The Common Good
May 2009

Making Places and People Bloom

by Jeannie Choi | May 2009

Whether it's the South Bronx or rural North Carolina, visionary activist Majora Carter argues that cleaning up our act is good for us -- and the economy.

In 1997, Majora Carter, a native of the South Bronx neighborhood of Hunts Point, moved back in with her parents to save money after graduating with a Master of Fine Arts from New York University. That’s when she learned about plans by Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s administration to build a waste transfer station in her community, which already suffered from severe pollution produced by nearby plants. Angry and determined, Carter organized local environmental justice groups to win the fight against the transfer station and install new public green spaces in Hunts Point.

In 2001, Carter founded Sustainable South Bronx, a nonprofit organization dedicated to building a sustainable green economy in the South Bronx through education and green jobs training. Her work won her a MacArthur Foundation grant in 2005. She has been called the “Rosa Parks of the green jobs movement.” Carter spoke with Sojourners assistant editor Jeannie Choi about what it takes to eradicate environmental injustice and why the time for a green economy is now.

Jeannie Choi: How do you get people—from community members affected by environmental injustice to investors and politicians—interested in building the green economy?

Majora Carter: People have to see their self-interest in supporting whatever it is that we’re putting out there. When I found out that the city and state planned to build a huge waste facility on our waterfront, I was really alarmed; but many people in the neighborhood weren’t because they were so used to living this way. It wasn’t until I helped make the connection between the waste facilities that were located in the community and the neighborhood’s high childhood asthma rates that people became angry. They saw their self-interest tied up with the environmental injustice in their community, and that’s when they felt the rage that I was feeling.

What other physical effects has pollution had on those living in your neighborhood?
A big clue in public health is asthma rates going up because of the intense nature of the pollution. Diabetes and obesity are also connected because communities like the South Bronx bear a lot of truck traffic. Kids are then unable to play in the streets, which means their health is at risk due to obesity and diabetes. Also, we don’t have the same access to healthy and affordable produce that wealthier places have, and so you have this “food desert.” The last of them, which I think is more onerous, are polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, which are a byproduct of burning fossil fuels. They have been known to cause learning disabilities in young developing minds. And where are they located in high concentrations? In places like the South Bronx.

Kids living in poor communities, who are already suffering from overcrowded schools, have learning disabilities and struggle in school, and are much better candidates to go to jail rather than on to higher education.

What were the key strategies to your 2001 victory against the city’s planned waste transfer site?
Even though this happened in the South Bronx, it was going to have citywide ramifications, so we had public interest lawyers and other environmental justice groups all working together to help create a sustainable solid waste management plan that relied on borough-wide self-sufficiency.

We worked awfully close with the city because we weren’t saying that waste transfer systems should not be in anybody’s backyard. We were saying that everybody needs to handle their own waste, but that’s not the way wealthy white neighborhoods in the city were operating. So we asked ourselves, how do you create legislation that lets each borough clean up after itself?

Recently, legislation was signed that reopened waste facilities around the city so everybody handles their own waste. But there are still politicians in some of the wealthiest parts of the city who run campaigns on closing the waste facilities in their communities. To them I say, you guys produce it, why do you think somebody else should take care of it? But that’s the nature, unfortunately, of this incredibly ridiculous, hyper-consumerist culture that we live in. People want, and they don’t want to take care of it.

What are the biggest fallacies about the green economy in the mainstream media?
That poor people don’t care about the environment. That green can and should cost more, or that green always costs more. And that you can’t alleviate poverty and support the environment at the same time.

But if you look at grassroots projects that invest in poor people—like the program that I pioneered at Sustainable South Bronx called B.E.S.T. (Bronx Environmental Stewardship Training)—you can see that the same people who are written off by most segments of society can blossom in remarkable ways.

B.E.S.T. is one of the first green jobs training programs in the country, and gives folks on the fringes, like single moms, or ex-convicts, the tools of operating within the environmental restoration field, such as wetland restoration, cleaning contaminated land, urban forestry management, and green roof installation.

Tell me about a B.E.S.T. student who stood out to you.
One of my favorite stories is of a young man who came through our program, a really sweet guy who had deep dimples and liked to quote Martin Luther King Jr., the Quran, and the Bible. Once the mass media started to take notice of our work, we had a huge profile in USA Today, and I’m looking at this article and the first paragraph mentions that this young man spent 10 years locked up for armed robbery. And I thought, you’ve gotta be joking! It didn’t even occur to me that somebody that gentle, kind, and loving had that in his background.

That’s when it hit me: His transformation had everything to do with the work he was doing. Horticultural infrastructure development, urban forestry management—all those things provided him with this beautiful outlet to nurture. Studies show without a shadow of a doubt that horticultural therapy works, that when you expose people even to small clusters of nature, even in a very urban area, crime rates go down because people want to be near it.

You’re also an advocate of grassroots organizations being at the table when decisions are made by people in power. What green economy initiatives do you want the Obama administration to take up?
Very simply, I think that the Environ­mental Protection Agency needs to regain its moral authority as the environmental stewards of this country and really push for things like the national grid so that we can actually have renewable energy. One major national problem is that there is no integrated transmission system for energy distribution around the country. In order for the renewable energy economy to really flourish, we’ve got to be able to connect the places in the country that have sources of renewable energy, like the sunny Southwest and the windy Midwest, with places that need renewable energy. If the federal government developed that grid system, we would see more businesses flourish by using renewable clean wind and solar energy.

This past summer you left Sustainable South Bronx to start an environmental consulting firm, the Majora Carter Group. What is the vision for this company?
I realized that the work was not particular to the South Bronx, but rested on the universal idea that when you apply care and resources to even the most challenged situations, beautiful things will grow. So I started the Majora Carter Group to work with municipalities, business leaders, and universities from all around the country as stakeholders.

Our first client is Elizabeth City State University, which is part of the historically black college network, in northeastern North Carolina—an incredibly poor, predominantly rural and black region. The major economic generators down there are mega-hog farms. Unfortunately, the owners bury the excrement in these lined pits, which often leak and then contaminate the area. Elizabeth City State Uni­versity is excited about the possibility of transforming that 21-county region, and so we’re working with them to develop a green economic development plan.

Do faith and spirituality inform your work?
Oh yeah! We are asking our clients to honor other people, to see them with dignity, and to treat them that way. The foundation of what we do is very spiritual in nature. We want people to be authentic. We want people to see each other in love because when you think about it, oppression is as bad for the oppressor as it is for the op­pressed. We have commodified pain in some way, and we don’t want to see the suffering of others. I’m asking folks not just to see the suffering of others but to understand that they could be a part of alleviating it. That is a deeply spiritual endeavor.

What keeps you going?
Understanding that people’s lives have been changed. I know that our work is having an impact and I know that at some point people are going to realize that this is how we need to roll.

My friend Van Jones often says, “Little green fairies are not going to come out of the sky and install solar panels or urban forestry. People are going to do that.” And we need to look at the people. There’s room for everybody.

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