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.
Majora Carter: Early one rainy evening in 1998, I was going to see a film at a local cultural center in my neighborhood. Outside the gate, a big-pawed puppy with a huge head was sitting in a cardboard box, tied to a no-parking sign. When I came out of the movie, the puppy was still there. I wasn’t looking for a dog at the time and didn’t really need any extra responsibilities, as I was already helping take care of my elderly father, and not making much money either.
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?
MC: One of the benefits of having a large German Shepherd-mix mutt on the end of a leash is that it allows a single woman to go places with a greater sense of confidence and safety. When Xena was about a year old, we were on a daily jog through one of the many industrial-zoned sections of the South Bronx. It was just after dawn, and Xena caught the scent of something in the weeds. Behind the weeds were piles of garbage—mostly construction and demolition debris (dumps like this exist in cities and towns across America).
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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?
MC: It’s great! An organization called Rocking the Boat moved into the lot next to the park. They teach local high school-age students to build traditional wooden boats for rowing and sailing—most of the boats are about 16 feet long, I think—and then they use them to study river ecology; on Saturdays, the boats are made available to the public and maintained by people who graduated from their program. On weekends, the barbecues are all full and people use the park to celebrate with large and small gatherings.
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?
MC: It’s actually simple: no community should have to suffer more environmental burdens than any other. Clean air and clean water are a minimum standard we should be able to maintain for everyone. When we don’t, public health costs go up, but it goes deeper than that. Proximity to concentrations of fossil fuel exhaust sources has been shown to cause learning disabilities in young children. It’s usually poor kids who live in these areas, and in the U.S., if you’re poor and do badly in school, your chances of going to jail skyrocket. The deeper we look into how our environment affects us, the more clearly we see how costs add up if we conduct planning as though some people’s environmental rights are not as important as others’. If we had placed as many of our waste, energy, chemical, agribusiness and transport infrastructure near wealthy people as we have near poor communities, our infrastructure would have been green and clean decades ago.
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?
MC: Well, for starters, keep their dogs from peeing on the trees. Street trees have a hard life in a densely populated area. The faster new trees can get to full canopy, the sooner we can benefit from the environmental services they provide.
B: What channels do you recommend following to address local environmental issues?
MC: Start by talking to your neighbors. Chances are, the same things you are concerned about are affecting others. Your ideas about solutions might start out being different, but will come together as you imagine the possibilities. Local politicians are often much more responsive than you’d guess, too. Most people don’t even bother talking to their elected officials, but they should. They can’t act unless they know there is organized support for their position, and organizing has never been easier than it is today.
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?
MC: That’s a great start, but it’s smart to document the good stuff, too. When we had cleared the debris off the land that Xena had explored with me, it still wasn’t a “park,” but we planned community events there and demonstrated public use before we went to the City for money to develop it further. So whether it’s something you like or don’t like, giving yourself visual tools with which to communicate pros and cons is always valuable.
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?
MC: I have a pretty grueling speaking schedule, and every event embodies a certain amount of performance. Plus, I do a television show on Sundance Channel and a Corporation for Public Broadcasting radio series called The Promised Land. Communicating complex issues is so important to getting things done, and creatively visualizing new solutions for familiar problems is crucial. Those were both things I have carried over from my studies. The important thing to remember is that I learned about my environmental work on the job, starting at the age of 30—so no matter where you are in life, you can always embrace something new.