MacArthur Fellow Honored for Work in South Bronx

Host Steve Inskeep talks with Majora Carter, one of the newly announced recipients of this year's MacArthur Fellowships. Carter founded a community organization that researches and develops sustainable projects for South Bronx.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Today the MacArthur Foundation announces winners of what are informally called genius grants. This is money intended to encourage writers, activists and others. One of this year's awards goes to Majora Carter. Several years ago she returned to the South Bronx in New York City, where she'd grown up.

Ms. MAJORA CARTER (Genius Grant Winner): The South Bronx was the poster child for urban blight for many, many years, and I hated it. I'll be very honest. But coming back, it was also one of the best things in the world that happened to me because I actually got very politicized, you know, in terms of understanding--and particularly the environmental burdens that the community was dealing with.

INSKEEP: Majora Carter founded a community group that opposed the building of a trash transfer station. She says it would only have been the latest polluter in an old industrial area.

Ms. CARTER: And it just really made the place a very noxious place to live in and breathe in, and people were not at all convinced that this was a place that people even should live in, even those that once--who had to live there because there really was no place else for them to go. We were a very poor neighborhood. At the time, we were the poorest congressional district in the entire country.

INSKEEP: And what leverage did you have to try to persuade officials to do something else?

Ms. CARTER: Fortunately, we had one congressman, Congressman Jose Serrano, who was talking about environmental justice even before any of us were. We also, you know, had an enormous amount of really young, energetic people who decided, you know, enough was enough. And it's not an easy battle. It took three years to actually make that happen.

INSKEEP: Did the trash transfer station end up somewhere else in New York City?

Ms. CARTER: No. It died because we fought it. It...

INSKEEP: Where's everybody's trash going to go now?

Ms. CARTER: Well, no--there's, like, plenty of other ways to do the trash. This--we forced the city to rethink its whole way of doing solid waste management in the city.

INSKEEP: How much money did you win for the MacArthur Award here?

Ms. CARTER: It's half a million dollars over five years.

INSKEEP: And have you had time to make any plans?

Ms. CARTER: All I know, like, for absolutely certain is that I'm most interested in promoting sustainable development and entrepreneurship in low-income communities of color. If--what we need to do is sort of make it a more profitable place for folks to do business, but in a way that is actually supportive and not negating of human and other life in our neighborhoods, and that actually supports the quality of life of low-income communities so that they don't always stay low-income.

INSKEEP: Do you feel an obligation to take some time off and try to think bigger than you have up to now?

Ms. CARTER: Well, I think I think pretty big now, but it's a possibility.

INSKEEP: Well, just a little piece of advice: If you get one of those e-mail solicitations asking for your bank account number so you can get into this big scheme--probably not a good idea to...

Ms. CARTER: Probably not. Probably not. I'll keep that in mind, though. But thank you.

(Soundbite of laughter)

INSKEEP: Thanks very much. Congratulations.

Ms. CARTER: Thank you so much.

INSKEEP: Majora Carter is one of this year's MacArthur Fellows.

This is NPR News.

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