Marc Lefkowitz | 04/01/10 @ 3:00pm
What makes Majora Carter a sustainability rock star? Is it her recognition that social justice in the inner city (South Bronx) meant reclaiming and restoring the most hyper local of resources-land, water and air? Was it her unflagging pursuit of a better quality of life for her neighbors who were frankly being ignored by the power structure in New York City? By her insistence that history as a dumping ground doesn't have to determine the future as a dump (embodied in her awesome, eight-year campaign to convert a literal dump at the mouth of the Bronx River into a beautiful community park-pictured above)?
Carter shared the story of how she founded Sustainable South Bronx during a Cleveland appearance yesterday. It illuminated why she's a national icon, like Van Jones, for giving voice and providing leadership to minorities and those disproportionately affected by the damage wrought by our 'fossil fuel economy.'
"I always say, 'you don't have to move out of your neighborhood to live in a better one.' If we would have built oil refineries and factories in rich neighborhoods instead, we would have had a clean, green economy a long time ago."
These realities have slowed Carter down not one iota. She's a ball of energy. Growing up in the wake of a literal conflagration (landlords burning buildings for insurance money and the wreckage left for children to play in is enough to crush anyone's spirit) yet Carter delivers the lessons with smiles and laughter. For Carter it's all about 'Greening the Ghetto' – she has created green jobs through her Bronx Environmental Stewardship Training Center which focuses on community organizing/building life skills, and transforming the high rise public housing and fields of rubble from her childhood through restorative green spaces and recreation trails.
Carter is taking the lessons from starting her nonprofit on the road, forming her own consulting firm that is working on a 'franchise-able' model of high-yield, aquaponic greenhouses being built on vacant inner city land in Detroit (she's also working with Brad Pitt's organization in New Orleans to reestablish coastal cypress forests in the Lower Ninth Ward, and on a land-use and green jobs plan in coastal North Carolina that responds to climate change).
Carter also founded a company to install green roofs in the Bronx and talks about the self-help economy that it fosters: medicinal herb gardens, growing your own food, stormwater management services, lowering heat island effect in the city.
"There are social benefits as well. We're finding out that the presence of green things lowers stress. In (Chicago's infamous high-rise public housing project) Cabrini-Green, the families who lived near trees had lower stress, the kids had higher test scores and higher self esteem for young girls, which meant lower (teen) pregnancy rates.
"But, its hard for some folks to think about the environment if you don't care for yourself."
It's why Carter teamed up with actress and South Bronx native Carrie Washington to form 'Uptown Girl Power', recognizing young women who've made a difference in their neighborhood.
Building off of Carter's inspiration should be the work of the local green movement. We can all take lessons from Carter in building bridges and working with minority communities struggling to win environmental justice, whether that means eradicating lead poisoning in houses, scaling up the reutilization of vacant land for growing food and removing toxins from the ground, involving those who cannot afford to own a cars to participate in the Complete Streets campaign or cleaning up air quality by promoting new sources of renewable energy for industry.
Listen to the Majora Carter City Club of Cleveland podcast.