May 22, 2013
THE OTHER SLANT: Eco-Strategist Majora Carter Calls Her New York Times Profile Racist and Sexist
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’s 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 and 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.
So, what did you think of the Times story?
I was thrilled when I first discovered that The New York Times was even interested in probing the question of how do we develop relationships with business that promote local economic activities helpful for our community. But I was disappointed because when the Times finally paid any attention to the Bronx and to issues that are important to us, particularly to black women, the only thing they did was write a gossip piece about a person of note from that community..
How did you deal with your discontent with the story? Did you write a letter to the editor?
No, I spoke to the editorial person who runs the department there, and she stood behind Winnie Hu, the writer, one hundred percent. She thought it was factually accurate. To which I replied, “Oh, so gossip is considered accurate? Really?…. I didn’t realize you guys were competing with Page Six.” She responded, “Wait, so you’re saying we write gossip? I think it was very fair and balanced.” Ugh. So it was kind of sad. But life goes on.
Even as far back as 2008, The New York Times subtly questioned your authenticity when it described you tearing up every time at the same part of a stump speech you deliver around the country. How do you think gender and race play into some of the more trivializing observations and criticisms?
I don’t think that I’d be getting any of these criticisms if I weren’t a black woman who was born poor. Those are my cardinal sins. But because I am successful, I must be inauthentic. I find that to be so racist. It’s like, How dare I rise above my rank and actually do the things that I’ve done? How dare I stand next to the big boys of all colors with a smile on my face and get paid? I don’t think that being fairly attractive works in my favor here either, which is really kind of pathetic, but life goes on. I thought the mega-watt smile or whatever the Times called my smile was just hilarious. Yeah, I was born with good teeth. Sorry…
Do I have to be a single mom on welfare who looks like she lives in a food desert to be considered “authentic”? What does that say to young people in our community? I’m working to create the infrastructure that’s going to make you understand that this could become a better place for you to be. I’m saying, “You know, you don’t have to move out of your neighborhood to live in a better one.” Right now, we are taught that anybody with any wherewithal is gonna get the hell out of Dodge.
So take us back to how this whole story around FreshDirect transpired? How did you and the local environmentalists from your hometown, the South Bronx, end up on opposite sides of the debate about FreshDirect?
It started early last year in 2012 when we kept getting creepy emails and phone calls from a group that was really upset about FreshDirect moving into the South Bronx. At that point, I had been working in the private sector for four years, not doing local grassroots stuff. The people who were calling were kind of bullies and abusive to my team, they would say things to the effect of, stand with the “community” or else. It wasn’t a priority for us because we weren’t engaged in the issue of FreshDirect moving to the South Bronx. The group was really upset that this company was coming, particularly because it is a truck-based business, which consumes diesel. They thought it would add to the South Bronx’s environmental burdens, and there’s some validity to that. But there were advocacy groups working on the ground, and I figured, okay, they’re all allegedly good environmental groups. If there’s something wrong, they’ll bring it up.
But what it did do was make us a little curious about FreshDirect and when I looked into it, I got a different picture from what this protest group was presenting. They claimed FreshDirect made all sorts of labor violations, such as paying people minimum wage to work in freezers overnight, that they were union busting…all this stuff.
Were those claims accurate?
No, none of that stuff was true. About one third of the force is unionized, and at three different times, the part of the workforce that was non-union voted against joining. They claimed workers were being paid very little money, but actually FreshDirect paid on average close to $13 per hour with a significant benefits package. I found out that the company, on its own, had been using bio-diesel instead of diesel for the past seven years, and that their plan was to move to the South Bronx and open a Compressed Natural Gas (CNG)––fueling station, which would power their fleet, and be available to other trucking infrastructures within the community. It’s a lot of work to convert to CNG because right now there isn’t any place to fuel, even if they wanted to use the much less polluting stuff. And so I was like, Oh that’s interesting. Nobody’s ever said anything about that either.
Will you talk a little more about the idea that FreshDirect’s presence in the area would offer locals’ access to better food options?
You know, here we are in the South Bronx. It’s a food desert. Personally, I usually go downtown to Fairway, because I live right on the 6 line, and it’s 20 minutes on the subway. Fairway’s a decent supermarket, with the best produce and all the good stuff that you could ever possibly want for cheaper and certainly better quality than is available in in the South Bronx – where the quality sucks and the prices are high.. FreshDirect did a cost comparison on a bunch of their products, the same ones that you can buy in the South Bronx, are actually ten to fifteen percent cheaper on FreshDirect. I found out later that FreshDirect, on their own, had tried to do develop an EBT program, so they could bring their service into poor communities, to people on food stamps. And it wasn’t an altruistic thing. They were doing it because it’s a $7 billion dollar market. But from where I sat, it was clear that our communities suffer from a lack of access to good food. And if FreshDirect can tap into that market, provide better produce and food to people who use food stamps, then chances are those people are going to be eating better.
