Greening The Ghetto

Erica Williams
December 19, 2007

This feature originally appeared at Campus Progress.

"Traditionally when you talked about living off the land, those were poor people. Now I have to be able to afford organic food to "be green." I have to be able to afford to buy a Prius. The price of an organic cotton t-shirt-that's just wrong!" — Majora Carter

Environmental justice activist Majora Carter is best known for her three-word mission: "Greening the Ghetto." Born and raised in an "environmentally challenged" South Bronx community, she founded Sustainable South Bronx in 2001 to fight for environmental justice through innovative, economically sustainable projects that are informed by community needs. She began small by building a park on the site of a former concrete plant, ultimately raising $1.25 million in Federal Transportation Department funding for the establishment of the South Bronx Greenway (PDF), a bike/pedestrian belt of land along the waterfront connecting neighborhoods to the water and communities to each other.

After receiving a 2005 MacArthur Fellowship — an award known commonly as the "genius grant" — her star has continued to rise. She is now the host of The Green, a new program on the Sundance channel. Campus Progress has featured Carter on its website ( and at its events, and she presented a keynote address at Powershift 2007, a major student conference on global warming.

In an interview with Campus Progress, Carter talked about the connections between poverty and the environment, the upside of moving back in with your parents, and the benefits of being labeled a genius.

Campus Progress: You've had a lot of success over the last couple of years. How did you get to this point?

Majora Carter: I got here by doing the work and realizing that there was a vision that I thought needed to be implemented. Our community in the South Bronx had been the repository for so many of the icky things that most wealthy and usually whiter communities were able to avoid in New York City. It was much more politically expedient to dump stuff in communities like ours. We really did have to move from the idea that we just had to be fighting against something to fighting for the kind of vision that we wanted-a healthier, greener, more sustainable community. And that could only come about with real things that people could see-a park or a greenway. At the end of the day or the year or the decade we actually had to have manifestations of the people's vision for their own community.

Did you start out as an activist?

MC: No. I started out in college as a film studies major and then in graduate school as a creative writing major. I was an activist in my own right, I suppose, but my work was not involved around trying to create visions for other people other than myself.

So how did you get from a creative writing degree to environmental justice work?

MC: I was at a crazy point in my life when I couldn't really afford to have a full time job while pursuing my graduate degree so I moved back in with my parents in the South Bronx, got involved with an arts group there, and discovered that the city was planning on building a huge waste facility in my neighborhood that would bring in more than 40 percent of the city's waste. I found out that the concentration of waste that was already in the neighborhood was the reason why we had an alarmingly high asthma rate and other kinds of illnesses. I began to understand that the neighborhood really did have the kind of spiritual and psychological effect on people that created a sense of hopelessness. I had a little education and some distance and realized that the world didn't have to be that way.

But how did you make the connection between that sense of hopelessness and the environment?

MC: When you have beautiful things around you they reflect back on you. There is a sense of ownership and investment. That is true whether or not you built it. I find this in every community I've ever been to: Where things are substantively beautiful, it's as if the community members played a part in creating it.

But U.S. history shows that, particularly in communities of color, neighborhood beautification and revitalization typically leads to gentrification and a loss of the core culture of that community. How can you prevent that?

What we're missing is the critical piece of being really engaged in our own development. We need to figure out ways to take control of development in our own neighborhood. We have to become even more savvy in understanding that we also need the kind of resources that gentrification can bring. I would like to not have to import fresh produce from another community, which I do right now to feed my family. Why can't I have a bike shop in my own neighborhood? There are no shoe shops! There is something to be said for making sure that our communities are better and we need to be more involved in the development practice.

Where other people see a trash dump in the middle of a neighborhood, you seem to see something else. What is the potential of a run-down factory?

MC: That it can be built up again.

As another factory? Or a park?

MC: It depends on what the community's needs are. For us, our waterfront wasn't being used. The rest of the city was talking about this "green necklace"-a waterfront park-that was going to go around it. Why couldn't we have that in our own neighborhoods? Why should we have to travel so far?

Why was it important for your community to have access to that greenway?

MC: We know not only the recreational benefits of having green, open space but also the impact that it has on reducing people's stress level, which has a public health impact, as does cleaning the air, reducing the asthma, and other kinds of ozone- and pollution-borne respiratory problems. The public health needs, the economic needs, the amenities, and the access issues all reflect back on whether or not you want to be in your own neighborhood. This country is basically a series of many different communities in different cities in different states. Imagine what it would be like if folks around the country in whatever community they were in actually loved being there. This would be a different country.

So what does a normal day look like for you? You seem to travel a lot.

MC: Now I do. But hopefully that will change when I have some more staff. You've got to get up pretty early to do this stuff. Much of it is either policy-related or trying to shepherd more of our projects through to implementation. My day is really about developing relationships with all sorts of people that you may or may not think that community groups would work with-like industry, elected officials, and other community groups.

Has the recent notoriety and recognition of your work changed what you do?

MC: It really hasn't. It's been helpful in that it raised the profile of sustainable development and environmental justice, giving it a platform that it did not have before.

Do you think that the Sustainable South Bronx model can be used in other neighborhoods? Can it have an impact outside of New York?

MC: I started the agency knowing full well that we just didn't think that this was only applicable to the South Bronx. The techniques that we've discovered are absolutely applicable to other communities. Because I have "South Bronx" in the name of my organization people think, "Oh, it's just a local thing." No, it's not just a local thing. We're going to expand that so that folks realize you can do that around the entire country.

So how can students who read about you apply these lessons to other areas? Where do they begin?

MC: That's a really good question. Whether it's talking to parents or talking to other folks, students can spread the word that you really should not have to be filthy rich in order to be green, although unfortunately right now that is what's happening. Traditionally when you talked about living off the land, those were poor people. Now I have to be able to afford organic food to "be green." I have to be able to afford to buy a Prius. The price of an organic cotton t-shirt-that's just wrong! Students can investigate why the things that really should not have such a premium attached to them are most costly.

What is it like to be called a genius?

MC: With my husband it plays really well. "Of course I'm right, I'm the genius."