A Model for Environmental Justice

We recently published the lecture pamphlet for Majora Carter’s 2007 talk entitled “Sustainable South Bronx: A Model for Environmental Justice“. As with all of our published lectures the full text is available to read for free on our website.

Founded in 2001 by Dr. Majora Carter, Sustainable South Bronx addresses land-use, energy, transportation, water and waste policy, and education to advance the environmental and economic rebirth of the South Bronx. Her 2007 Annual E. F. Schumacher Lecture describes a rebuilding process for the South Bronx fueled by the creative capacity within the community. Sustainable South Bronx has given community members a seat at the table, resulting in a new model for sustainable development.

Excerpts from her lecture are included below. Please enjoy.


Excerpts from “Sustainable South Bronx: A Model for Environmental Justice”

I entered [the environmental justice] field because I was not satisfied with the way things were happening in my community. We were not willing to be the repository for all the things that wealthier, usually whiter communities could afford to avoid. I believed that our dreams for the beautiful future we wanted were the right dreams for anyone, and I did not fear that others might consider us fools for having the audacity to hope.

Van Jones and I started a project called Green for All because we believe that this transitional Green Economy should be used to move people out of poverty because you shouldn’t need to have a ton of green in order to be green and because ‘green’ should be more than some niche thing that only the wealthy can afford.

Opposing bad things with positive alternatives is the model that we’ve applied to all our efforts ever since. Oppose destruction with creation. It wasn’t the ‘not in my backyard’ argument at all. We didn’t just say, ‘No more garbage, period’; we said, ‘not garbage because what we need are parks and developments that improve our quality of life’; we said, ‘not garbage because what we need is equitable solid-waste handling that doesn’t continue to overburden the most vulnerable in the city.’

I have noticed that many people, government, and businesses, in their quest to ‘fix’ the problems of the world, forget that nearly all of those problems affect other people. We see ourselves as more than just problems. We are people with our own ideas, dreams, and hopes for our future. Please remember that what we bring to the table may not be high in monetary value, but it is our investment. Don’t we all want others to see value in our contributions? To be respected and honored for the contribution we make? Everyone needs someone to love, something to do, and something to hope for. Now, think about it. If you feel that you don’t have anything to offer or anything to gain by being a part of the community and there is no predictable connection between the effort you exert and the outcome, violence will happen.

All of our solutions must incorporate poverty alleviation through policies that acknowledge and then mitigate the environmental inequities that poor communities have traditionally experienced. We need to create green-collar jobs so that poor people can see themselves as having both a personal and financial stake in the betterment of the environment. If our old, highly inefficient buildings are big emitters of greenhouse gases, then they need to be retrofitted. If we know that climate change can become a business
opportunity, then we need to develop ways for clean-tech industries to flourish here at home and abroad. Instead of outsourcing our production to countries that engage in slave and child labor, that do not share our values in terms of human rights or the environment, we must stand strong on the moral and economic high ground without fearing those forces that will distort, cheat, and lie to protect the portfolios of a very few at the expense of you, your neighbors, and future generations.

Strong communities that understand and value the benefits and cost across the production and consumption cycle are the basis of strong nations filled with strong people who will be natural leaders because they will be happy, they will be bountiful, and will be able to afford to be generous.

Environmental justice for all is civil rights in the twenty-first century. This moment of change that we find ourselves in together on this day is the mountaintop, and Martin Luther King was not alone up there, looking out at the promised land. We are still building tributes to our collective failures, but wouldn’t you rather join me in building monuments to hope and possibility?

Displacement and gentrification are certainly two of the issues everybody talks about, but what we’re trying to do is create more opportunities for people to move out of poverty so they don’t have to leave, because when people feel they are not part of what’s going on in the community, it is real easy to push them out. The moment you start empowering them to believe they have a right to talk about what they want—and that includes the ability to stay and enjoy the benefits that are accruing to that community, often because of their own efforts—it becomes harder and harder to force them to leave.

The full edited text of this lecture may be viewed or purchased online.