"There are South Bronxes all over the country," says Majora Carter, 43, seated in her down-to-earth South Bronx offices, adjacent to the highway and above an auto-glass repair shop. She rattles off a few: New Orleans, northeastern North Carolina, Detroit. That realization prompted her in 2008 to make the leap from not-for-profit to for-profit entrepreneur.
She founded the Majora Carter Group to take what she'd learned while transforming a dumping ground into a park in her distressed New York neighborhood and apply those lessons elsewhere. She already has projects going in all the above-mentioned locales. "We want to help folks unlock the potential in their communities," she says.
City planners, community organizers, professors, and environmentalists are turning to Carter because she's more than an outspoken neighborhood activist. "She's one of the parents of the green-collar-jobs movement," says Adam Werbach, chief sustainability officer at ad agency Saatchi & Saatchi.
Through TED presentations, numerous speeches, and appearances on the Sundance Channel series The Green, Carter has galvanized people around a provocative vision: Clean up environmental problems in a blighted community and you start a positive chain of events. Improve water and air quality, and you'll lower residents' health-care costs. Train them for new jobs restoring critical wetlands, or installing solar panels on roofs, and you'll lift families out of poverty. Those changes, in turn, create and attract businesses, and a community that was once a burden on local government becomes a resource.
Carter became interested in environmental justice in the late '90s, after New York City proposed building a waste-transfer station in her impoverished Bronx neighborhood. She threw herself into researching the health and environmental impact of the facility and eventually started her own not-for-profit, Sustainable South Bronx. During the next several years, the young activist helped thwart the transfer station, started one of the first green-jobs training programs in the country, and successfully lobbied to convert a dump into a waterfront park, a $3.3 million city project. A much larger $50 million 11-mile greenway is also planned. In 2005, Carter received a MacArthur Foundation genius grant, which catapulted her into the national media with comparisons to Jane Jacobs, the legendary urban activist.
In Detroit, Carter is raising $1.8 million to build two 10,000-square-foot greenhouses this year. To avoid weather fluctuations and to grow crops year-round, the facilities will use aquaponics, a system in which fish waste provides nutrients for the plants. The Detroit pilot is expected to create nearly 150 jobs. Employees will be given company stock. Over the next few years, Carter plans to expand into other economically depressed cities, launching the first national brand of locally produced urban vegetables and produce.
"We want to bring enterprise back to blighted urban areas," she says. "People there have been told nothing is ever going to change. The policy makers may feel the same way. We come in and say, 'Okay, let's do something different.' Because we want people to stand up and be empowered citizens of their little world."