural racism in Lowndes County, Alabama, call for a public health education intervention.

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The Lowndes County Courthouse in the town of Hayneville.

As Catherine Flowers stated in her talk at Duke, in the United States, African Americans are 79% more likely than whites to live in a neighborhood where industrial pollution is thought to be of greatest health concern. Lowndes County is just one example with at least 53% of residents lacking access to proper wastewater treatment. Environmental racism exists in Alabama and other states as well. American citizens need to talk about these issues and take action to eliminate this injustice. I love my country, but I am not proud of the structures that disempower marginalized groups. These structures need to be altered or re-built entirely to promote the health of all.

I first heard of Lowndes when Ms. Flowers, a Lowndes County native, spoke at Duke University about the area’s bloody history, drawing strong ties between race, poverty, and injustice. Catherine’s phenomenal talk drew attention from the crowd with her careful rhetoric and shocking story focusing on the raw sewage issue in Lowndes. You can watch the full talk here:

After the talk, Catherine met with Duke students and faculty; a relationship began to blossom. I attended both the talk and the post-meeting. Frequently, many human rights and development projects focus on foreign, developing countries. Catherine’s talk was refreshing and enlightening since she highlighted domestic human rights issues which occur at home in America.

Shortly afterwards, I began working with Catherine through the course entitled Community Based Environmental Management practicum. I conducted education and outreach through creating social media pages (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram) and informative infographics for ACRE. Although education and outreach aren’t the answer to the issues facing Lowndes County, encouraging people to talk is a start. When the semester ended, I wasn’t ready to stop working with Alabama Center for Rural Enterprise. My work was attracting attention to ACRE’s cause and the situation in Lowndes County. For instance, in this week alone, ACRE’s posts reached 411 people! Although I knew I wouldn’t begin to solve the problem in Lowndes, I knew that I could communicate the issue to many through the internet, which is a start.

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An infographics that I created that communicates ACRE’s survey results about raw sewage.

While visiting Lowndes last April, Catherine and I spoke about how to create a holistic, larger outreach and education project that I could tackle for the next year. When Catherine suggested that I design an environmental/public health lesson plan for a younger generation, I felt slightly apprehensive. Who am I to inadvertently teach others through a lesson plan? Flutters of Paulo Freire’s “Pedagogy of the Oppressed” flashed through my mind. This project could affect the lives of someone’s son or daughter. I must move forward with care and purpose.

With awareness of my privilege as a white Duke University woman, I’ve began to take the first steps in this project through spending two weeks conducting a needs assessment centered around public health education in Lowndes. If a public health education project is needed then I must erase my pre-conceptions of community needs and start with a blank canvas. ACRE has started to paint on this canvas, based off of Catherine’s local knowledge of Lowndes County. During my time in Lowndes this summer, I’ve been meeting with residents and government officials in order to really listen to their public health education needs. After I finish the interviews, I will map the needs and develop an action plan with Catherine Flowers and Duke’s assistance. I can’t make any promises, other than I will try my best to make my project result in positive, sustainable public health change.