Majora Carter: Urban and Environmental Justice Campaigner

10 November 2008 (Last Updated November 10th, 2008 18:30)

In the wake of Barack Obama's US election victory, the focus is on urban renewal and sustainable development. Christopher Kanal meets Majora Carter, the founder of Sustainable South Bronx, a pioneer of the green economy that is successfully fighting poverty.

Majora Carter: Urban and Environmental Justice Campaigner

If it had not been for Majora Carter's dog Xena, a waterfront in her South Bronx home would have remained a wasteland and not become a vibrant and beautiful park. One morning, Carter's dog led her through an abandoned rubbish dump filled with debris to the South Bronx river waterside, which was completely unobstructed by factories and highways.

In 1998 there was no public access to the waterfront. Carter proposed to transform the blighted area into Hunts Point Riverside Park. She won a federal grant to design the South Bronx Greenway and helped raise more than $30m in public and private funds to build the greenway – 11 miles of tree-lined bicycle and pedestrian paths connecting neighbourhoods to the to the South Bronx River waterfront. The 11-mile-long stretch is the first new South Bronx waterfront park in over 60 years and provides alternative transport, recreational space, jobs and environmental enhancements to the local community.

Politics, environmentalism, urbanism and race are a potent mix and Carter says that the success of Sustainable South Bronx (SSBx) is down to remaining focused on all the issues and not being sidetracked by one. "Places like the South Bronx exist because of environmental racism," she says. "We understand that this is the reality, we acknowledge it but we give people a way out."

Does Carter regard herself as an environmentalist or an activist? "I'm an environmentalist," she says. "I do environmental justice." Carter believes that urbanism and the environment need to be addressed as one. "People aren't looking at our cities as ecosystems in themselves," explains Carter, "But they are incredibly viable. Cities are not completely natural environments because we have engineered nature out of them. Now it is up to us to engineer it back in."

Hidden possibilities

In April this year Carter was one of the guest speakers, along with the architect Richard Rogers, at Exemplar Talks held at Somerset House, a series of lectures linked to 2008's London Open City exhibition, examining the hidden possibilities of public spaces and streets. She called for more local people to be employed in regeneration schemes so communities are better involved in shaping public spaces.

Smart, savvy and eloquent Carter was named as one of the 50 most influential women in New York City by the New York Post in 2007 and has been feted by environmental groups and politicians around the world. NBC News journalist Tom Brokaw recently described her as the 'grand-daughter of Dr Martin Luther King'. She has been a co-host on Robert Redford's The Green, a weekly three-hour television segment dedicated to the environment, shown on the Sundance Channel.

Carter, 41, was born and brought up in the South Bronx at a time when America's inner cities were being abandoned for the suburbs. As communities and local businesses moved out, the waste industry moved in and South Bronx became a repository for the Big Apple's garbage. Pollution rose and consequently so did poor health – unemployment soared.

"Majora Carter won a federal grant to design the South Bronx Greenway."

As a child, Carter wanted to get out of South Bronx as soon as she could. She studied cinema studies and film production at Wesley University then signed up for graduate school at New York University.

Returning to Hunts Point after completing an MFA, Carter was first involved in artistic projects in her local area and planning 'to write the Great American Novel'.

The move to green activism

What caused Carter to change direction and focus on green activism was discovering that a huge waste-processing facility was going to be built in her neighbourhood, adding to two sewage-treatment plants and four power stations. "That totally politicised me," she says. "I had run away from my neighbourhood and now I saw it in a completely different light, and saw all these external forces that made my community what it was."

Back then, 60,000 diesel-fume-spewing garbage trucks rumbled through the South Bronx each week contributing to asthma rates that were some of the highest in the country. "Our city didn't care about the poor areas where waste disposal was being run by the mafia," explains Carter. "Nobody cared as long as Manhattan was ok. That got me into politics. What was inspiring for me was realising that we had the capacity to fight against something."

Soon Carter was engaged in a very public battle against a plan for a solid waste management plant on the Hunts Point waterfront that when completed would have processed 40% of New York's municipal waste. "We were already handling 40% of the city's commercial waste here," she says.

SSBx – Sustainable South Bronx

Following the defeat of the scheme in 2001, Carter founded SSBx to create a new relationship with the South Bronx for the locals. Carter ultimately wants South Bronx to become a successful and booming neighbourhood to the point where SSB is no longer needed. Its current existence is vital to forging the relationships and networks needed to address a community's problems.

SSBx embarked on projects that included a new waterfront park on what was once a concrete plant. Carter developed an environmental workforce in order to protect the environment. SSBx also raised funds to conduct a feasibility study for the establishment of a cycle and pedestrian greenway along the waterfront. Community education on personal heath and pollution forms a core part of SSBx's work.

"The success of SSBx is down to remaining focused on all the issues and not being sidetracked by one."