You argue that FreshDirect would also create more jobs for the community. How many?
They were creating a thousand new jobs in addition to employing about 2400 people now. About 500 of them are working from the Bronx currently. Both New Jersey and Long Island were courting FreshDirect to leave New York City and had a subsidy package available for them. New York City offered them one as well, with a portion of the subsidies to job creation. I didn’t think it would be wise for us to lose the jobs we currently had in the City, or lose out on the prospect of gaining more.
The Times describes a scene where a community activist shows up at your door seeking help to prevent FreshDirect from moving to the South Bronx, insinuating that your office was unhelpful because he didn’t have an appointment or represent a corporate interest.
Apparently, last summer, a man came to my office. But I didn’t know about it until I read the Times article. The writer set up this image that my office didn’t want to even open the door to him. First of all, before we moved in, my office was a methadone clinic. The person who opened the door didn’t know this man and wasn’t going to let him inside. And there’s only one exit. So if a strange man comes to the office and there was a lone woman upstairs in the office, then no, she isn’t letting him in. Who would do that? But that’s not the scenario the Times painted..
The article also notes that you requested a $500 fee for a mere consultation.
When our receptionist gave a card to the guy, she also told him to please call for an appointment. They wrote us, and James, my husband, sent an email, which we’re happy to share with you. It was a standard email we send to everybody. It simply states: “We generally charge $500 for an initial consultation, to provide an assessment, etc. Is this what you were thinking? And we’re happy to help you any way we can.” We never heard anything back from them – so we followed up to make sure they were connected with what they needed, and still never heard back, so we dropped the matter all togeteher. But the Times turned it into us demanding money. Believe me, we do plenty of pro bono work. But of course, we let folks know that I have a business, and part of what we do is help people understand that the environmental world includes entrepreneurship. The letter is one way we help people understand that.
Much of the criticism hurled at you reminded us of how harshly Gloria Steinem was judged by some of her feminist peers. There was a lot of jealousy when she became the face of the movement and gained greater influence. People felt she took credit for the larger community’s work and some have accused you of the same, according to the Times’s piece.
Interestingly, The New York Times didn’t mention anything specific that I was taking credit for. I would like to know. Believe me, there are plenty of things that I actually could take credit for that I don’t even bother talking about because I know people are really attached to them and don’t want me associated with them. One example, was the Bronx River Watershed Alliance. I was a founding member and worked to get the State and the City to relinquish their hold on a portion of the Sheridan Expressway, which was this under-utilized highway that goes nowhere. Literally. We wanted to push the planning process to transform it because it really doesn’t serve a major use at all in terms of transportation., but it separates people from a beautifully restored riverfront. We worked on it for a number of years and got to the point where it was getting a lot of attention. The idea for the project had precedence around the world in places like Milwaukee and Seoul, Korea, where cities literally tore down pieces of expressways that no longer served a purpose and transformed them into useful pieces of community infrastructure. I got the feeling that folks would prefer if I wasn’t involved, so I was like, you know what, it’s yours. I’m not even going to associate myself with it. It’s kind of sad now because they lost some momentum. And I’m not saying it’s because I wasn’t involved anymore. But I can say they lost a person who was willing and able to talk to potential partners, outside the social justice circle in a way where they didn’t feel like they were being preached to. They lost that “high-wattage smile” The New York Times said I had for the cameras.
Yeah, the reference to your smile implied that you are a phony camera-ready opportunist.
Actually, a lot of people really do like me for a reason: I’m nice. I don’t treat people like hell and they like having me around. I was able to get them into rooms that they were not able to get into before. But man, you should hear some of the things that didn’t make it into the article that this reporter told me I was being accused of. For example, there’s this one guy. I’m sorry, it makes me laugh every time that I think about it! I honestly don’t remember his name, but he accused me of being personally responsible for an organization going out of business because I didn’t personally fund it. Like it’s my fault that the organization was mismanaged or didn’t provide the service that it was supposed to? The reporter also said sources accused me of getting people kicked out of conferences, that I was hiring litigators to squash these poor community groups on the ground who were saying bad things about me. I was like, Oh my god. Really?
The Times mentioned you now live in your husband James’s spacious, rent-stabilized loft in TriBeCa. So let’s clarify. Where do you live?
