Majora Carter is no ordinary environmental leader. For starters: She’s a woman, she’s black, and she’s not afraid to publicly challenge Al Gore.

Majora Carter.

Photos: Sustainable South Bronx

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

In 2005, she was honored with a MacArthur “genius grant” for her work with Sustainable South Bronx, a group she founded to mobilize grassroots environmental activism among New York City’s poorest and most environmentally oppressed citizens.

In February, Carter turned heads at the luminary-packed Technology Entertainment Design conference when she publicly took Gore to task. During her speech, she told the crowd that her efforts to talk to the former veep about grassroots global-warming strategy earlier that day had been met with the cold shoulder and a suggestion that she send in a grant proposal. “I wasn’t asking him for money,” Carter said. “I was making him an offer.” Gore soon thereafter applauded Carter’s work and asked her to join the board of the Alliance for Climate Protection, a global-warming group he helped found. Other high-profile outfits, including the Google Foundation, have also enlisted her to work with them on green strategy.

The South Bronx, where Carter was born, is home to a higher concentration of power plants, sewage-treatment facilities, diesel-truck fleets, and waste-transfer stations than any other section of the city, and, not coincidentally, is saddled with higher asthma rates than any other community in the nation. Sustainable South Bronx has raised millions to help clean up existing facilities, block new ones, create “green-collar” jobs, and build a five-mile corridor of landscaped bike paths that will replace brownfields, landfills, and prison barges.

Grist’s Amanda Griscom Little met with Carter at her South Bronx headquarters where they discussed the origins of Carter’s activism, the reasons she doesn’t consider herself a tree-hugger, and the challenge of instilling hope in a depressed community.

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

Let’s start with the roots of your green leadership. Where did it begin?

Reader support helps sustain our work. Donate today to keep our climate news free. All donations DOUBLED!

It definitely wasn’t inborn. I had no environmental sensibility as a kid, or really until after college, when I came home completely under duress. If I hadn’t been utterly broke and about to start grad school, I never would’ve come back to the South Bronx. I returned because there was nowhere else to go, but I stayed because I got involved in arts-related community development. One of the projects I ran was called Street Trees, which exhibited artists’ interpretations of the lack of street trees in the neighborhood — sculptures made, you know, from scrap metal and found objects.

One day I heard about the mayor’s plan to privatize waste handling in the city. They were going to shut down the Staten Island landfill without any environmental review and divert the waste handling to our neighborhood. I thought, “Wait, we already handle 40 percent of the city’s commercial waste, and that would bring in another 40 percent of the city’s municipal waste.” As I researched, I began to realize that if we’re not actively meeting the environmental needs of our community, then all the art in the world isn’t gonna help.

So you shifted your efforts entirely to environmental activism?

Well, I began by staging little protests. A group of us marched down the streets of our community wearing blue plastic recycling bags and strings of aluminum cans. I organized boat trips down the Bronx River, which I’m proud to say is the only true freshwater river in all of New York City. We did “toxic tours” of the waste-transfer sites and truck fleets that are the source of the South Bronx’s record-breaking asthma rates. But mobilizing the community wasn’t easy. I think we’d been so demoralized and dejected — people knew that this was a forgotten place — that it was hard at first to inspire interest and hope.

How did you go from neighborhood rallies to running a nationally renowned organization?

Well, the street protests were cute and motivating and all, but eventually I decided it was time to get serious. In 2001, I founded Sustainable South Bronx — not as a moral crusade, but as an economic-development group that was about planning our future, not just reacting to environmental blight. I wanted to play offense, not defense. I wanted to give our community permission to dream, to plan for healthy air, healthy jobs, healthy children, and safe streets.

Your biggest project is a greenway along the riverfront. How did that begin?

I realized that to reach and inspire my community on these issues, we needed to do more than just block the bad stuff. We needed projects that our neighbors could see and touch and be proud of. We needed projects that improve their quality of life, that make community members active and connected to each other — like a park. I began to wonder, “How are people using their waterfront?” I said, “Instead of just getting garbage facilities and power plants, low-income communities of color should get parks and greenways like everybody else.”

Then one morning I went out for a run and took a different route than usual because my dog started dragging me through an abandoned lot filled with all kinds of junk and debris. Then, all of a sudden, we turned a corner and there was the Bronx River. I was totally amazed — there I was standing on waterfront property completely unobstructed by highways, warehouses, and factories. Within weeks I’d dashed out the first proposal to convert this area into a waterfront park, and over the next five years $3.2 million was raised for the project.

Amazing story. I love your point that parks are a way of connecting people to each other and their community.

All this work is an effort to help people in the South Bronx understand that we’re not this awful, awful, monstrous place, but we’re people like everybody else, and we can feel pride in our neighborhood.

What’s been the local reaction to your efforts?

Carter in the borough she loves.

Honestly, it was a huge psychic leap for people to go from the attitude that, “Well, this is the South Bronx, you know, so of course there’s another polluting facility coming here” to “OK, well, maybe that has something to do with my kid’s asthma.” Then it was yet another psychic leap for them to realize, “Well, maybe our waterfront should be something that we’d like to see, like trees and rocks and open space. And maybe we should have better transportation systems and bike networks.”

Your efforts seem to show that environmental improvements in a community go far beyond the visual and health benefits — they lift up the local economy and elevate morale.

Absolutely. I just think back to why I left this neighborhood and vowed never to return. It was because it did not seem to present any kind of livable opportunities. What you do with land use in a community has everything to do with how the people view it and view themselves in it. It influences what kind of economic developments are brought to it or not — whether you bring toxic facilities here or things that are actually supportive of public health.

