I was in D.C. on business in December 2016 when I received a call from Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey. His staff had let me know to expect it, but when I heard him on the other end of the phone, I was still a little stunned. He told me he wanted to be “the environmental justice senator.” It was my first and only time hearing that from a senator. He asked about the parasite study (a study that found hookworm rampant in the American South due to poverty and poor sanitation) and how the idea to do it had come about. I told him the whole story, starting with the mosquito bites. He was interested in finding a way to address neglected diseases of poverty, and he told me he wanted to come to Lowndes County, Alabama.

Six months later, he arrived in Montgomery. We planned to meet for dinner the night before I took him to Lowndes County. He is a vegan, so I arranged for us to eat at Central, a restaurant that offered a few vegetarian options and that was conveniently located next door to the Equal Justice Initiative. Standing near the door, I waited with my brother for him to arrive. Soon Bryan Stevenson, EJI’s founder and executive director, joined us, and then Booker walked in, looking very unassuming in his jeans. This was a first meeting for all of us, but we knew each other’s work. Being at the table with one of the best social justice attorneys in the world and a Rhodes scholar who aspired to be the leading environmental justice senator was like being in social justice heaven. When we were joined by Mustafa Santiago Ali, vice president for environmental justice at the National Wildlife Federation, it got even more heavenly.

The next day, it was time to come back down to earth in Lowndes County. Our first stop was at a single-wide mobile home where a disabled veteran lived near the Lowndes Interpretive Center off of Highway 80. A short walk from the civil rights trail, the veteran’s backyard held a pit full of waste piped straight from his toilet.

I had been riding in the car with Booker and two aides. Before getting out of the car, I rubbed Skin So Soft on my arms to fend off mosquitoes. My sinuses flare up when I use insecticides, and Avon’s Skin So Soft Bath Oil usually does the job. This time it didn’t. When I stepped outside, I was immediately attacked by mosquitoes, and soon my arms were covered with bites. As if on cue, the bugs reenacted the scene that had started the hookworm study. Booker remarked on how the bugs seemed to be drawn to me.

As we walked to the back of the house, other people joined us, including a crew from National Geographic Explorer. We reached the pit, and Booker stared in disbelief. I had once filmed the pit because it was often full of both sewage and life. Mosquitoes were visible, and so were the bulging eyes of frogs semi-submerged in the human effluent.

The next home we visited had a failing septic system. The homeowner had disconnected it after sewage backed up into her bathtub. It was now flowing into a wooded area behind her house. Again, the mosquitoes descended. This time, a National Geographic producer sprayed Booker’s clothes with a repellant that she said they used when filming in tropical areas. Yet we weren’t in a developing nation. We were in Lowndes County, near the Alabama state capital.

The home was on the family’s land along the Selma-to-Montgomery march trail. The owner’s grandmother had housed marchers there. The owner’s mother had been a plaintiff in a major civil rights case that challenged the exclusion of women from jury service. And the owner herself was one of the volunteers who had conducted our house-to-house survey to document problems with sewage.

Read the full article about environmental injustice in the U.S. by Catherine Coleman Flowers at Grist.