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Volume 2 | Issue 3 | Aug 2011
Stopping Poverty through Sustainability in the South Bronx: An Interview with Majora Carter

Born and raised in the South Bronx, Majora Carter is best known for leading the effort to create the South Bronx Greenway: eleven miles of bike and pedestrian paths that connect the rivers and neighborhoods to the rest of the city. In 2001, when few people were talking about sustainability in poor neighborhoods, she pioneered one of the nation’s first urban green-collar job training and placement systems. Her organization, Sustainable South Bronx, advocates new policies and legislation that fuel demand for green jobs in marginalized neighborhoods, focusing on intensive urban forestation, green building, and creating parks and water-permeable open spaces.

Currently, Carter runs her own consulting firm, hosts the Peabody Award-winning special public radio series “The Promised Land,” and serves on the boards of The Wilderness Society and the U.S. Green Building Council. Her work has earned numerous honors, including Fast Company’s 100 Most Creative People in Business, a MacArthur “genius” Fellowship, Essence Magazine’s 25 Most Influential African Americans, and a New York Post Liberty Medal for Lifetime Achievement.

Your message has spread well beyond the South Bronx. What are you working on now?

I am putting all of the pieces together in order to launch a national brand of locally grown produce—everything from the most efficient hydroponic growing systems, brand identity, USDA [United States Department of Agriculture] support, political allies, relationships with institutional buyers, and investors. I want to redirect some of the capital flows in the food business to revitalize underutilized industrial space and people.

Tell us more about this project. What are the challenges, who would this benefit, and why focus your energies here?

My efforts in the food industry should not be confused with so called "food justice" or community gardens. Those are important, but they are already taken care of by people who are passionate about those activities.

I approach food system disruption today in the same way I approached environmental justice solutions in the past: through accessible job creation in that sector. I demonstrated cost savings to cities by employing people in ways that reduced both social-services expenses and municipal stormwater infrastructure costs.

My goal now is to create accessible jobs in food production, so I look at all the levers out there, from USDA subsidies to foundation grants, slow capital, and, most importantly, the market. I need to sell high-margin foods with minimal transport and middle-man costs in order to create those jobs.

American consumers generally don't have the time or inclination to study up on every aspect of the products they purchase. By establishing a nationally recognized brand platform that immediately signifies local economic prosperity and high quality, we can drive more investment into local food systems. That means building more indoor, year-round hydroponic growing space, which in turn reduces blight, draws people back into declining urban areas, and inspires hope for those who have very little now. I also believe that employing people in healthy food production will serve the dual purpose of exposing them to that world as a form of experiential education.

The hurdle in front of me today is securing trademarks for the really awesome brand name my partners at Wolff Olins helped us create. It's worth waiting for, believe me, but it isn't easy. In the meantime, we are working with interested parties in several cities across America to secure land and financing.

Tell us about your environmental work in the South Bronx.

I was able to show people how to tap into greater economic potential for themselves through environmental restoration work. Many had never held a job, or were formerly incarcerated and thus were a psychological drain on the environment because they felt like they weren’t worth anything. Getting them some training in the hard skills of estuary restoration, erosion control, green roofing, and urban forestry helped the environment. But the soft skills of how to be a team player, look busy when the boss is around, and get to work on time are what kept them in the jobs and put pride in their step—pride that was displayed publicly every time they came home from work. This is a crucial element, pride, in any environment. It shapes your demands and expectations going forward. And my experience has shown that jobs are the best and most cost-effective way to achieve that.

How do poor communities bear the brunt of pollution more than affluent communities?

Let me put it this way: If we had located all of our power, transport, waste, chemical, and agribusiness infrastructure near wealthy communities as easily as we have near poor ones, we would have had a clean and green economy decades ago. What we have, instead, is concentrations of these above-mentioned facilities near where poor people live. The public health fallout is evidence of the disparity. But, there are plenty of academic institutions doing more and more studies—I don’t think we need any more of those, personally. We know where the dirtier air, water, and soil are, and who lives there. Many of the knock-on effects on their lives are a result of a degraded environmental quality of life that wealthy people would never tolerate. The issue is not new, or hard to see, but we are paying for it every day. A well-researched Columbia University study in 2006 showed a direct link between proximity to fossil fuel emissions sources and learning disabilities in children. In the United States, poor kids who do poorly in school very often go to jail.

Tell us about your green-collar job training programs. Why is that an effective solution?

It isn’t the job training that makes it effective; it’s the job placement. That’s why I always make sure to describe that aspect of my work as “training and placement systems.” Placing difficult-to-employ people in good, paying jobs that fulfill their needs is not easy. You get there by establishing trusting relationships with potential employers, so they know that your graduates will perform. But you also have to look at the trends. I see climate adaptation as a real growth area with lower barriers to entry and long-term career ladders, especially in horticultural infrastructure systems—using plants and trees to manage stormwater runoff and cool urban heat islands, especially.

Your new consulting company promises to offer “pioneering solutions to concentrated environmental problems that are grounded in a progressive economic development approach.” What are some of your solutions?

Well, there is a history of work that I did in the nonprofit sector with [Sustainable South Bronx] ssbx.org. These days, very often, it’s a case of using my minor celebrity position to get everyone at the table together, and guiding the Q&A toward a point where mutual self-interests are recognized. So, if I see a connection between the therapeutic benefits of working with plants and soil for traumatized veterans or ex-convicts returning to society and green infrastructure that will save millions in stormwater treatment each year, it’s up to me to get the hydrology and anti-recidivism people on the same page. It’s not easy, because none of these people have been asked to look into each other’s worlds before. It makes sense for many reasons, but you need more than that to get anything done in this world.

In your experience, what have you learned about how to make a change?

Don’t surround yourself with people who “want to make a change.” Listen to everyday Americans to hear their concerns and aspirations. Don’t spend too much time in “activist” circles. Many of them are not in touch with the realities facing most people and, at worst, they romanticize poverty and are always trying to preserve it some way. Having grown up in poverty myself, I can tell you: not very romantic.

Families, small businesses, public school teachers, the elderly can all be invaluable in determining where to spend your energy and how to shape messages that work. People who steep themselves in “social-justice theory” and come up with complicated manifestos and rules about how to talk to each other, generally slow us all down in my opinion. There are some great exceptions. We have not made much social progress in the last two decades: prison recidivism, obesity, asthma, income disparity, high school dropouts, teen pregnancies—all up. Yet, philanthropic spending has gone up every year, too.

Who inspires you?

Anyone who is looking at their problems as chances to move ahead and not get mired in a victim mentality.