Q+A: Majora Carter

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In the late 1990s, Majora Carter obtained a $1.2 million Federal Transportation grant to design the South Bronx Greenway, a planned 11-mile-long waterfront park. In 2001, she founded Sustainable South Bronx (SSBx), an environmental nonprofit that secured tax breaks for green roofs, launched the country’s first green-collar job-training program, and put horticultural engineers to work in the neighborhood. Along the way, Carter, now 42, picked up a MacArthur “genius” award and commentator roles on national television (including the Sundance Channel) and radio (NPR). Recently, she left the executive directorship of SSBx to spread her ideas of improving local communities through environmental remediation.

Since you left Sustainable South Bronx, you’ve started a consultancy, the Majora Carter Group. What exactly does a “green-economic development consulting firm” do? I’ve been working in northeast North Carolina at Elizabeth City State University, a primarily black college that received a grant to help it become a hub for the green economy. It’s one of the poorest regions in the state, but we’re doing asset scans to find out what industries are there right now, what resources will promote citizens’ aspirations, and what alternatives exist to the coal that is continuing to degrade the environment. The mountains in the area are a good source of wind power; turbines can be built. And there’s so much land—I can imagine a factory for, say, green modular homes sited here.

So much land, so much wind. Rural North Carolina seems very far from the South Bronx, where you’ve lived and worked for most of your life. Are there any similarities? In the same way that the South Bronx supports Manhattan, North Carolina’s regional zones support the wealth of its cities. And environmentally, they suffer for it. For instance, mega hog farms foul the water there. The residents are written off as drains on the welfare and incarceration systems, but what if we had these people doing green jobs like bolstering North Carolina’s embankments? Your plan reminds me of Barack Obama’s promise to create five million green jobs. How much have you and your green-collar colleagues benefited from his announced agenda? I’m not sure we have benefited so much yet. I’m being asked to speak to and work for people who are already convinced about these issues. I wish I could say Obama’s words have made it all happen, but they haven’t. Because the economic climate is so bad, and the dirty-energy economy is recognized as such a drain, Obama is in a beautiful position to ask for green jobs.

The reframing of American cities as green beacons lately must also seem a positive development for those in the environmental justice movement. Is it? Not entirely. I think green-job creation is going to flower most in small cities. They’re going to recognize that their budgets are limited and that by training people to do low-impact green development, they’re supporting their bottom line. In big cities like New York, real-estate interests and a whole industrial complex make these things harder to accomplish.

You’ve said that major environmental organizations, such as the Environmental Defense Fund, need to accommodate more people of color and poorer Americans. How so? People doing the work on the ground in these big, white organizations know they need to overcome distrust from poor communities. And while such environmental groups are talking about green jobs now, it’s only because they finally know there’s going to be money in it. For all of these groups, it’s much easier to care about polar bears then poor people. Polar bears don’t talk back like poor people do. If a polar bear dies, it’s not such a big deal. What’s the stupidest bit of greenwashing you’ve seen lately? The potential for greenwashing is so enormous it isn’t even funny; it’s frightening and embarrassing. PlaNYC [New York City’s sustainability initiative, spearheaded by Mayor Michael Bloomberg] is an interesting effort. But it’s full of paradoxical things like the million-trees initiative, which presumably values the environmental services provided by trees (urban heat island mitigation, storm-water control, improved air quality, health benefits), but fails to provide adequate funding for tree maintenance. The South Bronx Greenway, which has been in the works since the turn of this century, is also included in the plan. It’s green but it was not the City’s initiative. Still, the worst example of greenwashing I’ve seen may be a “clean” coal ad whose model was artfully smudged with coal and covered with glycerin sweat. I mean, what does that have to do with clean coal? It’s a hot, sexy advertisement, though. It got me thinking: Maybe the Left needs to be “putting out” like the coal industry is!

New York writer Alissa Quart is working on a book about American subcultures (Sarah Crichton/Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2010).