Publications / Annual E. F. Schumacher Lecture

Sustainable South Bronx: A Model for Environmental Justice

Introduction by Jessica Brackman

About a year and a half ago my husband returned from a conference deeply inspired. It was the annual TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) conference, with a roster of brilliant world-changing speakers. That year Al Gore was there, and being an admirer, I was particularly eager to hear about his presentation. But the person Charlie was most eager to talk about wasn’t the former vice-president. The really eye-opening and memorable presentation, the one he kept coming back to, was given by a remarkable young woman from the South Bronx. He went on and on about the extraordinary work she was doing reclaiming her neighborhood—building new parks and bike paths, setting up training programs for a green workforce, and all kinds of other initiatives. She certainly sounded impressive, but it wasn’t until we received a DVD of the conference in the mail and I sat down to watch it that I really grasped the full magnificence of Majora Carter.

She was smart, beautiful, down to earth, committed, and passionate about her cause, with a spirit of determination that was infectious. Here was a woman raised in a marginalized part of New York City, an area that for decades has been a dumping ground, a poor ghetto over which the rising affluent city has built its highways, hidden its waste facilities, its power plants, its eyesores, and rubble of all kinds. Hers has been a neighborhood demoralized, riddled with crime, addiction, ill health—much the byproduct of ongoing assault and neglect. But somehow Majora, supported by a loving family and inspired by a few good mentors, decided there was something she could do about this environmental and social injustice. She took the initiative, came up with a plan for how to recover some of the devastated waterfront, got a grant, created Sustainable South Bronx, and embarked on a project that has grown and grown.

Through her work Majora has demonstrated a new model for sustainable development, one that brings community, government, and enterprise into a powerful partnership that has a potential to effect real systemic change. Her work continues to evolve in very exciting ways, but I’ll let her tell you about it herself.

Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome Majora Carter.

This place is so beautiful. When I walked in, I was taken back to when I was a kid. There was a movie house in my neighborhood that I can imagine looked like this originally, but by the time I was coming up, the paint was peeling and it was a total mess. With so much financial disinvestment in my community, there was no opportunity to restore it. If you’re six years old, you don’t really care, but it strikes me now that this beautiful Mahaiwe Theater must look the way the Star Theater in my neighborhood once looked. So I will revisit it in my mind and imagine the beauty it once had.

Statistically speaking I really shouldn’t be here. I’m from the South Bronx in New York City. I grew up during a time when America’s cities were emptying into the suburbs and neighborhoods like mine were literally burning. The economics of the time dictated that it was more profitable for landlords to collect insurance money by burning their own buildings down rather than trying to reinvest in them. In that environment kids like me were more likely to be pregnant in their teens, addicted to drugs, dead, or all of the above. My own brother survived two tours in the Vietnam War, only to be gunned down several blocks away from my family’s home.

As one might expect, I got the hell out of Dodge as soon as I could, and no one blamed me. But several years later I was broke while attending graduate school, so I moved back in with my parents and looked at things differently. No noble reasons brought me back home, but once there I taught creative writing to kids in local schools as my way of giving.

That’s where everything starts. There is a problem where you are: an inequality, an injustice. And as Martin Luther King wrote, an injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.

Once home, I discovered that irresponsible regulations, land-use regulations, and top-down planning helped create the economic patterns in the South Bronx of my youth. These led directly to the environmental abused in the South Bronx of today. We handle more than 30 percent of New York City’s waste and process up to 70 percent of its sewage sludge; we have a sewage treatment plant, four power plants, and the emissions of 60,000 diesel truck trips that move the region’s food and garbage through our neighborhood every week.

The South Bronx is not alone. Communities like it across the nation and around the world are point sources for the greenhouse gases that everyone wants to curb now. The truck routes supporting hyperconsumption and the waste that consumption brings, the power plants, the chemical plants, the refineries, the waste-treatment facilities are all concentrated on top of our poor citizens, often communities of color.

