How the Bronx Turned Green

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Environmental activist Majora Carter.
Environmental activist Majora Carter.

It's not surprising that many African Americans give Earth Day a pass. When you live poorer and die younger in the land of plenty, it can be hard to get excited about protecting the planet at large.

The oppression of black people covers centuries of troubled terrain from forced agricultural labor, to contemporary land loss, to racialized proximity, to polluting industries. For African Americans, nature's bounty has always stood in stark contrast to human suffering.

It's not that black Americans don't care about the environment. In fact, public opinion data show that there is no clear "green gap" between black and white Americans. But blacks are more likely to care about green issues that most directly affect their lives. While whites express more concern about climate change, wilderness preservation and endangered species, African Americans express more concern about pollution, locally undesirable land uses and human health outcomes. Asthmatic children are far more likely to turn African Americans into environmental activists than disappearing polar bears.

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The modern environmental justice movement emerged in the South where citizens in places like Warren Country, N.C. fought to block polluters from entering poor communities, and in urban locales like Gary, Ind. that recognized the links between industrial pollution and health issues of the poor black community. With the emergence of this new movement linking environmental injustice to racial injustice, black Americans became important actors to green activism and ordinary black men and women in Southern rural and Northern urban areas became the backbone of the environmental movement.

Few have been more critical to this movement than Majora Carter, founder of Sustainable South Bronx. I certainly agree with my fellow contributor to The Root, Veronica Chambers, that Majora Carter has earned her place as a genius of our time.

Born and raised in the South Bronx Carter's life and work is committed to challenging the assumption that her community is worth less than other New York neighborhoods.

Carter's contributions are both large and small. SSB has worked to plant hundred of trees in the community and to build planter boxes with benches around those trees. This is a simple task that allows residents to come out of their homes, gather in the shade of the trees, and actually sit down. The transformation makes the streets safer by encouraging more local residents to simply sit outside in the shade and observe public activities. Carter's larger projects include designing the South Bronx Greenway, with 11 miles of bike and pedestrian paths, and securing tens of millions in grants to remove underused expressways and spur "green collar" jobs.

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This fall I had the opportunity to have a public conversation with Majora Carter at an event on Princeton University's campus co-sponsored by the Center for African American Studies and the Princeton Environmental Institute.

MHL: I love that your work challenges the core of how we should be thinking about black politics. When are black politics green? When do race leaders become environmentalists?

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MC: In many of our communities our leaders think that the environment has nothing to do with them, or is not really about their communities. Some of my hardest work is helping folks to understand the links between the environment and poverty; between the environment and public health; between the environment and general quality of life. Assuming that the environment is only under the purview of whites is not helpful. This is part of why we are always trying to make the economic argument. How can we get our leadership engaged in a way so that they understand that this is something they should be fighting with us? We haven't quite done that yet.

MHL: It seems to me that there are three groups of people who reliably vote for the Democratic Party. They are black/brown people, labor and environmentalists. This means that the Democratic Party base is "red, black and green. But this is a coalition that has a lot of anxiety and often fight with one another. So your work is not just sustainable South Bronx; it is also the sustainable Democratic Party.

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MC: I have a lot of hope, in the sense that hope is an action verb. Environmental justice as a civil rights movement can speak to all of the groups that you are talking about. There are jobs in the Green Economy. Still, environmentalist circles are very white. I feel like a chocolate chip in most meetings. Many of them are dealing with wilderness and polar bears and we are trying to cope with our neighborhoods and communities. If the Democratic Party were smart, they could see that this is just the kind of tool that could bring people together in a very powerful way.

MHL: I think it is important that you and Al Gore have these amazing Power Point presentations. Gore's big climax is the drowning animated polar bear. In your presentation you put the polar bear image in split screen with the Katrina survivor in New Orleans. Your focus is the people.

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Your other great slide says, "We live here, we are experts too." It seems that one of the key divides within the environmental community is really about science and knowledge. The general green movement often claims that work like yours is just about saving a local community, but that climate change environmentalists are saving the earth. How do you deal with that and make local knowledge relevant to the larger green project?

MC: Part of it is by using their science. We understand what particulate matter does. I live six blocks from a sewage treatment plant that is undergoing a multimillion dollar retro fit right now. For my whole life there has been a big methane gas flute dumping into the air in my neighborhood. Now isn't that greenhouse gas? Obviously these were not ideas that we made up. The ideas that we use are drawn from the research science.

