Our Interview with Majora Carter: Greener of the Ghetto, Prophet of Local, Changemakers Judge
Majora Carter is a MacArthur “genius” award recipient for her work as “a relentless and charismatic urban strategist,” pioneering green-collar job training and placement systems through her organization, Sustainable South Bronx (SSB) in one of the most environmentally and economically challenged inner cities of the United States. The founder of Majora Carter Group recently served as a judge in Changemakers and Community Matters' Strong Communities challenge, which used an online competition to find innovative solutions from citizens who are collaborating to make their communities vital, enduring places.
Changemakers You are calling for a reassessment of whether the entire philanthropy and citizen sector works. Why?
Carter It worked out pretty well for a good portion of the 20th century in terms of scholarship funds, libraries, hospitals, orchestras, and museums . . . (but) the social gains that men and women died for in the labor, suffrage, civil rights, and environmental movements of the past, have been largely circumvented by outsourcing production to many countries that don’t recognize human rights, environmental protection, or democracy. Philanthropy would do more to achieve its social-justice goals by supporting jobs here in communities that need them.
Changemakers So you want to see funding shifted from projects that focus on people who are struggling with problems to enterprising projects that are succeeding?
Carter Yes, in a way, philanthropy is the victim of its own success. If the overall goal is to help the underdog, then you will always look for the underdog, often at the expense of anyone who looks like they are succeeding. That creates an incentive to look less a champion, and look more like a victim. When I ran Sustainable South Bronx, I had funders tell me that we were doing such great work, but that their money was going to groups that were having trouble and needed the support. It was a little frustrating.
Changemakers Should citizen organizations focus more on how they can flourish as enterprises?
Carter I would say to everyone out there that you should always be working to professionalize everything that you do. Take a good, hard look at your model – your proposal – and really focus on the enterprise part of social enterprise. Ask yourself: Would this work if you didn't have someone subsidizing it? That allows for more folks to get involved in the game. When it becomes a trend, and then a standard, the doors open and more opportunities come through.
Changemakers You're writing a series of essays where you call the failure to support such successful enterprises “The Death of Philanthropy.”
Carter The death of philanthropy is not so much that philanthropists are bad . . . . Visible projects on the ground are the most important first step. . . . (And) the system needs to support learners, not projects. We need to develop policies that get the early work off the ground and stimulate local economies.
Changemakers Do you see competitions, like the Changemakers Strong Communities challenge, as an important way to get citizen sector organizations and funders to be more innovative and successful?
Carter Crowd sourcing efforts like Pepsi’s Re-Fresh program are a step in the right direction. People know what sounds real, and good communications skills are part of being a responsible leader. So, democratizing philanthropy is very important.
Changemakers What was your experience working with a community of innovators and social activists who were submitting their solutions on Changemakers?
Carter This competition, and all these competitions, are important because they call up the idea that maybe we don’t have all the answers right now. I loved finding out about these wonderful people. They’re pushing ideas that are really revolutionary. They can change business. So I decided, if I’m ever in a position to support folks who have that kind of fire in them, I will do just that. Also, there's something exciting about expanding on a great idea and finding out what the potential is.
Changemakers You must appreciate how much it helps to be recognized and supported when you are trying to do something new to jump start social change.
Carter There were some ideas that are . . . way ahead of their time. I think the kind of work I do now – and that others take for granted – was way ahead of its time when I started doing it. And that hurt. Nobody believed in it back then. So I was able to relate to many of the entrants.
Changemakers You have a new public radio series called The Promised Land where you recently interviewed Wyclef Jean and talked about what it’s like to be a visionary and to want to solve the problems in your home community.
Carter Coming from a place like the South Bronx or Haiti – places that the larger society looks at as only capable of producing problems – it makes a mark on you. It makes you want to leave and never return. That’s what I did, through education, as soon as I could. But both Wyclef and I eventually returned to those places we were told to be ashamed of, and did something to make it better, for everyone. When my community became part of the environmental movement’s sacrifice-zone mentality, I saw an opening. The South Bronx and similar places were like a “fly-over state” in the environmental movement’s own back yard. So I know a little bit about how people from a “rust belt” or “coal country” or a “cancer alley” might feel. I laid the foundation for my work during the Bush II administration.
Changemakers Do you find that the innovators who are tackling the toughest problems are often forced to be the most creative and productive innovators?
Carter Speaking for myself, that process of helping to rebuild my environmentally and economically damaged community helped me repair something in myself. I am a stronger, smarter, and more centered person because I faced the things I had run from, in a constructive and sharing way. Wyclef has gone through a similar journey. In my experience, working under duress drives stronger approaches. You have to be more disciplined in your thinking in many ways because many don’t have the luxury of a Hollywood or a Wall Street funding elite corps (God bless them) for financial support. Innovators come out of garages – we had a run-down store front between a pawn shop and a liquor store – and poke holes in the established players’ games.