The health effects of being in such close proximity to pollution sources are keenly felt in the painfully high asthma rates. Obesity and diabetes follow closely behind because most folks won’t even consider going out for a brisk walk in neighborhoods where they fear getting hit by a truck and the air is repellent. There is conclusive evidence showing that proximity to fossil-fuel emission sources like the ones I just mentioned causes learning disabilities in young children, reducing their ability to learn. And we know that poor kids who don’t perform well in school statistically have a better chance at prison than at higher education.

The kind of environmentalism I do is called environmental justice. For those of you who are not familiar with the term, environmental justice means no community should have to deal with a disproportionate amount of environmental burdens while enjoying few environmental benefits. Right now, race and class are excellent indicators of where you’ll find the good stuff like parks and trees and bad stuff like power plants and waste facilities. I entered this 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.

We can all be bold enough to say that we are not willing to leave this world in the same sorry condition as the one we created. Yes, I said the one “we” created—none of us just stumbled upon it. We are all responsible for global warming. We are all responsible for Virginia Tech, for Columbine, misogynist rap lyrics, $2 billion a week for a war that butchers our young men and women and pretty much everybody else there so that we can continue a way of life that everyone knows we have to change. The Stone Age didn’t end because the stones ran out, and we cannot wait until we are out of coal and oil to change the trajectory we are on.

We as a culture have been led to believe that in order to succeed we have to tear things down and it is ok to tear people down along with them. But you know that building a sustainable world is not only necessary, it is possible—and in our lifetime. Do we see the leadership we need stepping forward to do so? One gentleman from New York, who has set his sights on the job of “Leader of the Free World,” former mayor of Rudy Giuliani, has a rather unremarkable track record on the environmental justice front. He tried to move all of New York City’s waste through our small part of the South Bronx. We activated masses of people, mostly women, by connecting the dirty industries we hosted to the health problems that their children and they themselves suffered. We beat Giuliani back, a big victory, but the state pushed through four power plants in rapid succession instead.

Part of winning that battle involved listening to people to find out what they did want. Not surprisingly, they wanted the same things everybody wants in a community, the same things you want—in fact, name some of the things you want in your community: [audience responses] parks, clean air, jobs, local food markets, quiet. Equipped with that knowledge, I did some work with help from many people, usually women, at various levels in government agencies and nailed a $1 million federal transportation grant to plan the South Bronx Greenway, a network of waterfront and on-street bike paths with opportunities for local economic development. I led a community volunteer effort to clear out an abandoned street end on the Bronx River and turned it into a truly beautiful park, so beautiful that I got married in it just over a year ago.

We run an ecological restoration job-training program that gives our students skills in green-collar fields, from green-roof installation to cleaning up contaminated land safely to caring for our urban forest. I have watched single moms on welfare who have never had a job come alive to the world around them because we have given them the power to make change in their own lives and make their world a better place in the process.

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.”

From the outward signs in our media, one might think that our society is headed in the right direction This year the world celebrated Earth Day in various ways. Even Popular Mechanics, for crying out loud, and many other national magazines devoted covers and lots of ink to environmental issues. You know what the cover of my organization’s newsletter was in April? A photo of a black man’s hands clutching the bars of a jail cell. Why?

My agency and our partners worked to create an inspiring clean-tech vision for the South Bronx. Clean-tech industries are those that produce products or use processes that provide a net benefit to the environment. Our proposed eco-industrial center is a collection of businesses that process and use recyclable materials as raw materials, on a site with good barge and rail access, incorporating jobs, city-wide solid waste mitigation, fewer trucks, greenway development, and a more healthy future for South Bronx residents.

In communities with high unemployment rates like the South Bronx those jobs are a breathtaking vision of staggering beauty, especially for women—how many of us have heard about women who stay in abusive relationships for economic reasons? Now that vision is under imminent threat from a two-thousand-bed jail the City wants on that same site as part of its long-term sustainability plan; you may have heard of PlaNYC. What are they trying to say to us? While we say clean-tech industry for a better economy, a better environment, and a better quality of life, New York City says JAILS. The City is not alone: in upstate New York, six out of ten counties make more on their prisons than on their property taxes. So while all the TV networks and magazines are proclaiming that everything is “going green,” two of the fastest growing industries in the United States are prisons and garbage. Is that the legacy we want to leave to our children?

