“Poor people of all colors are getting poorer and our communities are getting more toxic. There is a misconception that to grow our economy we will have to do business as usual, because cleaning up the environment, mitigating climate change is just too costly. Well, I say the business of poverty is just too expensive a bill for humanity to pay any longer.”
Majora Carter shares her vision of environmental justice with anyone who will listen: “No community should be saddled with more environmental burdens and less environmental benefits than any other.”
Carter grew up in Hunts Point in the South Bronx at a time when people and businesses were moving out of the inner city, leaving abandoned buildings and high unemployment rates in their wake.
Waste and sewage treatment facilities moved in; the South Bronx processes 40 percent of New York City´s commercial waste. Pollution and poor air quality led to high incidents of asthma and other health problems. The South Bronx was depressed both economically and psychologically. It was a place to get away from, which was Majora Carter’s plan.
After college, she returned home to lower her expenses while she worked on an MFA degree. But, while there she saw an opportunity to clean up the South Bronx and return a sense of pride to her community.
Carter was working on a sculpture project to draw attention to the lack of trees in Hunts Point when she heard about Mayor Rudolf Giuliani’s plan to expand the waste treatment facilities in the area. Carter decided to block the plan. She began organizing community protests and, in 2001, she founded Sustainable South Bronx, a non-profit environmental justice group. Eventually, SSBx won the fight against more waste processing plants in the South Bronx and, working with local groups, politicians, and the community, helped form the Bronx River Alliance.
Running with her dog one day, Carter happened upon a stretch of unused waterfront property beside the Bronx River. She envisioned a park and bike paths and wrote a proposal to begin the transformation. The result was the first new green waterfront park in the South Bronx in decades.
Families take their children to the waterfront to enjoy the park, get to know their neighbors, and take pride in the community. Carter says, “Things like parks and green roofs and decent zoning policies and green-collar jobs and public transportation don’t cost a huge amount, but can make a tremendous difference that has long-term economic advantages both locally and nationally.”
In 2003, Carter and Sustainable South Bronx started the Bronx Environmental Stewardship Training (BEST), a green jobs training and placement program. People in the BEST program learn urban forestry, landscaping and horticultural skills, and green roof installation (where vegetation planted on rooftops can help replace more environmentally harmful roofing materials). Many of the graduates from the Hunts Point community who had been on public assistance now have paying jobs.
Carter travels around the country relating her experiences with SSBx and helping other communities and businesses train a green-collar workforce to tackle local environmental issues.
Says Carter, “We’ve got to decide that we want to live in a world that is sane and happy and healthy, and that everyone deserves that.”
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