Interviewed by Cesca Janece Waterfield
Each week during Black History Month, we’ll feature a leader who is making history today.
For revealing and maximizing the relationship between the environment, our economy and social justice, consultant and activist Majora Carter has been called “visionary” and a “genius”. She’s been featured in numerous publications and networks including Time Magazine, the New York Times, CNN, NPR and more.
Majora graduated from the Bronx High School of Science and then studied film in college, motivated to document the lives of the people she had seen growing up in the South Bronx. After a neighborhood walk with her dog led her to blighted riverfront, Majora worked to bring the South Bronx its first waterfront park in 60 years, showing gifts for raising funds and mobilizing others with her charisma and innovative ideas.
In 2001, Majora founded Sustainable South Bronx (SSBx), a non-profit organization that creates comprehensive strategies to “Green the Ghetto.” Two years later, the organization launched one of the first urban green collar training programs in the U.S. She has written and produced TV and radio programs, including vol. two of HBO’s The Black List. In 2008, Majora started a private economic consulting firm, The Majora Carter Group, working with small towns and cities to put green economic tools – and people – to work. Fast Company magazine named her one of the Most Creative People in Business. The National Academy of Sciences appointed Majora to America’s Climate Choices panel. She’s been awarded a Liberty Medal for Lifetime Achievement by the New York Post, the Val-Kill Medal by the Eleanor Roosevelt Society, a Women of Excellence Award by the state of New York, and received a MacArthur “genius” grant. Married for four years to James Chase, she travels the nation and commands substantial fees for speaking and consulting.
At its most straightforward, Majora’s career evokes her youthful dream: “Telling the stories of people in my community.” In striving to educate and provide economic, ecological and social solutions, Majora’s community is the world-at-large. She says, “People are understanding that they are the key to their own recovery.”
You’ve achieved a great deal since starting SSBx ten years ago. What is your focus in 2011?
The biggest thing I want to focus on is: How do you create jobs in communities that so desperately need them? We know that the earth is warming right now. We’re not going to be able to stop that trend, unfortunately. But what we can do is prepare our communities for the change. We do that by developing specific businesses that deal primarily in climate adaptation. We know that the sea level is rising. There are going to be a lot more storm surges coming our way. We know that in many cases communities of color are going to be very vulnerable because they’re in areas where there isn’t an enormous amount of vegetation.
How does your plan create jobs?
People from low-income areas can actually train to do this work. People who are in the criminal justice system, this actually allows [them] to learn a competitive skill that also helps to meet a municipal need. We’re working on developing business plans and models that can employ lots of people in this new economy. I would definitely argue that Dr. King probably wouldn’t be all that thrilled with the state of black America or white America or anything in between right now. It seems as if we’ve not created economic opportunities for people at the lower end of our economic ladder that could provide a living wage job. Our goal is to create jobs around sustainable agriculture, climate adaptation, or reinvigorating the manufacturing sector around recycled materials.
What obstacles do you face in reaching this vision?
The main obstacle is that we’ve been doing business-as-usual. This kind of project is time-tested. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency did a report a few years ago that showed that dollar-for-dollar, this kind of infrastructure project is more cost-effective than the type of hard infrastructure project that cities normally do.
What practical steps can each of us take to help?
People need to be talking to each other much more than they do, not just about what’s on TV, but about what are some things that are working and what’s not working. What [can we do] to keep a third of our young men and close to a sixth of our young women out of the criminal justice system? It shouldn’t just be the activists talking about this because we’ve all been touched by having a friend, neighbor or cousin in the criminal justice system or been unemployed for a really long time and wondering what’s happened to the American Dream. Dr. King’s vision wasn’t just about making it better for you, but making it better for all of us.
So you recommend grass roots organizing?
I don’t know if it’s grass roots because when people hear ‘grass roots,’ they think, ‘professional leader.’ That’s not who I want to talk to. I want to talk to regular folks who can be thinking, ‘How can I make this world a better place?’ That’s what I find really exciting. People are starting to understand that they can do things on their own.
Are you an idealist?
You kind of have to be to be in this business. Otherwise you’re just miserable and you make other people around you miserable.
You’ve pointed out some bleak statistics. Are you optimistic?
Yeah, absolutely! I don’t think we’ve quite hit rock bottom yet. I’m hopeful that we won’t have to get that low to recognize that there is another way and that we need to do it. It’s going to support municipalities and government in reducing their social services costs. When a person is unemployed or incarcerated, it’s not just that person, it’s that whole community. By creating new opportunities for economic development that actually meet a municipal need, you’re creating new businesses, you’re putting money in someone’s pocket in a legitimate fashion, which makes things better for everybody!
The most biologically diverse of ecosystems, wetlands absorb storm water and include swamps, marshes and bogs. Wetlands are the subject of conservation efforts because they create a buffer against powerful storms, and they’re important to natural wastewater purification.
What can you do? Majora says: “In urban areas, plant green rooms or create opportunities for urban forestry – plant more trees, have more green open spaces. Any kind of vegetation keeps your area cooler. You get a better quality of life by doing this kind of horticultural infrastructure.”