The Green Power Broker
MAJORA CARTER, one of the city’s best-known advocates for environmental justice, was sitting on a picnic table in Barretto Point Park in the South Bronx under the intense lights of an NBC film crew.
On this late September afternoon, after a month of traveling, delivering speeches, serving as host of a Sundance Channel program and a Science Channel pilot, Ms. Carter was noticeably flagging. Yet her signature feistiness was much in evidence when the producer of the documentary for which Ms. Carter was being interviewed asked her to explain why global warming affects not just polar bears but people around the globe.
Ms. Carter responded by describing air pollution in troubled urban areas like Hunts Point, the South Bronx neighborhood where she was raised and currently works.
The producer rephrased her question, in response to which Ms. Carter snapped, “I don’t do that.”
If the producer had a specific response in mind, Ms. Carter added with an edge to her usually warm voice, she should feed her a line, which the producer did not. Then she elaborated on her argument, which is that if richer communities suffered from air pollution as much as poorer neighborhoods do, affluent citizens would long ago have fought for alternatives to fossil fuels.
Two months earlier, Ms. Carter had visited the land of those iconic polar bears, touring the Arctic with former President Jimmy Carter, Senator Tom Daschle and leaders of various political, corporate, scientific and nongovernmental organizations.
“It was the trip of a lifetime,” Ms. Carter said in one of several conversations about her work. “Look, there are just a handful of people who get to do that, and I am incredibly grateful to be one of the few. But at the same time, I didn’t need to go to the Arctic Circle to see the impacts of global warming. I am living it.”
In just over a decade, Ms. Carter, 42, has vaulted from working as a volunteer for what was a nascent organization called the Point Community Development Corporation and knowing almost nothing about environmental issues to becoming a nationally known advocate for environmental justice.
Her reputation was burnished in 2005 when she won a MacArthur Foundation award for her work at the Point and at Sustainable South Bronx, a nonprofit organization she founded after leaving the Point in 2001.
Now, after seven years at Sustainable South Bronx, Ms. Carter is starting something new. Over the summer, she formed a for-profit consulting company, the Majora Carter Group. Along with her husband, James Chase, who serves as the group’s vice president for marketing and communications, Ms. Carter hopes that community groups, institutions and corporations will hire her to help them solve environmental problems and create green jobs — employment that betters the environment, such as producing clean energy — so she can put to national and perhaps international use the experience she gained in Hunts Point.
By singling out individuals, the $500,000 MacArthur awards can sometimes engender resentment. Perhaps partly for this reason, Ms. Carter is a controversial figure in certain activist circles. A few of some three dozen people contacted for this article refused to talk about her or to describe their criticisms on the record. But many who have worked with her said her celebrity is deserved.
Ms. Carter’s fame is also proving somewhat double-edged for her start-up. She is in high demand for speeches all over the country, yet in the eyes of many she remains synonymous with Sustainable South Bronx, and it is taking time to establish a separate identity.
“Now I go and I talk about what I think I can bring to the rest of the world with this consulting firm,” Ms. Carter said one afternoon in her new offices at 901 Hunts Point Avenue. “And it is hard, because I am still so much seen as this ground-breaking visionary who ran community groups. And I am like, that is nice and all, but I am a groundbreaking visionary who has a consultancy.
“It is fun,” she added. “I am not complaining. I am just so tired I can’t keep my eyes open.”
On the Hustings
Several weeks before the NBC interview, Ms. Carter could be found leaning against a wall outside a conference room in the United Federation of Teachers building in Lower Manhattan, tugging off her brown suede heels and pulling on green Wellingtons — the very ones, she later confided, that President Carter had scuffed in the Arctic. “I’ll never wash them,” she said with a laugh.
Ms. Carter had just spoken about green jobs at a conference sponsored by the Center for Working Families, a New York State group formed in 2006, and her speech was emotional, as her speeches usually are. She invoked the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and choked up when she described jobless men and women who have become environmental heroes by finding and holding green jobs in their community.
The talk seemed ill suited to the setting: Most of the people in the audience were activists, politicians and union and other organizers, many of whom regularly fight for social justice and know inside out the issues and struggles that Ms. Carter seemed to be urging them to embrace.
