When The New York Times contacted Majora Carter, the award-winning eco-strategist from the South Bronx, she was excited. “I thought it was going to be a story about real issues: food access, economic wellbeing and the health of our community,” Carter told The Slant in an exclusive interview last month. Instead, when she read the April 4th article, she found an imbalanced, gossip-laden piece passing for bona fide news.
The story began with a provocative title: “Hero of the Bronx Is Accused of Betraying It.” As Carter read it, she concluded that The New York Times had done a hatchet job on her controversial decision to endorse FreshDirect, the online grocery delivery service that plans to move its headquarters to the South Bronx in 2015. In the story, Carter’s detractors argue that the traffic and pollution generated from the company’s delivery trucks will harm a community already battling disproportionate levels of asthma and other health struggles like obesity and diabetes. Carter counters that the positives—job opportunities, better food options—trump the negatives. She also says that the company is making the necessary changes to its fleet of trucks to reduce its carbon footprint in the area.
The central premise of the piece hinges on the claims of former allies who argue that Carter betrayed the community by capitalizing “on past good deeds in the way that politicians parlay their contacts into a lobbying career, or government regulators are hired by the companies they once covered,” a point which Carter summarily rejects. In chronicling Carter’s spectacular rise from local, grassroots eco-activist to internationally renowned powerhouse, who garnered prestigious awards (a Peabody and a MacArthur Genius Fellowship, among others), to established for-profit green consultant, the story suggests that the 46 year-old has positioned herself to earn oodles of money from speaking gigs and lucrative business partnerships at the expense of the South Bronx.
But a crucial nuance the article missed was the inner battle Carter had waged to find her voice and use it in the service of the greater good without neglecting herself–not an easy task for most women, especially women of color. Her husband, James Chase, had even come up with a name for the condition she struggled to overcome: “entitlement deficit disorder.”
Before Carter became famous enough to warrant a bristling Times piece, she was, in fact, a self-described introvert, who diligently followed her mentor, the late community advocate, Yolanda Garcia, from one conference to another. In the South Bronx, the memory of Garcia, a diminutive Latina who passed away in 2005, is remembered with the same reverence as another fierce neighborhood defender Fiorello La Guardia, the New York mayor who fought corruption, racism, and modernized infrastructure in the city during the 1930s and 1940s.
For the young Carter, Garcia was a powerful force, raising the hope of urban revitalization for the poor. “I was so taken by her that I would have carried her bathwater,” Carter told us. At a public meeting one day, where Carter’s mentor was advocating for a better solid waste management system for the community, Garcia turned to her protégée and said, “Why don’t you lead the presentation?” Carter panicked, but her teacher insisted. “She said to me, ‘Majora, this is your community. You have every right to speak on its behalf,’” Carter recalls. “I remember being so afraid that I almost peed on myself.”
Not wanting to disappoint, Carter spoke to the group—albeit with shaky, hesitant words —and in doing so found her voice. Today, that voice, resolute and eloquent, is front-and-center in the environmental debate of the 21st century. But it seems, that as Carter continues to scale the walls of success and amplify her message, old collaborators want to pull her down and silence her—as does the country’s most esteemed publication.
When The Slant reached Carter by phone, she addressed the accusation that she’s taken credit for others’ eco-work, debunked the notion that she’s an uncritical partner of big business, and spoke eloquently about the racist and sexist impulse in our culture to want to dwarf a black woman’s rise to towering heights.