It’s still his apartment, of course we stay there. I work in cities all over the country, and my husband had a place that preceded our marriage. What does that have to do with anything? That was incredibly creepy. But mentioning where my husband lives made it pretty clear that The New York Times was writing a gossip piece. The writer had no interest in the issues at all, and she came right out and said, “You know, I’m really interested in why there are activists in the South Bronx that hate you so much.” Seriously?
The Times quoted Eddie Bautista, the executive director of the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance, talking about the “breathtaking ironies” between you accusing activists of accepting money from companies who’ve harmfully impacted the community and you receiving a consulting fee from FreshDirect.
I thought his accusation was simplistic. Look, he’s an environmental justice activist. The bulk of their work is about protesting stuff. So in that regard, I guess I was never a very good environmental justice activist because I always focused on developing solutions to problems. It seemed really silly to separate the environment from the economics of the situation, and I wanted to find ways that meaningfully brought the two of those things together in the service of our community. And when I kicked the tires of FreshDirect what I saw was a company’s willingness to engage with the community. And I thought with the right folks on the ground, they could develop the kind of public-private partnerships with FreshDirect that would ultimately support our community. That’s what I looked at. Look, we live in a capitalist society and I don’t think that we are going to change things with only the power of the people. I’m sorry, but the non-profit industrial complex that supports the groups that have been attacking me is not going to be there to support the economic wellbeing of the people on the ground. It’s not entirely their job, so I looked for ways to create the partnerships that will support people on the ground. That’s what I’m concerned about.
What’s your history with Bautista?
I was a member of citywide alliance that he organized and I had great respect for him. Sometimes I get the feeling that some of my former colleagues feel as though I have stolen their MacArthur. Like if it weren’t for me, they’d have all sorts of awards, as well as funding. But I haven’t taken a penny of non-profit funding in five years. Raising money was difficult for me. There was this impression that somehow I opened my mouth and money would just fall on me. Nothing could have been further from the truth. Nothing. I literally had to fill well over a quarter of a million dollars in budget holes because foundations stopped funding my work, assuming that somebody else was going to take care of us. So I got crafty and figured out that people pay money to speakers at conferences. And that’s how I funded my little grass-roots non-profit in the South Bronx. I brought in money in from around the world to do work in the South Bronx. A third of my budget came from those sources by the time I left. And I knew that the second I left Sustainable South Bronx they’d have an easier time getting funding than when I was running it. In fact, they filled the budget gap and then some. It was unbelievable how quickly they were fully funded when a white woman was running it.
But you’d left a solid structure in place before you left.
The structure was strong and the staff was amazing so not even a misguided board of directors and their unqualified choice for a leader and could destroy it.
How do you remain a leader with a strong voice in the presence of so much criticism?
I squashed my own voice for so many years. It’s really interesting: My husband diagnosed me with this condition he called EDD: Entitlement Deficit Disorder. It’s true. A lot of women have it. I don’t assume that anybody owes me anything. As a matter of fact, I just assume that nobody is going to be supportive and that it is up to me to make myself an attractive player in whatever game I’m playing. My father was the son of a slave who grew up with Jim Crow in Georgia. So this man witnessed the basest kinds of human behavior, which he was subjected to just because he happened to be a big old black man. I don’t pretend that I’m anything except what I am. Because I happen to be black, female and born poor, I don’t take anything for granted. I absolutely assume that I have to work really hard and find ways to help people see me as valuable. And I do feel that it is my job, through my work, to support communities to feel the same way and recognize when they do have something to contribute. It can be incredibly fun and rewarding, and sometimes it’s hard. Most of the time it’s hard, but the light at the end of the tunnel is that you see change that supports people you love and care about. Those people are my clients. Not the Eddie Bautistas of the world. I could give a crap about them. I never felt like they ever really liked me, and now it’s really clear how much they don’t like me. And you know what? It’s good to know these things.
What is your vision for the South Bronx?
Overall, I want to see happy, healthy people who feel as though they have something to contribute to society. Period. And right now the South Bronx has people who frighten themselves off before they even get in the game. And that has everything to do with the poor environmental conditions they see on a daily basis, you know, the kind of development brought in. There are plenty of people who are comfortable with the South Bronx being this place where there’s a lot of dependency and not a whole lot of power, which has worked to the benefit and profit of others. That makes me really sad.
We see a similar phenomenon in other cities, such as Detroit, around the U.S.
There are South Bronxes all over the country. At this point, I think the South Bronx is a metaphor for what can go wrong when we’re not actively promoting the kinds of economic, social and environmental development that support people’s wellbeing. We’ve got a long history of doing that, and quite frankly, folks in different parts of the social justice world, including affordable housing, haven’t addressed all the needs of people so that they can actually thrive, not just have a roof over their heads, not just have a social service net, but how to provide the kind of situation that engenders dignity.
