The Green New Deal

Majora Carter saw natural beauty and economic empowerment in her South Bronx neighborhood where others saw only a dumping ground. She's changing the urban landscape in a way that's been an eye-opener to people around the globe.

How did this project and projects like it help to fuel the green economy? What happened when people were employed to work on the restoration?

We noticed that, as we worked to restore the waterfront, people were being imported into the community to do this work. It was, after all, restoration work, and obviously involved a good deal of skill, but it was a skill that you can train somebody to do.

And we asked ourselves, “Why aren’t we teaching our young people and adults about how to do this?” That’s when it occurred to us that people from within our community could serve as stewards of their environment — making sure that they have both a personal and a financial stake in it.

We were able to get some initial funding to do a Bronx River restoration job training program that we called River Heroes. The goal was that folks got the training, went through this fast-track program for the project.

Then, what happened was that we realized there’s actually even more opportunities out there. We started thinking about expanding our reach so that we could work to make our students more marketable and to see what other opportunities there are. After doing some market research ourselves, we realized that there were landscaping companies doing things like brownfield remediation. There were folks who needed tree pruners — you name it — any kind of thing that had to do with horticultural infrastructure, there was a need for it.

We realized that we had to tailor our program to make sure that we were training people to do that, and the program has grown since. For instance, we’re working now to move into solar installations and also building retrofits and performing energy audits, because we see an upcoming market, [for which] we want to prepare our students to perform well!

Sustainability is a very sexy term right now, but it probably still doesn’t carry a lot of weight with some people. What are some of the obstacles you’ve hit in getting people to understand what Sustainable South Bronx is trying to achieve?

I’m front-row center for so much of this, it’s like living and working in an environmental-justice community. We’re living in a city that professes to be one of the greenest cities in the world, and it’s just not true when it gets right down to it. When you look at “the shining jewel” of New York City, which is Manhattan, you might see a nice, clean, shining jewel. Yes, it is clean. Yes, it is booming. Yes, it is lovely, you know? But, you have to ask the question: “Does Manhattan handle any of its own waste?“The answer would be “No.” If you ask the question: “Does it deal with any of its own power-generation needs?” The answer would be “No.” If you ask if it’s a place where you can find different people with mixed incomes living in one geographic area? The answer would be “No.”

How is that sustainable, especially for the other communities, when the outer boroughs of New York City are bearing the burdens of Manhattan’s glory? I find that kind of scary, when it gets right down to it.

It’s not just talking about New York City. I’m saying this for all over the country, because what we have in so many of our cities are many, many poor communities of all colors, that are struggling, and they’re being left out of much of these economic booms again. We’re trying to make the link between living and working, from health impacts of global warming and poverty, and even prisons.

You know, when I say something like that, most folks will say, “Well, you need prisons.” And while that’s true, when you’ve got poverty, you’ve got diminished opportunities for employment. It’s easier for people to end up in jail because there are the attractions of the illegal economy. Combine that with lack of greenery, you have higher stress rates. You’ve got higher crime. You’ve got higher cost to government, businesses, and communities.

What we’re trying to do, in terms of green jobs, is link the two ideas of poverty alleviation and environment remediation so that they’re dependent on each other. And it helps to support the environment. The economic fabric of communities needs to be strong if we’re going to have strong communities. Our country is simply a bunch of communities all pushed together and we need them all to be strong.

This goes back to your point about holistic planning. Looking at New York City, how has Sustainable South Bronx gone about working with city and state government to achieve those holistic goals?

It’s difficult, because right now their idea of “holistic” is putting a Band-Aid on a gaping wound. For example, they’ll plant a whole bunch of trees, but many of those trees will die because we haven’t built in stewardship opportunities to support them. And as for quality of neighborhoods, even though we are living in an era of falling crime rates, the city is trying to build a huge 1,500-bed jail in the neighborhood! Up until very recently, they wanted to build it on a site that was a really wonderful place, a unique place in New York City. The area is 28 acres that had both barge and rail access, and it’s where we are actively pushing for an eco-industrial center, which is a collection of businesses that use recycled materials as raw materials.

So, here we are providing both economic development and solid-waste mitigation through what could be a beautiful facility and provide hundreds and hundreds of jobs. Fortunately, the city backed off that particular site, but they’re still hell-bent on building this jail.

We’ve got a really high unemployment rate here. We should be looking at people not as problems. We need to get people to think about quality of life and putting food on the table not in terms of selling a couple of bags of weed, but through opportunity and what’s out there for them. That is something that our city has to take responsibility for. It hasn’t.

So Sustainable South Bronx’s goals can be attained, but the city needs to get on board. That’s basically what you’re saying?

We need large-scale training opportunities. And by that, I mean, large-scale (laughs). I mean, believe me, we do great work in my agency, but it’s small, you know?

We are limited by the private dollars that we raise. However, if the city wants to make some real investments that could pay dividends back to the communities that had been formerly written off, it could invest in training people to do the kind of environmental services that are going to help them mitigate and manage their storm water. For instance, it would cost the city billions to install green roofs [on government buildings]. The city is going to need trained individuals to do energy audits. The communities and the city would be one step ahead of the game, and people would not have to be running around trying to make money in the underground economy.

And then, on top of all of that, you add the cost savings in terms of public health, because, again, if cities are cooler, well, you know the rest. Hotter places are point sources for greenhouse gases — like New York City. The hotter the areas are, the more asthma you have. So, why aren’t we working to cool our cities and making sure that all of those trees live!

I’m more concerned about the fact that there are huge public-health costs, because poor people do not pay for their own care. Somebody else does, whether it’s the city or the state, and we need to recognize the value of investing in people and the environment and at the same time try to recoup the benefits of making people a part of their own city development.

It would seem that, outlined logically as you have been trying to do all around the country, it should make perfect sense to a lot of folks. But are you finding it hard for government to respond enthusiastically in working with poorer neighborhoods?

The biggest obstacle is that investments in people like this are not considered important. We’ve got the commissioner of the Department of Corrections running around talking about how wonderful this jail is going to be. Also, who’s being held accountable for how crappy our schools are? Or figuring out ways that we can actually be supportive of people?

I think, when it comes right down to it, there are some people in our society who place different values on different people. In our communities, we’re not considered particularly valuable. It’s because — I believe — we are poor and because we are of color.

Because of that, certain things are thought about us, and there’s really not much we can do to deal with that other than the approach that we’re trying to do. It’s just the culture that we live in now. But it’s costing us. The social mores that we hold dear are costing us more than they are creating for us.

But I’m hoping that people start to realize that it is costing society as a whole, because these are the kind of things that you just don’t see in wealthier, whiter parts of the city. These are things that are obviously not in our best interest as a society.

So “Greening the Ghetto,” to use the Sustainable South Bronx term, is far more than fixing up waterfronts and creating jobs. It’s a way of life.

Just look at all of the research and the information that’s out there. If you green up cities, then you have healthier places — physically, spiritually, and economically. We need to look at everything that we’re doing in that context, particularly our cities, but everywhere, quite frankly.

But the roots of this country I think run really deep, and I do think the value that’s placed on poor people and poor people of color is really not that high.

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Matthew Brian Hersh served as senior editor at Shelterforce from March 2008 to October 2012. He studied English at Rutgers University and has spent his professional career in journalism, policy, and politics.


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