Activist: Green the Ghetto and Forget Polar Bears

Majora Carter has some bad news for polar bears: when it comes to environmental causes, they are so yesterday. That opinion is reflective of Carter's general feeling toward the establishment figures of the environmental movement and their familiar messages—which she dismisses as aloof, elitist and unable to communicate with working-class or poor America. "There's been some movement from mainstream environmentalist toward the idea that the environment is for everyone," Carter says. "Not as much as I'd like to see, but it's really exciting that finally we're leading the way."

"We" would be the environmental justice movement, for which the larger-than-life Carter has become the de facto spokesperson. It's not hard to see why. She's spent a career burnishing her credentials as a tough girl from the Bronx, N.Y., fighting to "green the ghetto." In 2001, she founded Sustainable South Bronx to replace garbage dumps and industrial wasteland with parks and green roofs in her native borough. Now she's taking her show on the road, doing speaking gigs and consulting projects with a new for-profit group she launched last year. So far, she's gotten one big bite: a contract from Elizabeth City State University in North Carolina to develop green jobs in one of the state's poorest regions.

The rural South is a far cry from the South Bronx, but Carter says most of the major issues—and their solutions—are the same. NEWSWEEK's Katie Paul spoke with her about bringing together strange bedfellows for the environment. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: The green movement has an image as the cause célèbre among the latte-sipping set. How do you make green matter in the ghetto?
Carter: What's popular in places considered ghettos—whether that's the inner city or Appalachia—is having a decent quality of life. I think that's why the movement hasn't reached a crescendo in poor and working-class communities. But [environmentalists] have been talking about issues that don't really affect them. If you're speaking to someone whose first priority is survival, no one is going to give a crap about the polar bears—nor should they.

What's been successful in terms of getting people involved?
The green-jobs-training programs cropping up all over the country are really encouraging. That's what we should be focused on: job training for folks who have been left out of economic booms before. They won't get excited about this stuff for the sake of it. But if you put out a job listing, then they'll show up in droves. Then you tell them that this stuff will make it easier for their kids to breathe, and will help them save money, and it comes with training—and then they realize they're a part of something bigger.

Now that you're consulting and heading out into parts unknown, how do you tap into a community when you first get there?
You have to figure out how to work with the folks who are there. One thing I noticed working in the Bronx is that leaders come in the craziest places. They don't always show up at community board meetings. Sometimes it's just the guys on the corner that the boys on the block respect. And you can't be afraid to find those folks if you're going to build an agenda that people really feel is theirs.

You've talked a lot about work at the municipal level. Where does the money for these projects come from? Is that where the big battles are?
Yes, because the real vittles go to the folks who have power in any municipality. Poor people don't. In a sad way, it was completely telling that when the funds came down to New York from the stimulus package, Alfonse D'Amato was right up there trying to advocate for funds for the Atlantic Yards project. I was like, excuse me? If nobody's watching that, then how do we make sure the jobs are going to people who desperately need them? How do we make sure we're reversing the environmental degradation that we've done to the ghettos of our country? There are people who really know how to milk the system. The result is they've clustered huge amounts of noxious facilities in communities like ours all these years, at huge expense to public health and air quality.

How does that equation differ in a place like rural North Carolina versus the South Bronx?
It doesn't, really. Folks working at the bacon plant in Smithfield or running little community-development corporations are the struggling ones. It's about power—how it's accessed and how it's used.

It seems like they're two very different kinds of communities with two very different sets of environmental problems. Do you have to change your approach in how you push your message?
You know, people understand fear and opportunity. It may look different, but it's really the same thing. So, of course, in a city you're talking about urban horticulture, green roof installation and water management, while in rural areas you're talking about how to reforest abandoned lands, bulk up houses and do vertical farming to deal with some of the coming sea-level rise. But in the end, it's like that Buddhist phrase: people just want someone to love, something to do and something to feel hopeful about. The rest is just figuring out what the specifics are.

I imagine you have to get some really strange bedfellows—policy wonks, businesses, people who have long felt they're getting screwed over by the system—working together to make projects like these happen.
There's often a lot of distrust in many of these relationships. Working in community development in the South Bronx, I saw it. The differences between business and community, community and government … it was bad. But you just have to help people understand that it's in their best interest to work toward a common goal. With the green economy, there's something in it for everybody.

But how do you convince venture capitalists that instead of putting money into Silicon Valley, they should put it into a place in North Carolina they've never heard of?
People are always talking about the bottom line. Well, this is the bottom line. There is the potential for tremendous returns on investments—and I believe there will be going down the pike. But, being realistic, there aren't the supportive subsidies and services for these new ventures as there are for the oil and the coal industries right now. So we are appealing to people's larger sense of self and society to be ahead of the curve. I'm looking for strong, smart people who know that green infrastructure is worth investing in.

If you could pick one idea out there in the zeitgeist to stimulate a green economy, what would it be?
I haven't heard it being talked about much, but I'd like to see a WPA-type project with a huge conservation corps to create jobs, build the national grid, do urban forestry and provide environmental services. I've heard of a lot of money going into job training for the renewable-energy industry, but a lot of those jobs are going to go to people who already have specific skills. It's not going to go to places with 50 percent unemployment rates.

Why do you think you've become a somewhat controversial figure in the activist community?
I don't think I'm very controversial at all. I think I get things done and that gets attention. But I don't know.

What's the biggest green hoax out there these days?
Clean coal. It's just silly.

That was easy. Give me a less obvious one.
Cleaning products. No one needs to buy anything other than vinegar, baking soda and lemon juice to clean their homes.