South Bronx native, activist and consultant Majora Carter fosters conversation and action among community members and large corporations in one of New York City’s most economically disadvantaged areas. She founded the nonprofit Sustainable South Bronx (SSBx), an environmental justice solutions company, in 2001, and transitioned to consulting in 2008 with the foundation of her firm, The Majora Carter Group. Carter fights to “green the ghetto,” encouraging urban renewal, green-collar jobs and environmental justice.
What does “greening the ghetto” mean?
Poverty exists all over America. These are often the places of greatest environmental degradation, as well—for example, in the South Bronx with power plants and trucking, or in West Virginia with mountaintop removal coal extraction. Not only are these public health burdens that we all pay for now, they are major sources for greenhouse gases. If we green these areas first, we double our impact on the short- and long-term health of our society and planet.
Poor communities often have the most energy-inefficient homes. Energy costs represent a greater percentage of household income there as well. Greening those areas first will help mitigate greenhouse gas emissions and help create jobs, because somebody has got to do the work of retrofitting buildings.
How do you define environmental justice?
No community should have to face more environmental burdens than any other. Period. We have to strive for equality in all aspects of life, but the environment is chief because it affects everything—how we breathe, what we eat and how we move through our communities and our lives.
How has bringing green to the South Bronx changed the community?
Studies by the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign show the social benefits of having more greenery in people’s lives—everything from lower crime to higher self-esteem in young girls. The changes I have noticed are in the attitudes of the people. When you have nothing beautiful in your day-to-day life, it is very difficult to hope or dream of something great.
How can ordinary people bring forth change in their communities?
Start talking to each other. Chances are, others feel the same or have something to add, and that can only come out during an exchange of ideas.
Are we beginning to tackle environmental racism?
I don’t think “environmental racism” is a productive way to describe the problem for two reasons: The first involves the psychology of racism—most people don’t feel as though they are “racist,” so “environmental racism” is not their fault: end of engagement. The second and more important issue is that these problems affect people of all colors, and poor people in particular.
What is the best way to keep polluters out of urban communities?
Most of them are already there so the real question is, how can we keep them around, but in a clean and responsible way. We need the jobs after all, and we need electricity and our food delivered. The best way to accomplish these goals is to talk to them. Many people in these corporations want to help if you give them the right opportunity. Some companies just don’t care for whatever reason. While I ran Sustainable South Bronx, we purchased stock in one of our uncooperative local polluters and launched a shareholder action to study the pollutants they were putting into our community. This exposed them to potential liability and risk—which shareholders don't like. After over a decade of being ignored, we suddenly had top executives flying in from Texas to meet with us.
What has been your biggest environmental justice challenge?
Helping people and groups understand that when we value all people, the value of all people rises. Environmental problems may seem impossible to solve, but when we accept the challenges of equality, economic opportunity and the environment, we uncover the keys to more powerful solutions for all of our issues. When we can do that, we will experience real peace with ourselves and our planet.
How can people go green without spending lots of money?
Take a bike instead of a car. If you drive, make sure your tires are properly inflated every time you fill up. Compost your food scraps and fertilize your garden with it, even if your garden is a container garden on your fire escape. Wear a sweater and turn down the thermostat. Use natural products like baking soda and vinegar to clean your home; they are cheap and effective, and you can eat them too (can you do that with bleach?!?). Look for low-interest energy efficiency loans—these almost always pay back more than they cost.
Majora Carter’s favorite things
• My husband
• Daily exercise