This is where you come in. You are a community. Community is not just a place you go to when you leave here or even a group of people; it is an activity. It is the responsibility you exercise, that you live up to—and you, everybody in this room, you know what kind of responsibility you can exercise.

We have all heard that we need to put a cap on our carbon emissions, and that game is already underway. We are in a transition moment when all of the balls are in the air and ripe for re-examination. The same political processes that give us excess carbon dioxide and other nasty industrial substances also entrench poverty. Why aren’t we putting a cap on our poverty emissions? Indeed, poverty lies at the root and is the byproduct of many of our practices. Governments and businesses seem to believe that it’s politically expedient to place noxious, polluting, greenhouse-gas-spewing industries in poor communities because the poor have so many problems that they won’t even notice another one. Poor people have less power to resist poor decisions, and poor people without opportunities to improve their own lives get poorer.

Many poor people in environmentally toxic communities use emergency rooms for primary care, getting less effective treatment at a high public cost. The poor spend more of their income on rising energy costs than middle- and upper-class people do; they are already disproportionately affected by the costs of climate change. Think of the sinking islands, where people have lived for generations. Think of the disruption to agriculturally dependent economies around the world.

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.

In the same decade that we have seen such unbelievable economic growth, poor people of all colors are getting poorer and our communities are getting more toxic. There is a misconception out there that in order to grow our economy we will have to do business as usual because cleaning up the environment and mitigating climate change are just too costly. Well, I say the business of poverty is just too expensive a bill for humanity to pay any longer.

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.

America needs to level the economic playing field by training and employing a massive green-color workforce. We need government investment on the scale of the Marshall Plan, with coordinated incentives, funding, and regulations to make clean-tech industries with green-power jobs flourish. The private sector needs to really go green by investing in clean-tech industries, especially in the communities used to support the hyperconsumption that got us into so much of the trouble we are in. It’s a smart business move. Smart investors who get in on the ground floor of a new market in underserved communities will often find incentives to investment.

There is a large labor market that will need training, but this can be addressed with a strong nonprofit partner that will do the training, which will cultivate community good-will through local hiring. And you also can gain amazing PR from both community and the business innovation side. Invest in the eco-industrial center in the South Bronx. Build a solar-panel factory in Oakland, California. Put wind turbines on mountaintops instead of chopping them off. The list will go on and on. I’m talking Newark, New Orleans, Philadelphia, our native communities, coal country—yep, the black girl from the South Bronx is talking about solidarity with poor white folk. What’s the world coming to?

Sustainable South Bronx is dedicated to creating a healthy future for everybody. My agency needs your financial support so that I can attract and retain the professional team I need to go head to head against the obnoxious forces lined up against us. I want the best on my side—on our side—and they don’t come cheap, nor should they.

We could be creating markets for products and services we can be proud of by putting more dollars into community-supportive infrastructure and land-use plans that benefit the majority of people first—educated, happy, and healthy people—a tremendous step on the way to sustainable social justice. And they are the seeds of the next middle class, which is evaporating before our eyes. 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?

Question & Answer Period

Q: We’ve been hearing lately that because there are jobs Americans don’t want to do, we need immigrants to do the work and do it for less pay. What about people in the South Bronx? Are you creating jobs they don’t want to do—you know, the kind of dirty work Americans won’t do?

