By Elizabeth Allen, Class of 2020

When I joined the community research partnership with Alabama Center for Rural Enterprise (ACRE) last year, the Duke Human Rights Center@FHI had already been collaborating with ACRE on environmental justice work for a few years. This partnership continues to produce crucial research about the extent of water and sanitation problems in Lowndes County, AL, as well as the economic and racial discrimination that underlies the unequal access to these services. On March 23, I was able to attend a stakeholder meeting to discuss the ongoing work in Lowndes County and the further work that needs to be done.

This stakeholder meeting brought together people involved with ACRE, Engineers without Borders, Earthjustice, the Rural Community Assistance Partnership, Baylor University, and Columbia University, in addition to representatives from Congressional offices. As a Duke student working on only one part of the Duke-ACRE project, I was excited to attend this meeting so that I could better understand the bigger picture of the work being done across the country to address water and sanitation problems. Each person in the room contributed something unique that showed a new perspective on these intersectional issues.

It was clear from this meeting that addressing water and sanitation problems in Alabama and across the country will take the contributions of many different kinds of people. Executive Director of ACRE, Catherine Flowers, and another resident of Lowndes exposed how people there were affected by these problems on a daily basis and how the situation was rooted in historic racism. A Duke graduate student determined and described statistics about the extent of the plumbing and sewage problems that residents face. An associate professor in Michigan State’s Department of Sociology explained that access to plumbing in the U.S. depends on race much more than income. Professors at Columbia University and Baylor University, as well as a research scientist at Duke, described the intersections of problematic soil conditions in Lowndes, failing septic tanks, innovative technology, wastewater treatment, and water quality. The Vice President of Public Affairs for LIXIL Water Technology Americas described the private sector’s role in finding sanitation systems that work in all situations. Congressional staff discussed what information they would need to have in order to draft legislative language around these issues and potential problems they saw with the distribution of funds. Throughout the meeting, various stakeholders questioned each other and made connections that helped them to better conceptualize the problem in its entirety.

I was able to learn much more about working together to solve complicated environmental issues by observing this stakeholder meeting than I would ever have learned by taking a class about how problem-solving theoretically works. I am incredibly grateful that Duke’s partnership with ACRE gave me the opportunity to see real-world and real-time environmental justice work since I want to do environmental justice work in the future.