Environmental justice advocate, MacArthur Fellow, president of her eponymous green economic consulting firm: by anybody’s definition, Majora Carter is a dynamo. Born, raised and still living in New York’s South Bronx, Carter founded Sustainable South Bronx in 2001, and by 2003, had implemented the highly successful Bronx Environmental Stewardship Training (BEST) program—a pioneering job training and placement system that seeds communities with a skilled workforce that has both a personal and an economic stake in its urban environment.Among her landmark projects is the conversion of a stretch of debris-strewn riverside to a vibrant neighborhood park and the beginning of an 11-mile greenway. And she might never have discovered the place or its potential had it not been for her dog, Xena.
Bark: Tell us how Xena came into your life.
The puppy and I looked at each other, but I didn’t really have any huge emotional moment where I felt I had to save this animal. I was working to save humans from noxious environmental planning by the City of New York at the time. But something attracted me to her, so I took her home, dried her off, found some food in the fridge—which she devoured—and spent the next year trying to recover chewed shoes, books, furniture and other household objects that fell before the wrath of this energetic and fast-growing pup. The vet who checked her out (and continues to do so) said she was four months old when I found her. I named her Xena.
B: We understand that Xena had a paw in the revitalization of the illegal dumping area that became Hunt’s Point Riverside Park. How did that happen?
Xena used all of her 80 pounds of young dog energy to drag me deeper into the abandoned lot. Past refrigerators, needles, stacks of tires, oil drums, old tar roofing, thistles, dead things and a bunch of other items I was thankful were not on her list of things to roll in that day.
Just as we began to get too far out of sight of the road for my comfort level, I caught an unfamiliar glint of light out of the corner of my eye. Xena pushed through the last patch of tall weeds as she bounded forward to her goal, and right there in the morning light, the Bronx River flowed, with ducks landing and butterflies dancing.
Except when I went to Connecticut for college, I had lived in that part of the South Bronx—called Hunts Point—all my life. I could see on the subway maps that we were surrounded by the East and Bronx Rivers, but I never actually saw the water because their banks were crowded with waste and sewage treatment facilities, truck lots, power plants, and illegal dumps like the one we discovered that day.
It was so beautiful to see the river there that morning. I knew I could play a role in turning that land into a park, where families could get connected with nature and each other in a positive, healthy atmosphere.
B: How is the neighborhood using the park? Does your schedule allow you time to go there with Xena?
Aside from the obvious recreational benefits, members of the community are employed maintaining the riverfront, and are using it to train other workers for future waterfront restoration projects. I don’t get to the park nearly as often as I’d like—especially when you consider how much time I spent working to make it happen. But I did have my wedding there on the first day it was opened. Xena was my flower girl!
B: Environmental justice is a large concept; can you scale it to a one person/one dog level?
B: Environmentalists and dog lovers have a number of intersecting interests. One of the more obvious is that in densely populated urban areas, both people and dogs appreciate and need environmentally healthy open spaces in which to walk. What can dog people do to improve their local environments?
B: What channels do you recommend following to address local environmental issues?
B: Are there tools individuals can use to make a case for attention? Taking along a videocam (or using a cell phone) to document problems encountered while out walking with our dogs, for example?
B: We also understand that you have a degree in film, and an MFA. Do you have occasion to use this training in your current work?
Photograph of Carter and Xena by K.C. Bailey