Before Majora Carter became the South Bronx’s biggest advocate, she wanted nothing to do with it. “I was born and raised in the South Bronx, but I [went away to college] and I didn’t want to be associated with a place that had the stigma of being the poster child for urban blight,” says the environmental-justice-solutions activist. “I only came back because I needed a place to stay — and my parents had the cheapest place!”
Carter’s reluctance to return was understandable: The South Bronx, historically beset by criminal activity, a disproportionate number of waste-processing plants, vacant and crumbling buildings, and government indifference, is part of the poorest congressional district in the country. During her first few years back, the only trail she blazed was to and from the subway — head down, eyes locked forward — on her way to work outside the neighborhood. It wasn’t until 1997, a couple of years after she returned, that her perspective started to shift.
“I started doing this teaching gig not too far from here and I met a young man who’d started an arts and youth development organization that I was shocked to find out was in my neighborhood, just two blocks from my house,” she recalls. An artist and writer herself, Carter loved the vibe of the group and began organizing public art projects and the first-ever South Bronx Film Festival. “It was around that time that I really thought of setting down roots in the neighborhood.”
Then she heard that the city was planning to build a huge waste facility nearby, and Carter switched gears from artist to activist. ”We were already handling more than 40 percent of the city’s commercial waste at the time, including a sewage treatment plant and a sewage sludge pelletizing plant, and four power plants,” she says. “It’s so skanky; I can’t even tell you.”
But this dense, pollution-filled area was more than just viscerally disgusting — it was actively corroding residents’ health. One out of every four people in the South Bronx has asthma, the highest rate in the nation.
In 2001, after successfully shifting city plans from more waste facilities to positive economic development, Carter founded the nonprofit environmental-justice-solutions corporation Sustainable South Bronx. The group’s first major environmental coup was winning a $1.25 million grant to create the South Bronx Greenway — 1.5 miles of waterfront greenway, 8.5 miles of new green streets, numerous bike paths and nearly 12 acres of open space on the waterfront.
Carter, who won a MacArthur “genius” grant in 2005, focused her efforts primarily on her struggling neighborhood, but her work improves the lives and health of people far beyond it. Because, Carter explains, the environmental and public health effects of pollution-based industrial density don’t stop at a neighborhood’s edge. They spread everywhere.
“Air moves, water moves, so people all over are going to be affected by pollution sources in poor neighborhoods,” she says. “It’s communities like ours that are having a negative impact on wild areas like the Arctic Circle, causing glaciers to warm and melt.”
Asked how she tends to her own health, Carter laughs. “If you’d asked me this last year, I would not have been able to answer. I would have fudged it! I was a mess.” The culprit, she admits, was stress. “Even though my husband was making me beautiful, healthy meals at home, if I was stressed, there was McDonald’s. It was utterly mindless. I wasn’t exercising. I’d eat whatever was there, even if I didn’t want it. I gained more than 25 pounds last year.”
Some unsolicited advice gave her the insight and inspiration she needed to change her habits for the healthier. “One of the most horrifying and enlightening things someone said to me was, ‘You know, you named your organization Sustainable South Bronx, but the way you live your life is not so much [sustainable].’ It was really true.”
Carter, 41, has since started exercising every day, even taking yoga and Bollywood dance CDs with her on the road when she travels. She’s eating healthier. She’s also making sure she takes time to reflect and restore. “I’ve learned that I absolutely have to take time to nourish me.”
This past summer, Carter realized one of the things she needed to do for herself was step down as executive director of Sustainable South Bronx and start her own consulting firm. The Majora Carter Group will work with cities, businesses, community groups, foundations and universities to help them understand that their individual interests will be met if they work together to remediate environmental pollution and invest in the green economy. This is the sort of work that Carter sees as vital — not just to environmentally neglected communities like the South Bronx, but for neighborhoods everywhere.
“It’s such a condemnation of our country when communities that are the bedrock of a growing middle class are being poisoned,” she says. “And if we deal with pollution sources in poor neighborhoods like the South Bronx, everyone else will benefit as well.”
Video Extra! See the behind-the-scenes footage from our photo shoot with Majora Carter at experiencelife.com/videos.
Laine Bergeson is an Experience Life senior editor.