In 2003, SSBx started the Bronx environmental stewardship training (BEST), a community-based scheme that provided green-collar training for locals. With an 85% employment rate, the scheme, focusing on urban environmental stewardship from green roof installation to retrofitting buildings to boost their efficiency, has proved extraordinarily successful. Around 10% of the 100 graduates have gone on to college.

Prior to this, Carter says that New York City authorities simply brought in outside contractors to do the work that locals should have done. Now South Bronx locals have a personal and economic share in their community.

"Much of the work that we do is not all that sexy," says Carter. "We are talking about creating jobs and opportunities. We are talking about creating stewardship opportunities for urban areas, we are talking about keeping people out of jail and actually improving the quality of their life."

Many of the trainees on the ten-week BEST programme include ex-convicts who are given opportunities not just to learn, but also to gain life skills. Graduates' progress is tracked for three years in order to help with job placement. Carter says there is a direct link between environmental, economic and social degradation: "I realised the role that pollution and poverty play in our prison industries."

"The government is stuck in the idea that poor communities don't know what's best for them," explains Carter. "The government wanted to use a Bronx site to build a 2,000-capacity jail. They said a lot of families in the area had members in jail so it would be easier for them to visit them, but what about making the families more stable so they don't go to jail in the first place? Currently the government spends $13,000 a year educating children but $60,000 incarcerating them. We want a change of mindset."

BEST is the scheme Carter is most proud of. "I've seen folks go through our training programme," Carter tells me. "Many people never had a job. Almost all of them have had some kind of run in with the law. They go through this training and know that their efforts are leading to something. It is such an empowering, beautiful thing to watch people's lives change. It is like watching a light go on inside of them that was not there before."

Community spirit

A major problem that faced New York's disenfranchised communities is the lack skills and lobbies needed to argue on their behalf at public meetings. Carter also says that the best way to sell regeneration projects is to draw as many parties together, from neighbourhood groups to businesses and explain how their interests will benefit.

"I'm an environment-alist," Carter says. "I do environmental justice."

Carter is a strident believer in communities being directly involved in regeneration schemes. She says that for too long they have been passive spectators to projects that dictate their futures.

The success of a project should be measured as much by its end performance as by its ability to engage the local community. For example business needs to be told that environmental renewal is beneficial to them because pollution is cut so fewer of your staff fall sick.

More recently SSBx has been involved in other green start-ups. SmartRoofs is a green profit-making business enterprise. A green roof installation and maintenance project, SmartRoofs replaces tar, blacktop roofs with a durable, lightweight layer of plants. Buildings are kept cooler in the summer and these roofs allow for the storage and utilisation of rainwater. The plants also act as a CO2 absorber, improving air quality.

Carter's activism has reached into international affairs. When she was selected as a torch bearer for a portion of the San Francisco leg of the torch relay of the 2008 Summer Olympics, she took the opportunity to protest about Tibet. Carter produced a Tibetan flag that she had concealed in her sleeve as a gesture of solidarity before the Chinese security officers pulled her out of the race.

Controversy aside, Carter's experience tackling urban blight has won her many admirers including Northern Ireland's Minister for Social Development, Margaret Ritchie. South Bronx and Belfast might at first seem worlds apart but Ritchie recently met with Carter to learn how to address Belfast's mix of poverty, joblessness, drugs, and ethnic tension. Pumping money into revamping buildings was not enough and Ritchie wanted to learn about how to achieve social cohesion through greens schemes and environmental stewardship. "There are South Bronxes all over the world," says Carter. "We really believe that we can design the economy to be green to provide pathways out of poverty as well as remediating the environment."

Extending her reach

In July 2008 Carter left SSBx to start a for-profit consulting business, the Majora Carter Group that extends her reach beyond New York. Her first project is assisting Elizabeth City in North Carolina develop a comprehensive plan to adapt to climate change.

"Carter founded SSBx in 2001 to create a new relationship with the Bronx for the locals."

The recent election of Barack Obama to the US presidency promises great change for the United States. Can he deliver on the environmental and urban renewal front? Carter says "Obama has more capacity to make real change because he is not as much a part of the system as the others are. I find that really healthy. We need change fast!"

Long before the Obama campaign touted the idea, Carter voiced the need for a green 'new deal.

"We need to set up new funding mechanisms, incentives and investment to support the creation of green sectors all over the country as well as opportunities for job training so those living in the most deprived areas get the help they need to come into those sectors including those in rural areas," she says. "It is not a black or brown issue."

Carter has great faith in the environment's capacity to help overcome divisions. "We can heal the environment as we heal our economy and heal the people who have been broken by over-dependence on fossil fuels as well damage done to our communities and environment," she says. But with a new beginning and a new president, Carter is not complacent. "People will need courage."