Bronx Activist Fights for a Cleaner Environment

"Sustainable South Bronx" founder Majora Carter i i

hide caption"Sustainable South Bronx" founder Majora Carter

Sundance Channel
"Sustainable South Bronx" founder Majora Carter

"Sustainable South Bronx" founder Majora Carter

Sundance Channel

Bronx-resident Majora Carter founded "Sustainable South Bronx," to help her neighbors address environmental threats to their community. She talks to Farai Chideya about inspiring inner-city residents to take a greater role in fighting pollution and global warming.

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

From NPR News, this is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Farai Chideya.

Yesterday, people around the world celebrated Earth Day with public service and street fairs. In the U.S., one woman is working hard to make every day Earth Day. Activist Majora Carter lives in the Bronx, New York. She says the fight against climate change needs to start locally, and she wants residents in the inner city to take a leading role in making America a greener, safer place.

More than five years ago, Carter founded an environmental justice group called Sustainable South Bronx after returning home and seeing her community in a new light.

Ms. MAJORA CARTER (Executive Director and Founder, Sustainable South Bronx): My awakening into environmentalism in general actually happened when I was quite grown, like in my 30s, when I moved back to my neighborhood - and this is South Bronx in New York City - after aching to leave it for so many years because it really was this, you know, sort of degraded place, the kind of place that was the epitome of urban blight.

And then coming back home and realizing that, you know, the fact that our community, you know, was built, you know, in a way that actually sort of degraded people's quality of life, that there were all these waste facilities. That there were power plants, that there was diesel truck traffic that, you know, on a daily basis makes people's lives miserable. And our community was actually created and regulated to be that way because it was a politically expedient place to put all of these environmental burdens.

And so seeing that, and feeling that, and smelling that, frankly, I was sort of politicized and realized that if we weren't as a community proposing our own alternatives for the kind of environmental benefits that would reap - that would come back to us in the form of whether it was jobs, whether it was clean air, whether it was just an improved quality of life. And that, you know, again, in my thirties, was my awakening.

CHIDEYA: So your parents moved to the neighborhood in the 1940s, and I'm sure between the 1940s and the time that you grew up the air probably got thicker and heavier and seedier and…

Ms. CARTER: Yeah.

CHIDEYA: …more full of exhaust. And then you went away to (unintelligible)…

Ms. CARTER: That's okay.

CHIDEYA: So I'm sure there the air was very delicious and verdant and full of flowers. And then you came home. Were you disappointed, ashamed, lost?

Ms. CARTER: Yes.

CHIDEYA: What emotions came up when you came home?

Ms. CARTER: All of the above. I literally, you know, from the time I - and also, the neighborhood was very different when my parents moved there in the '40s, you know, because it was this mostly white working class community and this was, like, their first step up the economic ladder. And because of many years of this disinvestment, you know, by public and private entities, the neighborhood just, you know, devolved into this sort of wasteland in a lot of ways.

You know, I just thought, there's just nothing worth it about being and living in a city, you know, especially in a poor community. Because this is what happens, not understanding the political, you know, aspect around it, which is why, at this point, I've dedicated my life into, you know, helping, you know, my community understand that there - as we propose alternatives that actually create a better quality of life for us, it's not just about, you know, because we are, like, tree-huggers or anything like that.

It's because it is a really intrinsic part of the development of the human spirit. It is a really important part of building an economic fiber. You know, as far as I'm concerned, environmental justice, which is just a principle that no one community in particular - poor community and/or a poor community of color - should have to bear, you know, the impacts of disproportionate amount of environmental burdens and not having any kind of environmental benefits.

You know, that is just, like, that's a right. It's a civil right. And that is why it's so important for us to do that. But right now in this country, race and class determine where you find the good stuff like parks and trees, and where you find the bad stuff like waste facilities or power plants. And that is just not right.

CHIDEYA: Well, give us some information on the commercial waste issue in the South Bronx, and also the parks to people issue.

Ms. CARTER: Well, in the South Bronx, we handle about 30 percent of the city's commercial waste, you know, about a hundred percent of the Bronx's residential waste. And we've got about four power plants, a sewage treatment plant. And we have less than half an acre of open space per thousand people, and that is five times less than what the New York City Department of City Planning says that you should have. You're supposed to have 2.5 acres for every thousand people.

And, you know, parks in particular are not just there just because they're pretty and green. They're there because they actually give communities like free opportunities to develop community pride by actually being around; they're eyes on the street. That's why, you know, when my neighborhood was much younger, it was such a cool place to be because all of those, you know, the parents that lived there would hang out their windows and talk to their kids, or to talk to anybody else's kids and, you know, Ms. Merry up the street. So if I was something we weren't supposed to do, then, you know, you know, my mother found out about it long before there were telephones or Internet.

And that's what parks and that's what, you know, developing a street network that allows people to feel safe and comfortable allows them to do. And it also gives them opportunities to get physical exercise, in particular in the black and Latino community where so many of us, you know, are overweight and are obese. You know, developing the kind of street life that is positive, that produces opportunities for people to get outside more is also an economic and also an environmental justice issue as well.

CHIDEYA: I lived in New York for many years, and I lived in Brooklyn and Manhattan, never in the Bronx, but went up there many times and saw a lot of different sides of the Bronx, even the South Bronx, which at a certain point had, like, the worst reputation within the Bronx, has really changed. Do you feel that things are getting better, that there is hope?

