Q&A With Environmental Activist Majora Carter

Majora Carter talks activism, “greening the ghetto” and the future of the urban environmentalist movement.

Award-winning environmental activist, consultant and Bronx native Majora Carter has proven herself a force to be reckoned with. In just a little over a decade she has led a campaign to squash plans to dump more garbage in her Bronx neighborhood in the late 1990s; founded the non-profit environmental justice solutions group Sustainable South Bronx in 2001; wrote and landed a $1.25 million Federal Transportation grant to create South Bronx Greenway; won a MacArthur Genius grant in 2006 for her efforts; and in 2008 founded her own environmental consultant group to assist communities across the nation with creating green strategies.

Majora Carter spoke to about “greening the ghetto,” problems with the mainstream environmentalist movement, and ways people living in cities can improve their environment. When you first decided to take on NYC’s waste facility plans in your Bronx neighborhood, did you have any idea that you’d actually succeed? How did this become a catalyst to launch your own movement?

Majora Carter: It was my intention to be as successful as possible, but it was a morally based crusade, so the outcome was not as important as the issue. One jumps into a river to save a drowning person regardless of the chance of success—you do it. How could you not once you are aware? The degree to which we were able to not only defeat the environmentally noxious intentions of Gov. [George] Pataki and Mayor [Rudy] Giuliani’s plans and then go on to directly influence the ground-breaking solid waste management plans that the Bloomberg administration eventually championed was greater than I would have predicted—and a valuable lesson: Dream bigger.

Why do you think it’s important for African-Americans, especially those living in urban areas, to pay more attention to their environment? What are some economic and health benefits of living greener?

I don’t believe it’s productive to single out urban Blacks in this discussion. We are all in this together and really need to look back on the brilliance of MLK’s “Poor Peoples’ Movement” during the last years of his life for lessons on how to bring the true costs of our energy practices into the light of day.

What does “greening the ghetto” mean?

Where do you find the worst environmental conditions in terms of air, water or soil, the least amount of parks per person? Poor neighborhoods, aka “ghettos”—of any color. Applying green strategies in these places will yield the greatest percentage improvement per dollar. They are also the places where we should encourage another kind of “green”—the development of enterprises that provide jobs that do not pollute the environment.

Could you explain briefly what your consulting company, Majora Carter Group LLC, does for communities?

“Communities” are part of the equation, but they rarely have the resources to retain us. Our clients want to solve complex problems, and I believe that constructively engaging the various communities of interests involved helps ensure a more positive outcome for our clients—whomever they may be. MCG finds ways to connect cost-effective green strategy with all the people who are affected by a given situation.

Could you touch on a particular urban MCG project that you are especially proud of?

We’ve been working for the past two years on developing a national brand of locally grown produce.  This has involved everything from advanced branding strategy to a real education in business planning and hydroponic technology. We are closer than ever to breaking ground on new indoor growing infrastructure, and I am really looking forward to seeing the change I can make in peoples’ lives by opening the doors to jobs they never thought they would have.

What are some of the biggest hurdles facing the urban environmentalist movement?

The hurdles lie more within the mainstream environmentalist movement than anywhere else. By that I mean one can expect the petro-chemical industrial complex and their cousins in big agriculture and for-profit prisons to protect themselves; they are a predictably acting on rational self-interest. But based on what I’ve observed lately, the environmental elite are still unwilling to embrace environmental equality among people as a guiding principal. All great progress in this country’s history has come when equality was at the core: the American Revolution, Emancipation, Women’s Suffrage, labor rights, civil rights, the Internet—these were democratizing movements. Despite their various practical flaws, their success was inevitable. Typical “environmental” organizations have fought for an abstract notion of “protection” and ignored the actual injustice of human suffering—often occurring within a couple miles of their well-funded offices. I believe that is one reason why “environment” consistently ranks low in American priority polls. I have been somewhat encouraged over recent years by their stated interests in environmental justice.

What are some small things people living in urban areas can do to improve the quality of their environment?

Vote based on the many threats to their own public health. Purchase products that reflect their values. Generate less garbage by not buying cheap products that they will throw out sooner [rather] than a higher quality product that lasts longer. Compost your food waste. These last two can help reduce the number of garbage trucks traveling through their neighborhoods and polluting local air. Keep toxins of all kinds out of their homes; everything from carpets to cleaning products to cabinetry come in non-toxic forms. If you are in an environmentally degraded area to begin with, lowering your in-home exposure to toxins can have a great effect on your “chemical load.”

What’s your advice to budding African-American environmentalists?

Economics. Study and relate the cost-benefit analysis of environmental mismanagement on public health, social services, storm-water management and worker productivity. Learn how to communicate effectively, and don’t ever fall into the trap of believing that the “facts” will carry the day. You need to present a message that appeals emotionally to the audience you are addressing and gives them enough facts that they can repeat to their peers, but not so many that they throw up their hands and feel defeated. Reach out to unlikely allies and appeal to the intersection of your collective self-interests. And if all that fails, call on me and I will be there for you because I’ve been there, baby, and I need to know there is a next wave to take over when I get too old for all this!


(Photo: Astrid Riecken/PictureGroup)

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