‘Self-gentrification’: Majora Carter on empowering communities

| Senior Scene Editor

To MacArthur “Genius” Grant winning urban revitalization strategist Majora Carter, issues of environmental neglect and economic disparities often go hand in hand. That’s why she’s dedicated much of her career to improving environmental and economic conditions in her hometown of South Bronx, New York City in order to preserve the community so that members no longer desire to leave in search of a higher quality of life.

Photo courtesy of Lucy Chen

Carter founded the non-profit Sustainable South Bronx, which works to address environmental and economic justice issues through programs such as green job training and community environmental initiatives in 2001, and she spearheaded the transformation of an abandoned lot along the Bronx River into the popular Hunts Point Riverside Park. She now runs the private, urban revitalization strategy consulting firm the Majora Carter Group.

Invited by the Student Environmental Council, much of Carter’s work in building up communities economically is rooted in identifying innovative sustainable practices. Her work has shown her that environmental issues affect not only the planet but its most marginalized people as well. Student Life had the opportunity to sit down with Carter after her Trending Topics talk in Graham Chapel Nov. 20.

“You’ll often find the same places that experience environmental degradation are often the poorest ones,” Carter said to Student Life. “And they’re usually marginalized in terms of race as well. So, all of those things are very much interconnected. I have been quoted before, saying something like if all the waste and power facilities and things of that nature were located in wealthy white communities, we would have had a clean and green economy a long time ago, and I truly believe that.”

The environmental justice issues Carter spoke of can also be found right here in St. Louis. An August 2019 report by the Washington University School of Law’s Interdisciplinary Environmental Clinic entitled “Environmental Racism in St. Louis” found that environmental hazards such as lead poisoning, illegal dumpings and air pollution disproportionately affect Black communities in the city.

In terms of economic development, the University itself has received criticism for its role in the surrounding University City community, as the University City-Washington University (UCWU) Advisory Committee wrote in a report to the University City City Council in July 2015 that “the relationship between Washington University and University City is out of balance,” as “University City taxpayers bear a burden from the large and growing amount of tax-exempt property within the borders of their city.”

Carter encouraged students and the University to dedicate more time and resources to investing in the future of surrounding areas, such as neighborhoods that must bear the “burden” the report noted.

“How cool would it be if the students at Wash. U. were actually a part of helping its University, its own University, be a part of the kind of development that was going to literally reinvest in communities that Wash. U. was actually a part of not making great,” Carter said. “It would be fun. That’s quite a legacy to take when you graduate.”

One specific issue Carter emphasized as a way students can engage with the University to improve its environmental practices was fossil fuels. She expressed surprise at learning that Wash. U. had not divested.

“Don’t underestimate your power, especially at a school this big,” she said. “You have to be consistent about getting that message out there. I mean, it’s possible… The other piece is being proactive as students about how you can use your big, wonderful brains, to actually not just talk about how you can divest from it, but how the University’s practices can also be used beneficially as a way to help support those communities that they might back in the past have not helped.”

Although Carter has been awarded for her work providing marginalized communities with the necessary resources and support to create their own sustainable economic initiatives, she has also received criticism within the South Bronx community for her support of what she calls “self-gentrification.”

A loaded term, many argue that anything associated with the term “gentrification” is detrimental to marginalized communities. In response to this, Carter noted the importance of working directly with members of a neighborhood to ensure that they are the beneficiaries of all economic and environmental progress.

“Do you build things that are for you, and by you? I mean, we did the work where we asked our neighbors [in the communities] that we worked in, ‘What do you want?’… They wanted the kind of community they felt safe and cared for and that actually had the kind of things that made them feel good about walking outside of their home… And then the next thing is, are there policies put in place that actually allow folks to do it, whether it’s access to capital, so that there are people who are doing that kind of work, who are able to be the developers on their own.”

Although taking on the large task of community development can be daunting, Carter’s experience facing opposition has taught her the importance of staying motivated to work toward a goal.

“You just have to start somewhere,” Carter said. “There isn’t a project that I’ve done to date where, you know, I woke up and suddenly everybody was like, ‘Yay, this is the exact thing that we are going to work on because this is great.’…It might take a little while for folks to see the value in it. But you’ve got to at least talk to folks, and then you’ll see that soon that maybe it was a dumb idea, or maybe it was a really good one and you just need to stick it out so people can see the value and join you. So stop under-estimating yourself.”

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