Ms. CARTER: Oh, yes. There has been, I think, a nexus of support, you know, for the human condition of people living in the South Bronx, whether it's, you know, environmental justice groups or housing or public health advocates; yes, that's all happening. Much of that, honestly, is being threatened. And it's not just a thing that's particular to the South Bronx. As an environmental justice group, we're advocating for, you know, the proper reuse of our waste.

We're trying to push a project called the Eco-Industrial Park that actually uses recycled materials as raw material, and actually takes advantage of the regional transportation network of barge and rail access and providing hundreds of jobs for the community by building this collection of businesses that uses recycled materials. But right now our city is also, you know, pushing the idea of building more jail cells as well.

You know, so it's kind of like we have to, I think, you know, think about the development of our communities comprehensively and not just think about them in terms of, well - you know, like we're specifically trying to use the environment, you know, as an economic driver, you know.

Like, we need to be a part of that whole climate change game at this point so that we're actually being a part of the solution by training our people, you know, in the development of clean tech industries, so that we're the ones actually learning how to make solar panels and green roofs, and putting them on.

And putting our people to work so that we can actively play, have both a financial as well as a personal stake in the development of our environment. And if we're not doing that as a people, as a culture, as a country, then, unfortunately, the people who will be suffering most from, you know, the rising sea change, you know, from climate change, it is going to be poor people and poor people of color. And that is something that we have to understand.

That's why I'm so grateful that you've given me the opportunity to sort of raise that as an issue. Obviously, I'm not the only person, you know, in this country doing this in environmental justice communities. There are plenty, plenty more, but we don't necessarily know that, you know, as communities, and especially poor communities because the issues are so great. This is a great opportunity that we have to be a part of a countrywide, you know, debate. And if we're not careful, it will leave us behind.

CHIDEYA: We have featured on the show other people who are involved in environmental justice, either on the side of investigating, litigating, advocating. But take someone who's just - who's a person, you know. Who's got a lot of responsibilities, family and work…

Ms. CARTER: Yeah.

CHIDEYA: …and who sees a problem in their neighborhood. Where do you start, like, on the very basic level? Who do you turn to?

Ms. CARTER: Your next-door neighbor, honestly. Because chances are you'll find that if you've got an issue, somebody else does, too; and it might be the same exact one. And you start building that little nexus of information and support, and then you can go, you know, to your first access to government, which is sometimes the community board or advisory board, or just, you know, basically, also your elected officials.

But I just learned of a great term today called citizen lobbyist. Because it's not just the folks, you know, who are lobbying Washington to get, like, you know, great subsidies for oil and coal. But if we consider ourselves like lobbyists for our own future, you know, so that, you know, power plant that's being built down the street from your house, like, if you're not talking about it to people, if you don't actively think that you can have an impact on whether or not it is, you know, coming to it and really thinking about, like, why are your communities being targeted in this way. And I do think race and class have a lot to do with that at this point, history has shown us that.

But if we're not thinking that there is something that we can do, and by just the mere act of staying quiet and not talking about it with each other - because I know that the issues are that urgent. And I'm just always struggling with, like, well how do we use what we have as a way for people to see beyond by just what they're looking at, you know, in their own lives right now. Because there is a future, and we want people to be excited and be a part of it. Because they're the reason why it's going to change, but they need to be a part of it.

CHIDEYA: So you have won a bunch of awards including the MacArthur Foundation Award, which is called the genius award. And you could just stop right now, I'm sure, according to a lot of people. Oh, I'm a genius. I (unintelligible) of genius. I can stop. This is great. Thank you. Thank you. What do you really want to do? You're an artist in addition to someone who is an environmentalist. What you really want to do hence forward?

Ms. CARTER: I only use that genius line on my husband when I get into a fight.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CHIDEYA: A fight? It doesn't really work with the rest…

Ms. CARTER: Genius, I need some ice cream.

CHIDEYA: Exactly.

Ms. CARTER: I'm a genius.

CHIDEYA: I'm a genius.

Ms. CARTER: But anyway, the thing is, it's honestly what it did - it was so amazing and just so, I mean it changed my life, obviously. But the real thing that it did was it helped raise the profile of sustainable development in environmental justice communities as if it's something to be looked at. And I was, like, so to get the award, as far as I was concerned, it wasn't really for me. It really wasn't. I was more for the movement as a whole. And that is - because I see myself as a tool, I mean believe me, it's like my - you know, the name of our organization, Sustainable South Bronx.

The South Bronx is far from being sustainable. You know, we still have a lot of problems. And the fact that we could now, like, make connections and that people are looking, you know, at us and looking at my agency, you know, as a real tool and a vehicle for change, that is what's really powerful. I could not - I wouldn't even dream of doing anything else right now because, like, I realized we've reached this point where we can actually start helping to make things happen.

CHIDEYA: Well, Majora Carter, thanks a lot.

Ms. CARTER: Oh, thank you so much for having me.

(Soundbite of music)

CHIDEYA: Majora Carter is a community activist and founder of Sustainable South Bronx. She also co-hosts "The Green," a new TV show on the Sundance Channel about environmental issues.

Just ahead, some Democratic presidential candidates woo the Reverend Al Sharpton. And later, MySpace gives candidates a new way to reach young voters.

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