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.

You’re saying that you have to look at the big picture, but when you put it like that, there must be some people in the communities you’re working with who are simply overwhelmed by this prospect.

You’re right (laughs). Four hundred years of this and then Majora Carter from the Bronx is going to try to deal with it. It drives me a little crazy sometimes, I’ll admit.

How do you get people to think positively about this?

The same way that we’re trying to get our city and our state and anybody, you know, who’s looking at us to look at us differently. We try to help them see how developing their neighborhoods and being a part of the green economy will benefit them.

Human beings might not be that smart about supporting their own or preserving their species, but we’re pretty cool at understanding how this going to benefit us. And by “us,” I mean “me, myself and I.” And don’t forget that we did a really wonderful thing with the waste facility, when, at first it was just Guiliani telling people that he wants to build another waste facility. Back then, I remember hearing the resignation in people’s voices, people saying “Well, it’s the South Bronx. Clearly you’ve been away for a while, little girl. This is what happens here.”

And maybe I was away for a little while, and didn’t get it. But when we help people understand the links between their kids’ health and the waste facilities that were already here, they were like, “Oh, we’re not gonna let another one get built here,” and then the city got that.

Are you finding that contractors or specialists in the green economies are picking up the workers that you are training?

It’s a daily game, literally. We have to work to talk to potential employers about their needs and what they consider valuable in an employee. We have to work that way and see what they’re doing so we can make sure that we have the best possible person out there for folks.

Describe the job-training program.

It’s a 10-week program that we run three times a year. We can handle up to 20 people per semester, and the students learn skills in a variety of fields from urban forestry management to green roof installation, from wetland and stream-bank restoration to brownfield remediation. Graduating students get two certifications in cleaning up contaminated land safely. They also get a whole bunch of other certifications, everything from first aid and CPR.

It’s a pretty intensive program, but what’s really important is the fact that we try really hard to work on the development of life skills, because so many of the folks that come through our program had actually never worked; many of them were formerly incarcerated. These are not folks with the best job skills out there, and so we have to teach things like getting up on time and so forth.

It’s important for workers to understand that they’re not lone wolves when they go out on a job. We need to be helping people deal with some of the really antisocial behavior that has often become perfectly acceptable in our communities. It’s a really difficult thing, but many people really struggle to make sure that folks realize that they don’t have to be like that. So, the soft skills, or life skills, as we like to call them, are really important for us to learn and teach our young people.

Are employers hesitant to get on board?

No. Everything that we do is seriously all about building relationships. So we have to talk to the employers, because much of the work doesn’t really require a college education, but base-level training. We’re finding that most employers are thrilled to have an employee who will show up on time, understands how to be part of a team, and has a basic knowledge in horticultural infrastructure and stuff like that. And that’s what we know we can give folks, which is really great.

We’re not asking anybody to make amends for our people. We are training our folks to compete and be marketable. We’re not asking for any handouts. We’re not asking for them to accept second best. We can’t do that. We fully expect our people to be able to explore and do really well. We’re expecting them to have aspirations in their thinking and for their own career. Most folks who come to us are adults. This program is not for anybody under 18. As a matter of fact, we find that the best people in our program are in their mid-30s.

Let’s end on a political note. What kind of dialogue would you like to see during the upcoming presidential elections?

I don’t think any of the candidates truly understand what the green economy can mean for our communities. People are still looking at it from more of a mainstream kind of environmental perspective, which doesn’t really include the capacity to develop poor communities and to bring them into this economy. It is much, much more about the elite. And I think even all of the candidates, to some extent, are more influenced by that.

However, I think that the capacity for change is more heightened. I think in Obama there is a willingness to really explore new things. I think he’ll be a much quicker study and won’t be afraid to make the kind of changes that we need on a federal level to support a green economy, because it’s not just going to be groups like Sustainable South Bronx that are doing wonderful green-collar job-training programs.

We need to make sure that there are federal investments. I’m calling it the Green New Deal that actually supports the kind of major investment incentives that support the birth, the maintenance, and the growth of the green economy with results that are from the top down and the bottom up. We are looking to close the gap between rich and poor, and making life green for all — the name of the group that I co-founded along with Van Jones.

This requires the vigorous advocacy and public relations campaigns that both you and Mr. Jones have embarked on.

Yes. It’s a punishing schedule (laughs). But it’s not a pie-in-the-sky kind of thing. This is a really beautiful way to make these things happen.

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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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