A: In my neighborhood we have a 25 percent unemployment rate, and I have folks who are very interested in doing pretty much anything. Ever since we moved away from an agrarian society, working with one’s hands is not something all that common, but a lot depends on the way you talk about a specific kind of job and what you’re doing it for. Most people who come to us don’t even think of our community as having an environment, but if we make them see that what they’re doing is actually helping the environment to become healthier and that they are playing an active role in making it happen, then all of a sudden learning to care for trees and bring them to full canopy becomes an inspired task. If we show them the future value of cleaning up a brownfield that may look like nothing but a disgusting trash-filled lot and make it clear that they need certain skills to clean it up safely for themselves as well as for the people who are going to be using it later, then the job becomes more of a vision rather than an awful thing to do. It all depends on how we present it and how they look at it.

Q: Do you want us to think globally and locally at the same time or just locally?

A: I think you have to start with being concerned about your own area, and that in turn helps you recognize that you’re a part of a much larger community. When I first started doing this work, I saw what was wrong in my specific neighborhood, and I wanted to protect my family and friends here. But then I realized that the problems were way bigger than being about just us, and when I looked a little deeper, I realized that it’s not just New York City, and it’s not just communities that look like mine; it’s actually many different kinds of communities that are the deliberate or even the unintended victims of environmental degradation. So through our local struggles and our local victories we are able to see ourselves as part of a much larger community, and I think that’s how change is going to come about—when folks realize that their liberation is tied up with folks in coal country. We need to recognize that we must deal with our environment in a way that is more supportive of everybody. When we fix one thing, lots of other things get fixed in the process.

Q: All around the world, programs oriented toward farming and bringing people back to having some meaningful relationship to nature have also served to help in the civilizing process, restoring people’s personalities to a state of health. Do you see this happening as a result of the focus of your programs?

A: It was not just fighting against the waste facilities coming into the neighborhood that brought me to my work. What inspired me to think about the good that might come from what I was doing was a study that came out of the University of Chicago about the urban forest. You know, there were hardly any trees in my neighborhood when I was growing up, and I didn’t have any connection to trees. The report stated in no uncertain terms that people who lived in close proximity to trees, to an urban forest, actually had lower stress levels. Crime rates were lower. Community pride was greater. People spent more time outside and were closer to one another—and these were some of the toughest neighborhoods in Chicago.

Then I started to find out more about community gardens, especially in New York City, and I realized that they gave people an opportunity to become connected with one another, sometimes for the first time. If you’re planting something in a community garden, you’re meeting people in a place where you feel safe, a place that comforts you, that feeds not only your body but your spirit. Those kinds of things do more to cement bonds among people than anything else, and that’s why we’re so involved with doing the kind of physical projects that allow people to take their community back. They’ve been enabled to see themselves and one another in a different way.

In my lifetime I’ve never seen anything in my neighborhood like the park where I got married last year. The way people have embraced it and the way they are when they’re in it is just so unbelievably beautiful, it almost brings me to tears sometimes, just sitting there and watching them. We need to have more of this to create an even more sustainable community.

Q: I’m interested in hearing more about your proposal for the eco-industrial park vs. the city’s idea to build the jail there.

A: Sustainable South Bronx opposes the destruction of things by supporting something with a creative aspect to it. The site was first sold for a power plant, and we knew we had to move quickly and think of a project, so that’s why we proposed the eco-industrial park. There was no prison on the horizon at that point, but now that there is, the community is completely opposed to it and is pushing for the eco-industrial park. We’re making sure the city understands that we are not trying to bring more garbage to our community but to creatively re-use it. This is an important point because there has been some misunderstanding about it, as though we’re going to import garbage. No, we’re not. The garbage is already here. What we want to do is recycle it and add value to it so we can create jobs and mitigate solid waste at the same time.

If we do not defeat this jail, then I think everything we have done will be sacrificed. There could not be a bigger reminder for everyone in our community of how we failed them and how we expect them to be failures if something that big, that expensive, and that unwelcome comes in . It would be the biggest influx of public dollars, other than the billion dollar sewage treatment plant, that we’ve had in our community. The $30 million I helped raise is like small change in comparison.

Q: I’m curious about how you organize and create a collective vision for the community.