Changemakers Are these experiences part of what attracted you to being a judge in the Changemakers Strong Communities competition
Carter This is the kind of competition that I wish existed when I was doing my non-profit work. The whole idea of, “You don’t have to move out of your neighborhood to live in a better one” rests on strong communities where enough people see good things going on in their lives to make them want even more – right where they are. For as long as I can remember, so many people have thought of moving away from the South Bronx and places like it in both urban and rural places. Well, we as a nation have borrowed all kinds of money to build strip malls, mega-malls, wider roads, office “parks” and parking lots – while forgetting about the places we come from. I am proud to be a part of this movement because it makes economic and social sense for a majority of my fellow Americans.
Changemakers Your passion and reputation a social movement was spotlighted when you were invited to be an opening speaker for the Netroots Nation 2010 convention, where you linked environmental degradation and social deprivation.
Carter The people of Netroots Nation pioneered new avenues of political and journalistic power . . . so I am forever grateful to them and their hard, smart work. The Netroots Nation’s under-the-radar hustle, and subsequent attention they get, feels familiar. I love that community, and can’t wait to see how they grow.
Changemakers Economists have just announced that the U.S. economic recession ended more than a year ago, but continued high rates of unemployment appear to be frustrating people. Did you get a sense that people are feeling discouraged at that conference?
Carter “Recession” is one of those macro-economic terms that doesn’t really mean all that much to millions of Americans – except to make them more anxious or depressed, which leads them to support social and environmental decisions that may not be in their own best interest, or that of the country. I did get a sense that there is an overall dissatisfaction throughout the Netroots Nation community . . . that’s normal I suppose, but dangerous for the country.
Changemakers One of your key activities now is to mobilize people through your radio and television programs, and other media.
Carter One thing that my team learned over the last decade from the radical-right, was information organizing and dissemination. Making difficult issues more accessible and less scary or accusatory, is the most important part of it. We recognized that budgets and staff for print and broadcast media were getting cut across the board. The better we package images and information into usable pieces, the less likely our messages will get dropped or distorted. It takes a little longer, but it’s worth it. We are building change, and social media will speed that up, but only if we take responsibility for information and have a solid communications foundation.
Changemakers You learned early on about the power of media and Internet by being one of the very first speakers to be featured on the TED Talks website.
Carter TED is amazing for progress, and it has shaped my communications tremendously. Being part of the very first six TEDtalks released to the public in 2006 (with Al Gore, Hans Rosling, Sir Ken Robinson, Tony Robbins, and David Pogue) online for free was something else! The discipline involved to bring your message down to 18 minutes, in front of that audience – and then the world, helped me to focus my communication. TED gave me the gift of an established on-line presence within a context of truly great thinkers (not least of which are the TED staff themselves). The way that message has traveled on the web has opened doors for me – and for people I will never meet, but who write to me every day – from churches, large and small corporations, prisons, students and teachers at all kinds of schools, people at all levels of government, retirees who fled the Bronx when it was burning, and others.
Changemakers How did you break into radio, and develop your show the Promised Land, where you speak to visionaries who are changing lives and communities?
Carter It was a Corporation for Public Broadcasting competition. I was up against Julia Sweeney (who originated the role of Saturday Night Live’s “Pat”), and New York Times food writer and bestselling author Mark Bittman, so I was a long-shot. But our team included Peabody Award winning producer Magre Ostruchko, and others whose work you hear on NPR all the time. They really took the time to experiment with me in different types of recording situations. We discovered how I can work best, and then designed shows around that. The first season is online at thepromisedland.org, and includes those experiments. The second season, which we are recording now, is a refinement of that research and development phase. They should broadcast on public radio stations across the U.S. this fall. Last year we were carried by over 150 stations and most of the top markets. This second season we are distributed by American Public Media (Market Place, Prairie Home Companion, and Speaking of Faith), so I am very excited to be a part of that group!
Changemakers Now that you have some experience as a co-host of The Green program on the Sundance Channel, what would you like to do next with television?
Carter I’ve been doing my short pieces for the Sundance Channel for three years now. It has been an excellent relationship – Robert Redford is an angel, and the people who have been attracted to his work are exactly the kind of folks I enjoy working with. For the next round, we are putting some really great ideas together to make a show about local victories and challenges all over America. It’s is very much in line with the goals of the Strong Communities competition – but we have to “sex it up” a bit for TV.
Changemakers You’ve led a very full life already and are writing an autobiography. What can we look forward to learning about you that we don't know yet?
Carter This book is like a love letter to my community and every other one that yearns to be better. Hopefully, readers will learn that I am not all that remarkable. There are great people everywhere doing the things that will lead to better lives for everyone. My path into this work was purely accidental, and anyone can join in on making their neighborhood better at any age. It’s fun, it’s smart, and it creates wealth for a broad range of people.