If you can do it in the Bronx you can do it anywhere: Carl Frankel meets one of America’s leading environmental campaigners cum entrepreneurs.
New York City's South Bronx is a district with a reputation.
Gangs, drugs, violence, you name it. Every inner city cliché in the book has stuck to this particular part of town, making it a strong contender for one of the country's most notorious ghettos. But that's not the whole story. It has also quietly won a reputation as home to some bold environmental experiments – and the launch pad for one of America's fastest rising green activists, Majora Carter.
This journalist first heard rumblings about Carter in her pre-glory days, from grassroots sustainability activists working north of New York City who spoke admiringly of a dynamic young black woman who was doing amazing things in – of all places – the South Bronx. She was galvanising locals into sprucing up a local park, and mobilising coalitions to clean up the Bronx River and its waterfront.
Unlike some activists who 'parachute in' to a deprived community, Carter was born and raised in the South Bronx, the youngest of 10 children in a working-class family. She shone at school, went to university in Connecticut, and could easily have ended up leaving the Bronx far behind – a common trajectory for anyone from the area who makes a success in life.
But she moved back in with her parents when she won a place at New York University to pursue a master's degree in creative writing – and started volunteering at a community development organisation known as The Point. "She went out and did her research", Maria Torres, President and co-founder of The Point, told The New York Times. "And she became very knowledgeable about things."
Carter went on to found her own non-profit "environmental justice solutions" organisation, Sustainable South Bronx. It helped galvanise local people to restore the waterfront area, provided some with training in environmental skills, and even planted one of the city's first green roofs on its office building. Majora seemed set to be a successful community activist, albeit on a small scale. But when she picked a fight with New York's controversial Republican Mayor, Rudy Giuliani, her reputation rocketed.
The Mayor's office wanted to site a large waste transfer plant in the South Bronx. The project was not, to put it gently, community-friendly. The area already had more than its fair share of waste treatment plants, a common plight for impoverished communities whose residents lack the political clout to effectively resist the powers that be. The new transfer plant would have brought fresh battalions of noisy, pollution-belching garbage trucks to the area while also denying residents access to the waterfront.
Working with other local groups, Carter persuaded local government officials to let them "get in and tinker with the city's larger solid waste management plan," says James Chase, Carter's spokesperson (and husband). This led to plans for the mega-facility being abandoned and replaced in the South Bronx by elegant alternatives: a park on the site of a former concrete plant, public waterfront access where the shore had been littered with industrial scrap, and cadres of local people trained to protect and maintain the restored environment.
In the process, Carter was bringing a much-needed jolt of civic pride to one of the most economically and emotionally depressed communities in the country. But it wasn't only her home community that found new hope thanks to her work. To all those trying to bring positive change to troubled areas, Carter's message was: if you can do it in the South Bronx, you can do it anywhere.
Her achievements attracted widespread attention. In 2005, Carter won a MacArthur Foundation "genius" fellowship. A national platform followed. In 2007, she joined forces with another black eco-leader, Van Jones, to launch Green for All, a national green jobs initiative. In 2010, her public radio programme, The Promised Land, won a Peabody Award for its "deep, eye-opening conversations about the environment and justice".
Carter also created a buzz with her 2006 TED talk, which included a public upbraiding of former Vice President Al Gore, who was sitting in the audience, and enjoying a wave of popularity following the release of his film, An Inconvenient Truth. "When I spoke to Mr Gore the other day", she declared toward the end of her speech, "I asked him how environmental justice advocates were going to be included in his new marketing strategy. His response was a grant programme. I don't think he understood that I wasn't asking for funding. I was making him an offer."
"It wasn't fun to challenge Al", says Carter, a congenial interview subject who seems as comfortable talking about her inner life as her public activities. "But I had to do it. He had dismissed an environmental justice component that needed to be part of the conversation. I burst into tears when I realised I would have to be the one to address it. But you have to seize the moment." The speech earned her national kudos (tech guru Guy Kawasaki called her presentation skills "every bit as good as Steve Jobs"), and it was chosen as one of six presentations to launch TED's popular website.
In 2008, she used her new-found celebrity to launch a for-profit consultancy, The Majora Carter Group. "I was tired of watching consulting contracts go to firms that didn't have talent, or the working knowledge of [communities like the South Bronx]", she says. "I decided to establish a for-profit consulting firm, because the non-profit ones are not perceived as seriously, even if they deliver the same recommendations."
Her latest project involves the creation of a national brand of urban-grown produce. "When I was introduced to urban agriculture a few years ago," she recounts, "I was struck by its potential to create accessible jobs – and healthy food – for inner-city residents. Looking more deeply, however, I found that the sector was more or less a community garden movement, with little to no emphasis on profitability, attracting no outside capital of any kind, or marketing. I've been working with [brand specialists] Wolff Olins on a strategy that combines the value of local with a unifying national impact. I believe this initiative will create jobs in places where none exist now." The programme will be launched under the Majora Carter Group brand, with the longer-term goal of building out the business under a franchise licensing model à la McDonald's.
Carter also wants to implement innovative real-estate approaches that, in her words, "reverse the unintended consequences of integration". The Civil Rights Movement, she explains, "enabled blacks to leave the multi-class, racially segregated neighborhoods they'd grown up in and move to affluent white communities. This left generations of people who equate success with leaving. Those who can't leave often feel like failures in some regard, and act accordingly." She wants to transform these depressed places into updated, greened-up, ethnically diverse versions of the multi-class segregated communities of yore. In her view, this will require healthy doses of intelligent commercial development along with mixed-income and mixed-use housing and the kind of urban amenities that financially comfortable people have come to expect. "People want to be able to go to a farmer's market, or walk to a café for a cappuccino."
That's still a long way from happening. "We have to be patient", Carter says. "When you're trying to do something that deviates dramatically from the status quo, the naysayers will be all over you if you don't come out of the box with a winner. We'll get one opportunity to do this right."
Are these visions realistic? Hugh Hogan, Executive Director of the North Star Fund, a New York City community foundation that supports grassroots groups, views them as "entirely possible", but cautions that "the devil will be in the details".
Over the years, Carter has been criticised for taking credit for achievements that were not hers alone, and for projects not yet completed. How much these charges have merit isn't easily determined. The popular narrative – "Carter made all this happen" – is definitely an over simplification: no community is transformed single-handedly.
But the significance of Carter's role as a hands-on community organiser and inspirational leader can't be denied. She has star power, and stars are a magnet for detractors. As Hugh Hogan tells the story: "Majora came back to her neighbourhood, saw that her community was getting shut out from good things that were happening in other parts of the city, and said, 'This is not okay.' She's a proud black woman who spoke up. This doesn't win you lots of friends."
Carl Frankel is a US-based writer on sustainability issues.
Photos: James Burling Chase; Sustainable South Bronx