A: My agency came out of a creative visioning process that we started when we were fighting the waste facility. People were at the point where just being asked what they wanted in their neighborhood was a tough question because, number one, no one had ever bothered asking them before and, number two, they didn’t think the kind of things they really wanted could happen in their community. So only general topics came out of that, things like parks, clean air, opportunities for open space, living-wage jobs that wouldn’t kill you, transportation systems that wouldn’t kill you (because of truck routing in the community). They didn’t go much beyond that.

The reason I wanted to start my organization was specifically to bring to light some of those visions for the future, for example the South Bronx Greenway. Once we got the funding for it, we needed to find out how it was going to fit in the context of people’s lives, and we did a lot of visioning about that specifically. The way we did it, which was really fun, was to help people see that yes, this is a greenway, but it’s more than that. This is the beginning of everything. There are opportunities here for more than recreation. Some people said, That’s nice, and we do want parks and a safe place for kids to play, but we also need jobs. Well, opportunities do exist for jobs within the context of particular projects. I find that people gravitate toward real things they can see and they know are coming down the pike.

I’m not one to start talking about things I know won’t happen, so we consider it our role as an agency to help people figure out the best strategy for doing whatever it is they want to do. Then we can take that information back and use it for everything from the parks to the greenway route to the kind of economic opportunities we’re hoping and praying for. We’re finishing up a community visioning process right now that calls for hundreds of extensive surveys, focus groups, and individual meetings with community groups and leaders just to find out where the pulse of the community is. I have to say I wasn’t surprised at what folks were telling us, but it gave us a lot of confidence in the role we’d been playing. It’s definitely a forward and dynamic process.

Q: Can you explain how environmental degradation affects women in the South Bronx and how you address that in your work?

A: Women are usually the primary caregivers for their kids, who are most affected by the public health issues we’re faced with. Most families are headed by women who often have to spend the night in an emergency room because their child can’t breathe. That’s going to affect their jobs. One woman in our job-training program had never had a job because she was caring for her kids, who were sick because of environmental issues. With the kind of support we were able to offer her through the training program she was able to find a living-wage job so that she could take better care of her children.

There are far too many examples of women who stay in abusive relationships for economic reasons, not only in our community but worldwide. We see ourselves as advancing the goals of women in general by contributing to their economic empowerment.

It seems to me that once a low-income neighborhood, where there are not many jobs, starts to improve, a completely different demographics of people become interested in the place. Some of the residents who are already there are brought along with the money that then flows into the community, but for the most part the residents are pushed out.

This can happen if you don’t take that possibility into account in the first place. 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.

I’m frustrated by the very idea that there have to be poor communities. I don’t believe that. I think there are always opportunities to make them less poor. We need to make clear from the start that we don’t want to keep people poor, because exclusively poor communities are not good for anybody. The development of mixed-income communities is the smart thing for us to encourage. We need to figure out ways to do that, and I think we can meet the task head on if we have an economic model in place that allows folks to move themselves up out of poverty, that actually allows for mixed-income communities and not just those that are either superwealthy or superpoor.

Q: You referred to mixed-income communities, but the reality is that rich people don’t want to move into a poor community, and so it won’t become mixed. How do you suggest breaking that psychological barrier?

A: The only way you can break it is by making the neighborhood more attractive. The first thing you can do is create the kind of public space that is beautiful and attractive to everybody and that is free. Everybody uses it, everybody enjoys it. One of the most amazing examples I know is Bogota, Colombia, which I had the opportunity to visit. Enrique Peñalosa is the mayor. Mayors have only a three-year term, and they have to act quickly to make their stamp. The city was spending an enormous amount of its resources for the benefit of car owners when only something like 14 percent of the people in Bogota had cars, so what he did was ban parking on many public streets. If people wanted the privilege of being able to park, they had to pay for it. The city created beautiful greenways and initiated a rapid-transit bus system so that people wouldn’t need to drive a car anyway because of this excellent transportation system. People wanted to impeach the mayor, but lo and behold, they soon realized that he was creating a better Bogota for everybody.