Yet for some, the speech resonated deeply.
“You are such an inspirational person,” one woman gushed as Ms. Carter suited up for the rain. “I teared up the whole time.”
“Thank you so much,” Ms. Carter responded, smiling with the warmth, earthiness and energy that strike many who meet her, qualities that have helped make her such a powerful leader.
Within a few minutes, Ms. Carter was dashing through a downpour to the PATH station in her waterproof black anorak, its hood snug around her dark hair, to address a symposium on green jobs in Newark. Under the netting cloaking the partially restored rotunda in City Hall, Ms. Carter gave the identical speech and choked up at the same point.
“I am proud to have started one of the first green-collar job training programs,” Ms. Carter declared in rousing fashion. Many in the audience nodded throughout the speech, then applauded wildly.
“She is so inspiring,” one woman said with a sigh to her son as they headed out into the wet Newark night.
Although just back from Stockholm and jet-lagged, Ms. Carter spent the next 10 days crisscrossing the United States, giving speeches in Washington, Indiana, Tennessee and North Carolina. The Majora Carter Group earned about $60,000 that week, said Ms. Carter, who charges $25,000 for some appearances, but the organization has a way to go before it can hire more people. Currently the paid staff consists only of Ms. Carter, her husband and Isabella Moreno, who is vice president for operations and client relations.
But the team was thrilled about the week’s big development. In North Carolina, Ms. Carter had impressed Willie Gilchrist, chancellor of Elizabeth City State University, who plans to hire Ms. Carter to develop a regional plan to create green jobs. The university would be the group’s first client.
The new consultancy “really plays to Majora’s strengths,” said Hugh Hogan, director of the North Star Fund, a New York nonprofit group that supports grass-roots efforts around the city.
“She knows how the system works,” added Mr. Hogan, who worked with Ms. Carter at Sustainable South Bronx and at the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance. And, he added with a laugh, “That woman has no fear.”
An example of this quality is still broadly disseminated on the Web: video of a Technology, Entertainment, Design conference shows Ms. Carter chiding Al Gore, who is sitting in the front row, for brushing off her offer of collaboration and instead directing her to apply for a grant.
A Girl From Hunts Point
Ms. Carter, the youngest of 10 children, was born in Hunts Point, a community, largely populated by blacks and Latinos, that is part of the infamous South Bronx. For decades it was plagued by poverty and violence, and many working-class families moved away during the 1960s and ’70s.
Ms. Carter’s family stayed. Her father worked as a janitor at the Spofford juvenile detention center; her mother raised her many children and then worked at a residence for mentally impaired adults. Although Ms. Carter says neither of her parents was particularly active politically, the neighborhood in which she came of age was steeped in activism.
Seemingly every few blocks, there is evidence of projects that community groups have successfully fought for, including, in the last two years, 2,500 units of affordable housing and plans for an additional high school, according to Roberto S. Garcia, chairman of Community Board 2. The Bronx River Greenway, a plan to establish 10 miles of paths and parks along the waterway, came about because some 60 public and private groups formed the Bronx River Alliance, said Linda Cox, the alliance’s executive director.
Ms. Carter, who studied acting and received a degree in film from Wesleyan in 1988, did not become involved in her neighborhood until she returned to live with her parents after graduating from New York University in 1997 with a master’s degree in fine arts.
“It was because I was broke,” she said of her return home. “It was just a place for me when I needed a place to stay.”
In 1997, she started working as a volunteer for the Point, which had been formed in 1994 to help revitalize the area’s cultural and economic life. Just as Ms. Carter started at the Point, the Giuliani administration announced plans to build a waste transfer station in Hunts Point, an area already riddled with waste transfer stations, a battalion of garbage trucks and the asthma-inducing exhaust they produce.
Maria Torres, president and co-founder of the Point, recalled that in the late 1990s an awareness of the local impact of environmental problems was relatively new to the organization, but that Ms. Carter, who had started out doing art and film projects for the group, readily took on these problems.
“She went out and did her research,” Ms. Torres said. “And she became very knowledgeable about things.”
First at the Point, then at Sustainable South Bronx, working with politicians and with South Bronx groups like Mothers on the Move and Youth Ministries for Peace and Justice, Ms. Carter successfully fought against the transfer station and lobbied for the creation of the Bronx River Alliance and new public green spaces in Hunts Point.
In 2003, along with Mr. Hogan and Annette Williams, Ms. Carter started a green jobs training program at Sustainable South Bronx. As of this winter, said Ms. Williams, who directs the program — now called BEST, for Bronx Environmental Stewardship Training — 112 people will have learned about invasive species, tree husbandry and other subjects related to restoration and ecology. Of these 112 graduates, Ms. Williams said, 95 have jobs and 8 have returned to school.
“It was the only program I ever heard of in my community doing what they were doing at the time,” said Penny Matta, who works for the Bronx River Alliance and the city’s parks department.
As a child growing up in Hunts Point, said Ms. Matta, 37, she was never aware of the nearby river.
“You couldn’t see the water from the road and, in that neighborhood, you didn’t go down there by yourself,” Ms. Matta recalled. “Now I bring my kids to remove invasives on the weekends. All three of my daughters have done water-quality testing with me.”
A Sharp Trajectory
Ms. Carter’s recognition of the link between environmental improvement and economic revitalization set the stage for her national prominence. Green jobs are a major campaign in the environmental justice movement. At a meeting last year of the Clinton Global Initiative, for example, Ms. Carter and Van Jones of Oakland, Calif., started a job-generating group called Green for All.
“It was at the time I began to want to move to a national level and so did she,” said Mr. Jones, author of “The Green Collar Economy: How One Solution Can Fix Our Two Biggest Problems,” who got his start as a community activist in 1996 when he created the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights. “At this point Majora is going to be focusing exclusively on her consultancy, but we are still going to be partners. She took her clout and helped get us up and running.”
To his mind, he added, “she is the Rosa Parks of the green jobs movement.”
For many who know her, Ms. Carter’s trajectory was inevitable.
“I always thought she had the capacity to be a real star, and the South Bronx — and the Bronx as a whole — needs a star, someone who makes it a little bigger,” said Dart Westphal, president of the Mosholu Preservation Corporation, a neighborhood improvement organization active in the north Bronx. “She is really smart and really beautiful, and she just has a certain star quality.”
Others say that Ms. Carter has achieved some of her fame by taking or getting credit for accomplishments or funding that haven’t been only hers to claim, or for projects that have not yet been completed, such as the Bronx River Greenway.
But in the opinion of people like Mr. Westphal, the resentment some feel toward Ms. Carter grows out of the hero narrative that Americans — and the nation’s media — often gravitate toward.
“Majora is like Paul Bunyan; the stories have become legendary in some cases,” he said. “It is not that Majora has done anything wrong; it is that some other people working aren’t getting so much attention.”
Omar Freilla, coordinator of the Green Worker Cooperatives in Hunts Point, agrees.
“There is always the tendency to spin what is a group effort into an individual effort,” Mr. Freilla said. “The backlash is that people who are part of the community start to resent the attention.”
Ms. Torres of the Point acknowledges that roles do sometimes get muddied in press reports, but says that ultimately Ms. Carter is responsible for setting the record straight.
Sitting in the conference room in her new offices one day not long ago, Ms. Carter discussed the resentment some in her community feel about her celebrity. At first, she became uncharacteristically silent, and neighborhood sounds dominated: cars and trucks, screeching brakes, sirens.
The suite of offices occupies the second floor of a two-story building, above an auto-glass repair shop and just a block from the Bruckner and Sheridan Expressways overpass. Rainbow curtains billowed out above the gray street, making each window a different bright color.
But Ms. Carter has not gotten where she is by sitting quietly.
“There is a light that comes to this community because of what I have done,” she said, her usual moxie restored. “I am in a completely different milieu right now, and if I didn’t take advantage of that, then I would be a fool. If I wasn’t flipping out about being away so much, I would be at the Clinton Global Initiative right now. Because I could do that. Because I know there are people there who would like to talk to me.
“That is what I do,” Ms. Carter said. “Am I supposed to feel guilty because I have those advantages?”
Marguerite Holloway, director of the science program at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, is working on a book about nature and cities to be published by W. W. Norton.