CURWOOD: From the hot planet to a burning borough. About 30 years ago the poor African American and Latino neighborhoods of the South Bronx were burning ? landlords were torching apartment buildings for insurance money. And there was plenty of pollution, violence and crime, as well.
An aspiring young filmmaker named Majora Carter first escaped the South Bronx to go to an elite private college, but then she headed back to the ghetto and ended up sparking a crusade to clean up its environment. I asked her why go back to the South Bronx after she and her parents had worked so hard to get her out?
CARTER: I was broke, basically. I started graduate school and I needed a cheap place to stay and my parents, you know, one of my parent's bedrooms was the best place. I was the youngest of ten kids and my family had just gotten ? we were all gone at the time, but fortunately, they allowed me to move back home.
CURWOOD: So, if you left mid-town and came home, where would you get off the subway and what would you have to walk by to get to your house?
CARTER: My subway stop was the Hunt's Point station on the six line, and then we ? I had to walk over about, oh let's see, three, six ? oh my gosh, about 12 lanes of highway to get into the community, which has one of the shortest walk signal times you could ever possibly imagine.
So, you'd literally see little old ladies running across the street for fear of getting hit and it was one of the most dangerous intersections in the Bronx, actually. Lots of storefronts that had been closed because there was so much financial disinvestment in our community. And you saw people who wished they lived some place else.
CURWOOD: So, what motivates you to ? to do something about this? I mean, you went home because, hey, the rent was right, but usually people in a case like that say, hey, as soon as I get my act together, I'm out of here again. Why didn't you bounce?
CARTER: Well, I did bounce, but then I bounced back because the forces of the universe were just like, you need to go home. I realize that all the things that I thought about my community, that we were this poor community that just got into the situation that it was in because it didn't care enough about itself.
And that absolutely was completely untrue. The point is that there were huge forces generating from outside of the community, you know policy makers, many elected officials.
We unfortunately had a state environmental department that had never seen a permit for a waste facility they didn't allow to come into this community. We saw the evidence of it in terms of the asthma rate and it was one of those things that just hit me like a ton of bricks. We I realized that all the things I thought to be true about myself and my community actually were not.
CURWOOD: Yeah, you've got to think in a place like the south part of the Bronx, where joblessness, and violence, and a lot of other pressing social problems are still clambering for attention; it's got to be kind of tough to get your voice heard about the environment?
CARTER: Well, it's not so tough when we pitch it the way that we do, which is about how do you create wealth and health for people? We actually learned the lesson a long time ago that in our community we don't really talk about the environment ? we talk about things like public health; we talk about things like job creation. And starting one of the country's first green jobs training and placement system, right here in the South Bronx, we were able to do that because we listen to people talk about what was important to them. And, in particular, economic empowerment via i.e. jobs was a huge thing. What we wanted to do was help them see how they're both economic, as well as their personal self interest was tied up to make the environment a better place for them and their families.
CURWOOD: Now, this is I know a difficult question, but you've been very successful in telling this story and been widely recognized for this. I'm sure it's helped you economically ? how do you deal with how your neighbors in the South Bronx now perceive you because there's this sort of prejudicial view that well, those environmentalists, they're rich folks that have the time to do this. I would guess that you look kind of rich to your neighbors?
CARTER: To many of them, obviously I am, but that's why it's important for me to be in my community. I love being in my neighborhood, I really do. I know my neighbors, they know me, many of them watched me grow up. They understand that what I'm trying to do is ultimately there to benefit them.
CURWOOD: And what I was getting at is ? how do you get the message across that you don't have to be well-to-do to be an environmentalist?
CARTER: You know, look, I gotta tell you that many of the folks that came through our Green Jobs training program, many of them had been arrested, many times over in some cases, for selling weed on the street. These guys - and gals - are not making huge amounts of money, so when many of these folks were able to get jobs 25,000 dollars a year, with bennies, they were thrilled.
You know, whether they were putting green roofs on or doing wetland restoration or urban forestry management or cleaning up contaminated lands - these people should be viewed as the heroes that they are.
CURWOOD: Why do you suppose it is that so many people in the inner city, and I'm thinking particularly of people of color, don't feel that they have a connection to the environment?
CARTER: You know, I think that it was removed from us as part of the great migration. It's just so interesting that at the turn of last century more than 90 percent of black folks actually lived in the South doing some kind of agricultural work, now most of us live in urban areas. Sometimes people think that doing work with the land means that you're still a slave in some way. I like to remind people that having a connection to the land is our birthright ? all of us. I mean not just people of color, it's everybody.
CURWOOD: To what extent do you think the traditional conservation movement in the U.S. pushes people of color in the inner city away from it? And I'm think in particular of Teddy Roosevelt's book, "The Winning of the West," at one point in which he says, the west won't won until it's rid of the red, yellow, black, and brown man.
CARTER: [Laughs] Oh, Teddy. Teddy, Teddy, Teddy.
CURWOOD: Or the Sierra Club that supported whites-only national parks up until the 1920s?
CARTER: Interestingly enough, I actually know T.R. the Fourth, and who is also a conservationist. Actually, we're on the board of the Wilderness Society together, and I know things change. The environmental movement of the past, I think, has done a pretty terrible job of helping to integrate. I mean, that's one of the reasons why like many people will call, even poor white people, I got to tell you, don't really see the environment as something that's important to them.
So, I think that was easy to do when it was just like, okay the environment only exists in a national park. That's not a helpful thing when you're really trying to help people understand the value of it because most people don't have that experience. I mean, I remember, you know, and it wasn't that long ago when I was referred to only as an environmental justice activist and not an environmentalist. And, I remember having to very carefully and gently always remind people, I'm an environmentalist, just like you guys. And just reminding them that it's going to take all of us to move this forward. And so I think that we still have a long ways to go, in terms of really fully embracing all different types of people.
But I've seen some very encouraging things happening and that gives me much more hope than it did a few years ago, frankly.
CURWOOD: When we were getting ready to talk with you Majora, one of my producers came to me and asked this question: She was studying to be an actor before she became and activist, how do you think her performance background helped her as an organizer? So, I have to ask you the question - hey, how did going to study acting help you become an organizer?
CARTER: Well, actually I started studying acting, realized I didn't like to be on stage in front of people and decided to go into film production. So that's what I got my degrees in. But it's because I love the idea of actually creating stories for people to change their thinking about how they feel about stuff. This is creative work.
CURWOOD: So, today, if you were to make a movie, what would it be about?
CARTER: I'm actually trying to work on a sitcom, believe it or not.
CARTER: And it is literally "Good Times" meets "Inconvenient Truth". We actually had a lovely meeting with Norman Lear who is the god-daddy of sitcoms that actually taught people lessons, like whether it was "All in the Family", or "Good Times", or ? it just looked at people were living and dealt with this social mobility and racism, but in a comedic way. And he ? the greatest advice we got from him was, just like, you know what all the stuff that you're talking about, it's got to come from the mouth of a child. Because otherwise they just won't be able to handle it. So, I was like, well, thank you, Mr. Lear, I appreciate that.
CURWOOD: And, thank you Majora Carter.
CARTER: Thank you very much. Have a great day.
CURWOOD: Majora Carter is president of the Majora Carter group, and the founder of Sustainable South Bronx. She comes to us courtesy of our partnership with the U.S. EPA Smart Growth Program and the National Building Museum. And to learn more about the smart growth speaker series, go to our website loe dot org.