That’s what I think is missing from most of our urban planning. Ninety percent of the designers in this world, and I include urban planners, design for the top 10 percent on the economic scale. Who is designing for the other 90 percent? The point is to create something that everybody can enjoy, such as decent mass transit that makes it easy for people to get around or beautiful parks and open spaces attractive to everybody and where people feel safe. In addition, yes, people with more money can build a house that’s bigger and has nicer paneling or bamboo flooring, but those with less will still have the same doggone structural quality, only they’ll use materials that aren’t as expensive. That’s what I learned from my mentor, Carlton Brown, the affordable-housing green developer whom we’re going to be working with. You need to have beautiful spaces for everybody because everybody wants to feel treasured. So I think it’s in the best interest of all of us to understand that beauty should not be something you can have only if you’ve got lots of money. It should be there for everyone.

Q: What do you see as a viable way of fostering people’s involvement in the growth of their community so they are empowered to stay there?

A: First, help people to believe that something better is possible for them in their community. It is perfectly reasonable and acceptable for folks to look around them and say that theirs is not a good community. Handling 40 percent of the city’s commercial waste, having a 25 percent unemployment rate, and one out of four of the children suffering from serious asthma—that does not make for a desirable community. I can get any kind of fast food in my neighborhood, but I can’t find a decent head of lettuce. That doesn’t make for a desirable community either.

I’ll be called a heretic for saying this, but making our community better means developing and working with the businesses that are coming in. We need to figure out ways to make a win-win situation for everyone involved because the community is not going to do it all alone. We need to develop the kind of partnerships—open, transparent partnerships—that allow the resources we need to come in. I was serious when I spoke earlier about finding groups to do training for clean-tech industries, because businesses coming in are going to need trained workers. If there’s a labor pool that doesn’t know how to do the work, then businesses will bring new immigrants in and say these people will do the jobs that you don’t want to do. But maybe we weren’t offered those jobs, which also happens. If we convince businesses that we can support them in a way that’s helpful for their bottom line, that will avoid tension in their workplace and create a loyal workforce, then hopefully there’ll be room for the new immigrants as well as for those who are here already, and they’ll be able to work together peacefully.

If we build up the structures from the beginning and understand the problems, then we can deal with them, but pretending they’re not there and pretending that poor communities are fine as they are or that we’re really happy being superpoor—that is not helpful.

We realize that as strong and as fabulous as we are as a community, we need to recognize that our liberation is tied to other people’s liberation and we can all win in spite of our different ways. It ain’t over yet. We’re still fighting, and I would argue that if we work together and put on the table what it is we need and create the kind of compromises we can all live with, we will find more fruitful ways of developing the community we want than by just talking about what we don’t want.

Q: Could you describe the specific jobs people are trained for and the kind of awareness that develops? How are the participants changed, not just in terms of the skills they gain but also their level of awareness of what you’re talking about?

A: Most people come to us after hearing about the program by word of mouth. We do distribute flyers, and we have workforce development centers, but our best advertisement is a Latino or black-American brother or sister with a job who tells friends about the program and says they should go to it. People have come to us from Brooklyn, and we had one person from Staten Island. It’s not easy to get to our offices for a seven o’clock or even an eight o’clock call, but folks do it. We’ve had quite a few people who had hit rock bottom, people in homeless shelters who did our training and then were able to find a job and move out of the shelter. We see folks come to us who have never had a job before, or if they had one they were so underemployed that they would have tried anything to find something better.

Most folks do notice that there’s an environment out there. They see that more trees have been planted and there’s a new park. Now they know—although they didn’t realize they were being taught—that the environmental pollution we’re living with has an impact on our health. They know more than they think they do about the environment. We help them to make the connection between the environment and jobs, whether landscaping or green-roof installation or stewardship and now—because we’ve incorporated an OSHA training program—cleaning up contaminated land as well.