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But there is great hesitation to think about our society as a whole society. New York City is very segregated. The Bronx has become a place that is getting poorer while the rest of the city gets richer. We have large populations of new immigrants; a massive loss of jobs; but we are also the dumping ground for the rest of the city. By the way, the South Bronx has a green house gas dome over it.

But when the city is thinking about what it can do, it never thinks of coming to us first. It want to have these platinum projects in Manhattan that show what a green building can be.

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By isolating poor people we put them out of sight and out of mind. This is why I go all over the country giving talks. I want to make us visible and say "we are here". I have to present us in a loving and powerful way. Our communities already know we are unloved because we have been made to feel that way.

MHL: When I think about the South Bronx speaking for itself, I think about hip-hop. Hip-Hop is not pretty. It is not clean. Doesn't hip-hop need the gritty, industrial, brown ghetto, not the green ghetto of your dreams? I am playing devil's advocate because there is a prevalent idea that our suffering gives us our culture. This is the idea that innovation comes out of troubled environments. So if you plant a bunch of trees in the South Bronx won't you kill hip-hop?

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MC: Yeah, we are going to kill hip-hop. That is a good one. I haven't heard that before. You just know someone is going to say that eventually. That I drove out all the poor people and killed hip-hop. Ha, Ha, Ha.

I think that we can't assume that we can only create out of suffering. We are also able to create out of a loving place that is open to something good. We can make more free space. We don't want to get rid of industry we want to make industry cleaner and make it work for us. So if we have industry that employs people and communities; that are beautiful; then hip-hop can just flourish.

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It will just be something new. It will be happy hip-hop!

There have been studies at many universities that have studied the impact of green spaces and greenery in urban environments. They have found that it actually reduces crime because people come outside to be near the natural and then they congregate and interact with each other. It reduces stress levels. In part because we have a spiritual connection with nature, even though we don't always realize it. It is good for our public health and out mental well being.

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MHL: I have another question for you. It is my last question and it is not necessarily about any of the things that we have talked about this far. You occupy an important space as a black woman.

I want to ask you about sustainable development for activists themselves. It is one thing to be an advocate for others, but you are working for your own neighborhood. It also occurs to me that I see you all the time. You are always out traveling, talking, working, organizing. You are not home watching TV or taking a bath or doing whatever else you might want to be doing.

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I know sometimes my students say to me "you are a role model." And, Majora, you are a role model to me. I wonder about our ability to sustain the activist herself. How do we develop a model for the young women who will come after us who want to do great things and we don't want them to have to kill themselves or crush their lives in order to do those great things? How do you sustain yourself?

MC: (starts to tear up) Wow. When you do this kind of work, you do start to feel that everything becomes your responsibility. Often you find that you have to take care of yourself. Because if you are not sustainable then your work cannot be.

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I have literally put myself in a situation where I am constantly working because I fee like how will anyone know unless I am out talking about it somewhere? And yeah, my own health has suffered.

Yeah, it is really difficult. I feel like the best thing we can do is care for ourselves. Women especially tend to feel that we really have to take on so much. And in some ways it is true that we have to take on a lot if we are going to get what we care about out there. But if we are not finding an opportunity to reflect on ourselves and to find a support system then we can't sustain.

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Sometimes it is your significant other, but often it is the relationships with our sisters that are deeply meaningful and that help you understand that the work you are doing is critical and important. It is God's work. But also you are a child of God who needs to be loved and supported. I fight with myself every single day about these feelings of wondering why I am here.

There are lots of talented people who are way more brilliant than me. But instead of listening to those voices I just get to work doing what I have to do. I do it because there are people watching. I know I am a role model. It freaks me out, but it is the awe-inspiring deeply honoring reality that I carry. But I don't want some girl to think she has to work herself to death. It is a hard, hard balance.

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POSTSCRIPT:

I went home after my conversation with Majora and I listened again to the second verse of the African American national anthem, "Life Every Voice and sing" penned by James Weldon Johnson. Suddenly it had new meaning. I heard it as an anthem of environmental justice that shows how black people have navigated the difficult terrain of loving our land even while we are alienated from it.

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Stony the road we trod, bitter the chastening rod

Felt in the days when hope unborn had died;

Yet with a steady beat, have not our weary feet

Come to the place for which our fathers sighed?

We have come over a way that with tears has been watered,

We have come, treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered;

Out from the gloomy past, till now we stand at last

Where the white gleam of our bright star is cast.

Melissa Harris-Lacewell is an associate professor of politics and African-American studies at Princeton University.

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