When Majora Carter was growing up in the Bronx, a measure of success was when someone could afford to move away. At an early age, “I started to plan my escape,” she told an audience of 400 during her Martin Luther King Jr. keynote address at Mead Chapel. Today Carter, an eco-entrepreneur and founder of Sustainable South Bronx, not only lives close to her childhood home, she is also bringing the South Bronx back to health and demonstrating how economic and environmental development can transform communities.
Kenny Williams ’12, who helped start a community garden at a South Bronx school and now works with the largest collection of community gardens in the country, delivered the introduction to Carter’s address. He noted that in 2008, Carter formed the economic consulting and planning firm the Majora Carter Group to bring her groundbreaking approach to other communities. Her successes have garnered multiple awards, including a MacArthur Fellowship and Middlebury’s Vision Award, which Dean of the College Shirley Collado presented to her at the conclusion of her talk.
Carter believes that the intransigent ghetto was an “unintended consequence” of integration, as well-off black residents were able to move away, and poverty became entrenched in the neighborhoods they left behind. She showed pictures of her childhood community before and after it began to crumble. Today, people remember the evening news stories in the ’70s about the Bronx burning—when landlords torched their property for the insurance money, and people believed that “there was nothing of value there.”
Carter described what happens to a poor community with no economic diversity: The financial institutions don’t locate there; instead, there are payday loan stores and pawn shops; instead of grocery stores, there are 7-11s, liquor stores, and 99-cent stores; and, she said, “There are extraordinary amounts of super, highly subsidized housing—so you get concentrated poverty.”
A vicious cycle ensues: neighborhoods deteriorate, society moves its fossil-fuel plants and trash dumps there, and children grow up in unhealthy conditions, leading to obesity, diabetes, and asthma. “We know statistically in this country that poor kids who do poorly in school statistically go to jail,” she explained. “So we were creating this pipeline directly from poverty into prison.”
Part of her escape-from-the-Bronx plan was to go to college and not return, and Carter said no one would have blamed her if she had never come back. “But,” she said, “I could not not look.” She wanted to fix things.
One day, her dog pulled her through trash-strewn brush to the banks of the Bronx River. She’d had no idea there was a river so close to her home. With a $10,000 grant, she began the process of reclaiming the riverside. Later, with additional funding, she spearheaded the creation of the Hunts Point Riverside Park, and later a greenway along the waterfront.
The Majora Carter model for community renewal takes a community asset (a building, a piece of land, a riverside) and uses it to seed economic diversity—to create opportunities for job training, meaningful employment, and economic development. People stay in these communities as their income rises because it contains a mixture of housing and the goods and services they need. She looks for projects that foster the economic development of the future, in the areas of manufacturing, food, and technology. She described projects where community members crafted furniture, conducted research, and created new products.
In the wetland restoration project, Carter hired local residents to do the work. They were trained in ecological restoration. They learned how to clean up contaminated land and to “see value in themselves.” “Showing them they could create their own economic prosperity in a legitimate way was a really powerful tool,” she said.
These individuals were “generationally impoverished,” she explained, “cycling in and out of the criminal justice system. They had significant barriers to employment.” This was their first opportunity to learn skills that many take for granted, such as knowing how to be a team player or to anticipate the boss’s expectations.
One of her recent projects involves a large commercial building that has been closed and shuttered. The building, just minutes from the subway, is on the gateway to the neighborhood. It is highly visible and depressing and “reminds people of the way the South Bronx used be, a place you don’t want to be anywhere near.”
So, Carter, now in negotiation for the long-term lease of this building, hired kids from the neighborhood to “design beautiful, public art to go on the length of it.” In many cases this was their first job, and the images of the kids, paint smattered and smiling, speaks volumes. “They got to design and implement the project—that the only reason it was there was to bring light and happiness to people who saw it,” she said.
Carter ended her talk with these words:
“For Dr. King to be at the end of his life, fighting for racial, environmental, and economic equality—if he could do that and pay the ultimate price for it, then the rest of it should be easy for us. I feel that we spend so much time collecting tributes and putting them out there and feeling bad about them—and all of these things about our collective failures, while we have it within ourselves to build monuments to hope and possibility. That is your job.”
And the audience rose to its feet and gave her a long, standing ovation.
Watch her talk here: