Majora Carter


An interview with urban

revitalization strategist Majora Carter


Delegates from about 190 countries are gathering over the next two weeks at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen. Although this is a landmark event, the largest meeting ever to discuss the environmental future of our planet. I’m a little concerned that we may not be talking about the most important issues.

The other night on NPR David Kestenbaum reported on the first day of the conference. In his report on All Things Considered he said everyone pretty much agrees that we have to do something about climate change. But how I see it where the problem lies is that the delegates also seem to share the same disagreements


In fact most of the disagreements, they’re all about money. Developing countries like Bolivia are arguing “Hey The global warming problem? you in the developed world made it. So to solve it you’re going to have to give us money to adapt and to keep our emissions down as we grow.


The industrial growth that caused the climate change crisis in the first place will apparently continue. You see it seems that the Copenhagen delegates are really only arguing about who gets to continue to pollute the atmosphere with carbon gas emissions and how much. The conversation so far seems to be relegated to trading carbon credits for cash so the developing world can continue to build factories and produce consumer goods. But at what cost? What about the environment? And what about millions of disenfranchised people in the U.S. and around the world that will be most directly impacted as our planet’s climate continues to change in the wake of human progress?

I won’t be attending the conference in Copenhagen. But a few weeks ago I did attend the Breaking the Color Barrier to the Great Outdoors conference in Atlanta. A few hundred African American Environmentalist gathered to talk among other things about the role people of color can play in protecting the natural world. There I met Majora Carter, the 2005 winner of the MacArthur Foundation Genius Grant. She received $500,000 to developed her ideas on creating sustainable urban communities. And while we didn’t talk about Copenhagen in particular Carter has a rather unique perspective how best to curb some of the social effects of Climate Change.


The McArthur Foundation dubbed me an urban revitalization strategist. Which I love, because of the work that I did around pioneering one of the first green jobs training systems in the country, really doing community based, led project development in one of the poorest congressional districts in the country that’s also one of the most environmentally challenged. And the idea was that you can do development that met both the environmental as well as economic needs of a very poor communities and give them the tools they need to enjoy it and be a part of its development.


The environmental issues that our planet faces aren’t limited to carbon emissions. Though green houses gases are indeed the primary cause of global warming it’s the institutions and practices of human behavior that create them. Carter believes that we need to develop community based initiatives that produce green jobs and allow ordinary people take an active part in the cessation carbon emitting industries.     In order to make lasting change in the fight again climate change we have to rethink how we develop and live in our urban centers. And for many communities around world that’s going to mean taking a hard look at issues of social justice, how we treat the urban poor as well as racial and ethnic minorities. I’m James Mills and you’re listening to The Joy Trip Project.


There are many, many challenges that are involved in doing any kind of development in urban areas. Especially those areas where you’ve had a tremendous amount of disinvestment that started at a very high level that lead to the displacement of people or the development of lost of noxious facilities in a community or manufacturing or jobs leaving a particular area. So when you couple all of that, lack of opportunities with a more degraded landscape, then you will layer in things like public health problems and crime and lack of educational attainment. When you put those things together, yes you do have a particular slew of problems that are exacerbated by the fact that people feel powerless because of all these things that have been heaped upon them.  So given that you know you got the fact that you’ve got people from the outside going “Oh! That’s a poor community and the don’t know any better.” And then you also have people on the inside feeling that they don’t deserve any better.  That is not an easy place to work. It’s just not. And unfortunately there’re a lot of places like that in the world.


But here we are. We find ourselves doing the work of creating environmental strategies. And in a lot of ways working toward issues of social justice where the environment is a direct result of inequality, in a lot of ways racially, socially economically for sure. How are African-Americans in particular impact in the type of work that you’re doing and hopefully aiming to correct.


The current state of the environment is a direct result of inequality, absolutely. The fact that public policy will look at a poor community, a poor community of color or any color frankly and see that, that would be a perfectly appropriate place to put some of the most toxic industries ever. And yes black people disproportionately in this country are the recipients of things like that. We are, poor black communities in particular.  So it affects everything. It affects public health. It affects education. It affects the kinds of jobs that we’d like to have or not have. It affects the incarceration rates. It affects how people view themselves within the context of being an American. It affects their self esteem. You name it. It affects it.  So that’s an issue we have to deal with.


People how find themselves in urban centers where their health and wellbeing is being impacted by their environment don’t always have the opportunity to think about recreation in an environmental standpoint. How do people of color find themselves enjoying the outdoors when they have so many other things to deal with.


There have been studies that show when people come in contact with nature that things improve for them. In particular, one of the most famous ones that I know about was done at the University of Illinois. They looked at Cabrini Green, one of the most notorious housing projects in the world as far as I know. They noticed that kids and families that lived near just a cluster of spindly little urban street trees that the test scores for those kids went up, that the self esteem rates for little girls also went up, which was evidenced in the fact that there was less teenage pregnancy amongst those young women. That there was less crime in those neighborhoods because people were outside more enjoying each other and their community more. So when folks tell me that there is this disconnect between people… especially the inner city poor and the environment, I say it’s because it’s not there. Because the second you build it, people start to respond it. For example, I spearheaded the development of one the first waterfront parks in our community.  People are different when they are there, because it’s going trees, it’s got grass, it’s got the waterfront there that like beacons to them. And you automatically become a different person when you’re there. You feel it. You k now that you’re in a safer space. So for all sorts of reason, not just the mental health and wellbeing but the other pieces you need that kind of environment in order to help us deal with some of the climate challenges that we’re experiencing right now. And I think people connecting, the idea that you can even in an urban area there actually does need to be nature we’ll actually help make the transition for them to understand the value of our public lands in terms of how that is also protecting us, that those natural resources they are carbon sinks. They do actually absorb storm water. They do all these things that are protective of the cities and our regions. So we need to be real mindful.

You know, the great migration really I think messed with I think black people in particular minds a bit on some level. You were part of the south and it was an agrarian society and you had to move up north to make it big and so you left all that behind. And I think it’s been generations of people who have been taught to believe that the land is something that we should not fully embrace as a part of ourselves. And I think we are reaping, reaping all the awfulness that comes from separating ourselves from your environment.


Is it safe to suggest or even assume that these urban communities can be gateways to the global preservation of wild and scenic places?


Hey have to think of our urban areas as gateways to our more natural areas because frankly 70 percent of our world’s populations is going to b in cities not too far in the distant future. So we have to help people live more sustainably and have the opportunities to do so in the urban areas as we help them understand the value of protecting our wild natural places as well for all the environmental services that they provide to the planet, air quality, all those wonderful things.  So given all that we need to be real clear about how we’re helping educate our people because, because it is absolutely an education, communications, PR, marketing campaigns. It’s all that and then some.


You can learn more about Majora Carter and her work as an urban revitalization strategist online at For the Joy Trip Project, this is James Mills.

New music this week by Teresa James & the Rhythm Tramps

Tresea James

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I'm a freelance journalist that specializes in telling stories about outdoor recreation, environmental conservation, acts of charitable giving and practices of sustainable living.

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