People are aware that opportunities are available, and it’s really beautiful to see how many understand that they knew answers to questions they didn’t give themselves credit for and then to see their awareness continue to grow so that when they see garbage on the street, they know it probably ends up, first of all, being processed right back into their own neighborhood and then someone else’s neighborhood as well, usually down south in another landfill, maybe in Virginia. We’re really excited that our program has reached people well beyond the South Bronx neighborhood. The movement for environmental justice is growing.

Q: Most people with limited income just can’t afford the housing. Are you addressing that?

A: Another project we’re working on is part of New York City’s PlaNYC, which includes reducing carbon emissions. We’re actively pursuing a campaign to retrofit the most egregiously deplorable housing and to use a local green-collar workforce to do it in a way that is ecological and sustainable. You wouldn’t want to see the living conditions, especially for the formerly homeless, in places that the city pays an enormous amount of money for. We want to make sure that folks are living in habitable places.

We are hoping to be doing our own development too. If all goes well, we’ll be partnering in a major project in our own community with the first-ever affordable green housing developers in the city, who were doing this long before it was popular to be green. We’re really happy about that, and I’d love to come back to you next year and be able to say we’ve broken ground on a multi-unit building, twenty-four units on eight floors of beautiful mixed-income housing, with a school and with some public as well as commercial space and with a green roof and hopefully a green water system to recycle a good portion of the water. How’s that for a start?

Q: I am really inspired by the community gardens that have been popping up all over in New York City. Are you involved with creating community gardens in the South Bronx?

A: I certainly support community gardens whenever possible, but I haven’t been engaged in them per se because I’ve been so involved in other things. And obviously in parts of the South Bronx there’s not that much space for community gardens, but one thing we can do as we install more green roofs is to think about these roofs as a place for gardens. You know, a rooftop is an undiscovered prairie. Depending on a building’s structure, food can be grown up there. It would be especially advantageous for folks with limited mobility, for seniors. And think about the learning opportunities for schoolchildren to be able not only to get their hands in the dirt but also to participate in the creation of their own food. I love it!

We did the first green-roof installation project in the South Bronx in 2005, and we actually grew strawberries and cabbage and lettuce there in a small demonstration plot. We took lots of people up there to show them it’s possible to grow food on a roof. Well, we ate the strawberries, but the cabbage looked so beautiful that we left it there a little too long!

Q: There’s so much talk about the purely economic side of things. Has there been any deliberate focus on teaching students creative writing, as you did, or coaching, or visiting elders? How does building human connections fit into the whole picture?

A: The whole greenway system encourages it. The street-trees network in particular involves putting benches outside of as many places as possible to encourage people to get together, especially targeting senior centers and other places where seniors congregate and also places where students go. We are a multigenerational community, and that’s why the greenway is so important as an opportunity to bring people together. Yes, that physical element is absolutely needed to build the kind of culture we want, but first you have to make people feel safe in their own communities. Even though the crime rate has dropped considerably in our neighborhood, people’s perception hasn’t yet caught up with the statistics.

You have to recognize what people are feeling and address it. In both of the parks that we now have in our neighborhood, for example, we built stone amphitheaters, places where people can sit; then they can see who else is there, and they have a view of the river. We’re also going to raise funds to do a whole concert series in both parks. It’s a powerful political statement to let people claim their own, taking over spaces they didn’t think of as theirs before and using them in a way that is a sort of peaceful protest on behalf of what they think poor communities of color should be doing.

Q: I’m Melissa, and this is Jenn. Both of us are participating in a transformational holistic education program called Semester Intensive at the Kripalau Center for Yoga and Health in Lenox. We’ve learned a lot about community building and about creating change, but I confess that I’m feeling overwhelmed at the thought of going back home to Delaware and trying to put it all into practice. I’m wondering if you have any advice for young leaders and organizers about how to go about that.