There was an urban forestry study that was done in Chicago in the late ’90s about the effects of green space on really poor neighborhoods. Like suddenly people realized that if you started planting trees, people’s quality of life improved. Crime rates would go down. There was a certain willingness to engage with your neighbors when you felt that you could be outside more.

You’ve also been working on developing what you call “green-collar” jobs. Can you elaborate?

This is one of the things I’m most proud of. We started a program called BEST — Bronx Environmental Stewardship Training — which is an ecological-restoration job-training program. So we recruit folks, almost exclusively from the neighborhood. I’d say 95 percent have been on public assistance, and most just received their GEDs. The ages range from about 20 to 45 and we train them in everything from landscaping and green-roof installation to brownfield remediation. Already we’ve graduated almost three dozen people from the program, and most have paying jobs.

Has Sustainable South Bronx had any support, financial or organizational, from other local or national environmental groups?

Not really. The environmental groups have little to no presence here.

Why do you think the environmental movement came to be largely white and upper-middle-class? And why, by extension, do you think environmental justice is seen as a fringe part of the movement?

There are any number of factors. First, most people with decision-making power in the public and private sector and in leadership roles in the green movement live comfortable lives, don’t feel the dangers that we experience in our communities, and I think they both inadvertently and actively alienate the environmental-justice issue.

But there is a lack of responsibility in our communities, too — we allowed the movement to be usurped from us, making it so even our connections to the land were something that made us feel like we did not deserve it. We have to reclaim our right to the environmental issue, we have to understand that it’s more than just really wealthy white people driving Priuses because they can.

How can the environmental movement cast a wider net culturally and become a bigger-tent issue politically? How can it tap into the vast urban black and Latino communities that stand to gain from environmental justice?

First, it would help to bring us into the discussion. Why aren’t we at the table helping shape big-picture strategy? Early on when we were doing the waste stuff, the bigger environmental groups really wanted nothing to do with us. We had to elbow our way into those rooms. And now we are considered active parts of what’s happening in the city environmentally right now. But I think if we’re going to go deeper, then there has to be a far more concerted effort not just to bring us in on high-level strategy discussions, but shift the debate away from the environmental benefits to the economic and social benefits. The debate has to examine how environmental improvements to low-income communities lift up the economy, the safety, and the morale — not just locally, but regionally and nationally.

What opposition have you encountered?

When addressing the city’s waste-management problem, we had these idiot council people spouting that our argument to move some of the waste transfer stations out of the South Bronx is environmental racism — that we wanted to see the same health problems afflicting our children happen to their communities. We said, “No! No one is saying that. We’re simply saying it shouldn’t happen to our kids either.”

What needs to happen to break through this impasse and empower the environmental-justice movement?

First we have to move past the fear and the miscommunication. There’s this big fear that environmental justice is fiscally irresponsible, that communities like ours need all kinds of money and assistance. The irony is that our public-health problems — our rampant asthma and other environmental illnesses — do need such resources. Our sustainability strategy, on the contrary, does not. Our organization is beginning to prove that we can implement our strategy in a pretty darn economically and fiscally responsible way. Things like parks and green roofs and decent zoning policies and green-collar jobs and public transportation don’t cost a huge amount, but can make a tremendous difference that has long-term economic advantages both locally and nationally.

Sounds like the misunderstanding Al Gore had when you approached him to discuss grassroots climate strategy — he immediately thought you wanted money.

Exactly. The same kind of thing that I got from Al Gore — he had no idea who I was, clearly didn’t care, and immediately assumed I wanted something from him — I encounter all the time. People don’t yet understand that ultimately the work we do is supportive not just of the South Bronx, or not just of other environmental-justice communities, but by association all communities out there. Because if we can actually make some kind of headway in support of sustainable development in communities like ours, then everybody else will feel the benefits. I truly, truly believe that.

What do you think of Gore’s success with An Inconvenient Truth? And are you going to accept his invitation to get involved with the Alliance for Climate Protection?

It’s not clear yet in what way I’d be involved with the alliance, so the answer is I don’t know at this point.

And the problem with An Inconvenient Truth is that it’s preaching to the choir. People who already believe in this stuff are the ones coming out to watch this film. In communities like ours, movie houses won’t even play that movie. He’s not really the appropriate messenger for this in our world. It doesn’t tell the global-warming story in a language that is really going to speak to us.

That said, the visuals are incredible. His effort to tell this story in a multimedia format is a huge breakthrough. And I have huge appreciation for the fact that he recognizes that this is a marketing campaign and it needs to be told in lots of different voices. I’ve heard he’s training a big group of activists to interpret his narrative in their own voices, and I think that’s a brilliant idea.

Do you consider yourself an environmentalist?

Checking out the green roof at Sustainable South Bronx.

Not in the sense of the narrow tree-hugger stereotype that everybody associates with that term. The public image of the environmentalist is all about eating organic food, driving a Prius, and buying solar panels. It’s incredibly narrow and alienating. I mean, I generally don’t eat organic, except for carrots, because of the cost. But I do the affordable things. I have a “cool roof” on my home — we put a reflective coat of paint that keeps the heat out in the summer and reduces the need for air-conditioning. We installed a green roof on our office building. And, like most people in my community, I don’t have a car — I use public transportation. I recycle and I don’t shop much, so I don’t waste much.

That’s the irony: People in your community generally have far lower-impact lives than wealthier folks with cars and frequent-flyer lifestyles.

Exactly, and yet we don’t have a sense of belonging to the environmentalist identity. It’s an extremely alienating definition, a serious identity crisis for the movement as far as I’m concerned. It makes low-income communities of color say, “We can’t do it, we can’t afford it, it’s something that we can never aspire to — nor do we necessarily want to.” But it’s self-defeating to the point where it’s detrimental to our own health.