Majora Carter

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More power plants, waste treatment facilities, and diesel trucks are located in the South Bronx than in any other part of New York City. For years the neighborhood served as a dumping ground for the rest of the city and suffered an unjust loss in quality of life.

Majora Carter saw a problem in her own community and took action. She began with organizing groups of residents to take "toxic tours" along the Bronx River to expose polluted sites. Community-wide protests targeted proposed increases in the dumping of municipal waste to the already heavily burdened neighborhood. When people began to realize that they could effect positive change where they lived, Carter's movement picked up momentum.

Carter founded the Sustainable South Bronx in 2001 to continue the mission of bringing environmental justice and restoration to her community. To turn the waterfront from an unattractive dead zone into a source of local pride and recreation, Carter proposed the development of a multimillion dollar Greenway by the river for pedestrian and bicycle use. In another project, the organization installed a green roof on their headquarters building by applying a reflective paint coat and planting foliage to reduce heating and save energy. Carter's work in her own community shows that you really can make a positive difference locally. She has received several prestigious recognitions for her work, including a "genius grant" from the MacArthur Foundation. The South Bronx serves as an example and inspiration for other urban neighborhoods seeking to improve their own local environments.

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Questions and Answers

What is your environmental ethic?

What you do with land use in a community has everything to do with how the people view it and view themselves in it.

How did you get started doing environmental advocacy?

It definitely wasn't inborn. I had no environmental sensibility as a kid, or really until after college, when I came home completely under duress. If I hadn't been utterly broke and about to start grad school, I never would've come back to the South Bronx. I got involved in arts-related community development. One of the projects I ran was called Street Trees, which exhibited artists' interpretations of the lack of street trees in the neighborhood -- sculptures made, you know, from scrap metal and found objects.

One day I heard about the mayor's plan to privatize waste handling in the city. They were going to shut down the Staten Island landfill without any environmental review and divert the waste handling to our neighborhood. As I researched, I began to realize that if we're not actively meeting the environmental needs of our community, then all the art in the world isn't going to help.  I began by staging little protests. A group of us marched down the streets of our community wearing blue plastic recycling bags  and strings of aluminum cans. I organized boat trips down the Bronx River, which I'm proud to say is the only true freshwater river in all of New York City. We did "toxic tours" of the waste-transfer sites and truck fleets that are the source of the  South Bronx's record-breaking asthma rates.

What was the biggest challenge you have faced thus far?

When addressing the city's waste-management problem, we had these idiot council people spouting that our argument to move some of the waste transfer stations out of the South Bronx is environmental racism -- that we wanted to see the same health problems afflicting our children happen to their communities. We said, "No! No one is saying that. We're simply saying it shouldn't happen to our kids either."

What projects are you working on now?

The Sundance Channel announced the creation of a new block of programming called THE GREEN. Presented by Redford, the series consists of three hours of television that "will present original series and documentary premieres about the earth's ecology and concepts of "green" living that balance human needs with responsible care for the planet." The two hosts that will be anchoring THE GREEN are me and Simran Sethi.

Why is it important to take care of urban environments?

I just think back to why I left this neighborhood and vowed never to return. It was because it did not seem to present any kind of livable opportunities. What you do with land use […] influences what kind of economic developments are brought to it or not -- whether you bring toxic facilities here or things that are actually supportive of public health.

There was an urban forestry study that was done in Chicago in the late '90s about the effects of green space on really poor neighborhoods. Like suddenly people realized that if you started planting trees, people's quality of life improved. Crime rates would go down.

You know, believe me, I think that the rainforests in Brazil should be protected, but it's too far, you know, from the general daily lives of so many people, especially poor people living in their communities, whether they're living in the Rust Belt or whether they're living in the South Bronx.

Are there economic benefits to stewarding urban environments?

This is one of the things I'm most proud of. We started a program called BEST -- Bronx Environmental Stewardship Training -- which is an ecological-restoration job-training program. So we recruit folks, almost exclusively from the neighborhood. I'd say 95 percent have been on public assistance, and most just received their GEDs. The ages range from about 20 to 45 and we train them in everything from landscaping and green-roof installation to brownfield remediation. Already we've graduated almost three dozen people from the program, and most have paying jobs. 

We really need to connect the ancillary cost of un-green practices. These are things that we pay for collectively now, but that individual corporations benefit from.  For instance, if we really calculated the cost of a gallon of gas to include everything form public health burdens, to war, it would be more than the price you see at the pump.  The same is true for many aspects of our day to day life.

We're not trying to close business down. That's a fallacy that lots of people like to throw on environmental justice activists. Absolutely not. We're trying to build a different kind of job that actually supports the environment, supports the people, and supports your business's bottom line.

We're trying to create something called a recycling industrial park that actually takes recycled materials and uses them as raw materials so there's a collection of businesses that do that.  That would reduce the amount of solid waste in New York City.  It could prepare 3 to 500 jobs!