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Green Economies Thrive in Industrial Wastelands: An Interview With Majora Carter

Majora Carter, photo by Sara Dent

Majora Carter grew-up in the South Bronx, which was burdened with  sewage treatment plants, power plants and 40% of New York City's solid waste. When the city tried to introduce another waste management plant, Carter fought it with fierce intelligence. Rather than enduring industrial toxicity, she began to "green the ghetto."

She proved that increasing green space could create jobs, improve the economy and build community. Her initiatives such as Sustainable South Bronx and The Majora Carter Group have rewritten definitions of urban renewal.

In addition to influencing international organizations, she has also been a source of inspiration for Vancouver’s emerging green economy. I sat down with Majora Carter in Vancouver’s Canada Place to discuss environmental justice.

VO: Can you explain the concept of reducing poverty emissions?

 Carter: There’s a lot of emphasis placed on reducing fossil fuel emissions. But there are also poverty emissions that have a concrete impact on countries and communities. These emissions include poor public health, low educational standards, and higher rates of incarceration. All of those things can be directly linked to the fossil fuel economy, as you extract it or burn it.

As we move from the fossil fuel economy into a greener economy, you are going to see a reduction in poverty emissions. The same people that are on the receiving end of the negative aspects of the fossil fuel economy will be able to benefit. Thus, poverty emissions go down.


VO: The recession has devastated Detroit. There are blocks of abandoned homes and empty lots. Citizens have begun growing food within these empty spaces. How is The Majora Carter Group involved in this movement?

Carter: My recent visits to Detroit were really inspirational. Folks have become interested in the green movement and urban agriculture, even though they might not use these terms.

They have a desire to see what else is out there, and a desire to improve their options for food. In Detroit, it is so much easier to buy beer, than it is to buy fresh produce.

We went to find people who were already interested in growing food, so that we could provide them with trainings to become urban agricultural technicians…also known as farmers.

Once we identify these individuals, we can teach them the skills of hydroponics, and technical aspects of farming so that they can grow all year. The produce that is grown can be sold in the greater Detroit area. They are creating jobs and building the financial development of their communities.


VO: What was the most pivotal point in your life in relation to activism?

Carter: I feel like I have pivotal points almost every other day. Very early on, a pivotal moment was when I discovered that the community I was born and raised in was not the awful place that I thought it was because we were awful.

Our neighborhood was portrayed on the nightly news as a place where nothing good comes from. When you grow-up with that, you just think that it’s an inherently bad community. It wasn’t until I was grown that I learned about the institutional forces that perpetuated all of the bad things happening in our community.

Our neighborhood was continuously being used as the recipient for huge quantities of waste from the City and industrial structures, such as power generation stations.

I realized that there were forces beyond our control that were bringing these things into our community. In many cases the perpetual negativity had nothing to do with us. Because we were poor and we were of color, we seemed like an easy target. It was pivotal to realize that I could be a part of the solution and help people in my community become aware that they are not awful people, just because they happened to be born in this area.

I wanted to show them that we could push ourselves forward and live better without moving out of our community.


VO: What advice would you give to other young, female activists?

Carter: My advice is to support each other. As women we are taught that we should be competing with each other, but it doesn’t work. As one of us gets stronger the rest of us become stronger, simply by virtue of us being there. There is plenty of room for us to work together and develop beautiful collaborations.

I can say this with all honesty, because all of my mentors have been women. They have so graciously supported me as I developed. I absolutely see myself doing that with other young women. There’s this goofy saying, “Share the burden, its half the trouble. Share the joy, the joy is doubled.” It’s so true. Women need to understand that we don’t have the same systemic structures to support us.

Women need to create structures, so that we can actually relate to each other and bring the best of our worlds together. If we don’t do this, it’s going to be harder for us to move forward.


VO: What are your plans for the future?

Carter: I’ve still got my work cut out for me, because the world is not sustainable yet. There are still a lot of people who feel that they don’t matter. I want people to understand that they do have something to offer. They are a part of the solution, whether they believe at this moment or not. My hope for the future is that everyone on the planet can see that they are valuable. When people feel valuable, they will act accordingly.


Watch Majora Carter Speak on TED




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