Guest Post by Kathryn DeSutter
Jan. 25 — Majora Carter spoke to an enthusiastic crowd in Mead Memorial Chapel Friday night for the keynote speech of the MCSE 2013 symposium on social entrepreneurship and social justice.
Carter is considered an “eco-entrepreneur” for her work as the head of Sustainable South Bronx from 2001 – 2008, where she worked to “green the ghetto” through one of the nation’s first urban green-collar job training and placement systems. She is now the president of the Majora Carter Group, a consulting company that focus on urban revitalization with an environmental bent.
“So much of my work has been entrepreneurial in nature,” reflected Carter at the beginning of her speech. In light of the recent MLK holiday, Carter alluded to the revered civil rights leader and wondered aloud “what it would be like for him to look at us now.” Carter spoke of contemporary problems left unresolved, despite King’s work.
Carter detailed her own history through the history of the Bronx, her community. She spoke honestly and casually about the history of the troubled borough — “white flight happened” — as she flipped through a slideshow of photos. As Carter alternated between photos of her own family and photos of her community it was immediately apparent that she could not tell her own history apart from the history of her community.
She described how she excelled in school, went to college, and decided that as one of the “bright flighters,” she “was never going to go back to that place — except to go home to eat my mother’s fried chicken.”
Her determination to leave changed when she heard about the proposed location of waste facilities in her neighborhood. After fighting off the facilities, Carter applied for and received a U.S. Forest Service grant for restoration projects on the Bronx River, a “beta test” of how she could make a difference in her home.
“Identifying a need and providing a way to fill that need for people became my life’s work … I looked at my community as this huge big thing that had a lot of unmet needs,” she said.
Carter’s next step dove to the core of the spirit of social entrepreneurship. Through Bronx Environmental Stewardship Training, Carter worked to create jobs and give people “both a personal and a financial stake in improving their environment.” The program sought applicants who were generationally impoverished and cycling in and out of the criminal justice system. By the time the program ended in 2008, 85% of participants were employed and 10% attended college.
Carter now focuses on real estate development in poor communities that utilizes mixed-income housing and mixed-use commercial development to provide an opportunity for the community to grow.
“We don’t need to be concentrating poverty anymore — we know that all it does is create more poverty,” said Carter. “Let’s make it so that the people who have the ability to leave these communities want to stay in them.”
Carter outlined a nuanced perspective on gentrification, explaining the need for development models that don’t price people out of their homes yet still allow for economic development.
“I want to spend money in my neighborhood,” said Carter, who still lives in the Bronx. “I would like a decent coffee shop. I would like to buy some clothes there.”
Carter’s vision for changing to physical landscape to increase economic diversity became apparent through her “The Storefront Project,” where she worked with community members to paint a mural on a highly visible — yet closed — storefront right outside a busy subway stop.
Toward the end of her speech, Carter tied these circumstances to their history.
“How did this happen? How did it get to this point?” she asked. “Well, maybe there are some unintended consequences of integration that Dr. King definitely was not anticipating.”
“Prior to [integration] black communities … were economically diverse. There was a sense among the people there that they were all in it together, because they had to be. And then integration happened, and the people who could afford to leave those communities did.”
Carter concluded with a quote from MLK’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” She challenged the audience to pick up his fight as well.
“If MLK can end his life fighting for racial and economic equality and pay the ultimate price for it, then it should be easy for us. We have it within ourselves to build monuments to hope and possibility. That is your job.”