A: Well, first of all, bless you for even thinking about wanting to go home. All I can do is tell you what I went through. I spent so much time running away from my neighborhood that I was over thirty by the time I moved back. I had been hearing the world say that where I came from was a dirty, awful, and disgusting place, the epitome of urban blight. Of course that made an impression on me, and I felt that way a little bit myself. But you know, when you realize that everybody there is probably feeling the same way but you’ve had an opportunity to see things differently, you should remind people that beauty will begin to appear when they see that there is a potential for beauty.

The first step you have to take is to gain an understanding that your role in going back home is not to tell people there what to do just because you have gained a different way of seeing things. I think you know how much and how desperately people are looking for something to believe in. They want to be inspired. At first they may not act that way, but it’s true, and you can serve as the vessel that they draw from. Just be open and honest, and be aware that you ain’t perfect, that you’re going to make mistakes, and that people aren’t going to want to do exactly what you want them to do right away. But when people see that you have something of value to share with them, I think they will respond to that, especially when they see that you’re practicing what you preach.

Q: I want to add a little bit to what Melissa said. I’m from Florida, and I believe in bringing the ideas of a greener society to my community, but what I’m trying to get away from is the feeling that I’m pushing programs onto people without their understanding why they should do it.

A: You’re right. I’m glad you said that because there are two words that we don’t say in my neighborhood. When I’m talking to regular folks on my block, I don’t talk about the environment and I don’t talk about sustainability. I think I’m going to change the name of my organization because people don’t know or care what those two concepts mean. They just know the effects of the environment, so we talk about health, we talk about lack of jobs. They are looking for the kind of leadership that will allow them to grow and that acknowledges where they’ve been.

The hard part that you’re going to face in going back is to make sure you’re listening enough to what folks are talking about. Then you’ll be just fine. Work with what you’ve got, and know full well that you are using the environment as a tool to work with your community. The main thing, and what gives us value as an organization, is that we are responding to what our people have already articulated that they want. They want a cleaner community, they want jobs that are not going to kill them. We know what they want, and that’s what we address. What you shouldn’t say is, “This is what you’re supposed to do, and this is why it’s so great.” They aren’t going to hear that, so take the time to listen to what’s important to them. That’s what you work with. And stay off the soap box.

Concluding Remarks

Sustainable South Bronx has a relatively small staff, so I tell my people that every action, everything we do, has to have multiple impacts. We’re too small to do one thing only. I believe that environmental justice is the civil rights of the twenty-first century, and it can deal with the multiple issues we are facing as a country. If we create the kind of positive systems that are both economic and environmental in nature, we will also be dealing with the social issues that are plaguing us. People will be able to look at the work they do and at the lives they lead in their communities without feeling dejected and demoralized but instead hopeful and happy about a future they themselves have played a role in creating.

I’m happy and honored to be sitting here on the stage with Michael Shuman and Chuck Turner and to have had the opportunity to listen to them talk today about two pieces of the same puzzle I’m working on. Coming from different places, we have in my opinion all reached the same conclusion: we need to have structures in place that allow for the economic as well as the environmental development of our communities in a way that meets everyone’s needs and in a way that we have not seen before. I realize that your work has contributed to many of the arguments I’ve been making, and I thank you for that.

Michael, I’ve heard about your books, but now I’m definitely going to read them. And Chuck, I’m impressed with the kind of leadership you have shown as an elected official. Your Peace and Prosperity Pledge is a truly powerful and moving document.

I may sound like Pollyanna when I say that we can do more to create monuments of hope and possibility in our lifetime, but I do believe that with the kind of thinking we’ve experienced today, which I know all of you are interested in advancing and which also exists well beyond this room, we will succeed in bringing about an America that is as good as its promise. We need to recognize that we’re all in this together.


Publication By

Majora Carter

Majora Carter is the President of the Majora Carter Group LLC, which offers consulting services in environmental assessment, compliance, and planning. Carter simultaneously addresses public health, poverty alleviation, and climate change as one of the nation’s pioneers in successful green-collar job training and placement systems. In 2001 she founded Sustainable South Bronx to achieve environmental justice through economically … Continued

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