How does the infighting in the world of environmental activism stymie progress in the South Bronx?
Well, they sit back and bitch about me instead of actually working. They think I’m the problem. It’s like, No, while you’re yakking, I’m working. Sorry guys. That’s what really has been going on all these years.
In the Times article, Chris Norwood, the executive director of Health People, applauded your efforts to forge public-private partnerships to benefit the local economy. Why are such relationships the way of the future for the South Bronx and communities like it all over the world?
The development of a public-private partnership means that everybody has something to contribute. I want people to feel that they’re in powerful positions. When you’re in a partnership, you’re bringing something to the table that your partner wants and needs. If you don’t feel you have something to offer, you’re always going to be perceived as something less. Period. Everybody’s got something to give. And I want community groups to behave in a way where they clearly know they have something to offer to local businesses coming here. It’s their job to raise the bar for what’s gonna pass for good corporate behavior.
We scanned groups whose work would see the benefit of a company like FreshDirect and how the company would support the groups’ goals. Not the other way around. But these organizations have to put themselves in a position so that FreshDirect would see them as a powerful partners. Some immediately got that because they see themselves, not just as people with their hands out, but as folks with hands extended with something to offer, which is a very different posture. So people like Chris Norwood, Steve Ritz from Green Bronx Machine, and a bunch of others, who didn’t make it into the article, agree with me. Their thinking is, “We can help companies be better neighbors,” or, “Let’s make sure businesses understand how they need to conduct themselves while they’re here.”
Was there anything crucial you told the reporter that didn’t make it into the story?
She kind of turned the positive things I said about myself into me bragging about my work. She said to me, “I’ve never seen activists hate a regular person–unless that person was a politician–as much as they hate you.” And I said, “Well I’ve never seen that happen to a regular person either, but I’m not a regular person. Listen, I won a MacArthur. I won a Peabody Award. I’ve been on stage with Bill Clinton. I’ve called on the film actress Kerry Washington to come to my neighborhood to support other women in the community, and she came. I have made great projects materialize. I’ve done a bunch of things. So no, I guess I’m not a regular person and I kind of understand why they’re behaving this way and acting so jealous.” But the reporter turned that into me boasting about my accomplishments and the people I knew.
The Times’s main point is that you no longer represent the community’s interest and that you’ve “capitalized on past good deeds in the way that politicians parlay their contacts into a lobbying career….”
I’m not a non-profit. I’m taxed at a ridiculous rate. Because I am a public person, I don’t write off many of the things that I probably could because I’m afraid that somebody’s going to accuse me of doing something wrong. We are so above board in all of our dealings. All the quote-unquote community projects I do are on my own dime. I’ve been researching and doing all sorts of work around redevelopment, taking surveys and asking for community participation. I’ve asked locals for their input about redevelopment goals and projects that we want to work on. So I’ve been out there at my own expense, soliciting input, feedback and support from folks,.
What other projects are you working on now?
A small piece of what I’m doing is some voiceover work for this really interesting documentary that Penn State Public Television is doing about green infrastructure to deal with climate change. They went around the country to places like the South Bronx, Philadelphia and San Antonio, to look at different community-based approaches. I’m really proud to be associated with this.
But the primary bulk of our work now is around real estate development and using it as a tool and a platform for social, environmental and economic development in poor communities.
That’s a hot sector in the green economy….
After speaking and being on the road a lot, I got wonderful insights into real estate development around the country, particularly in poor communities. I noticed there are only two kinds of real estate development that happen in poor neighborhoods. One is the kind that assumes that the neighborhood is going to get better and gentrified and the poor will be displaced. The other kind assumes that a level of poverty will always be maintained there. You see it with highly subsidized affordable housing, which is brought to areas where only the poor will live. So poverty becomes concentrated and there’s little room for those communities to grow and develop. It exacerbates brain drain from the community and all of the other things associated with having a place that only has poor people in it. I want to use real estate development as a way to increase economic diversity by attracting the kind of industries that are on the economic growth trend trajectory. But I also want to prepare people to participate in those shifts. We’re going to see different types of domestic manufacturing and technology in the 21st century. It’s all about figuring out how to prepare the land and get people to participate in this new economic boom and stop keeping people so poor that they can only stay in poor communities. So that’s what we’re working on right now.
Would you say that the environmentalists that are critical of you in this article are missing the economic piece from their ideas?
Let me give you a very sad, horrible example. I wrote the proposal for the South Bronx Greenway that brought $1.25 million dollars worth of planning money into the South Bronx to design this greenway for physical activities, storm water management, etcetera. In my mind, it was all about planning community infrastructure to promote positive economic development in our communities. Building greenways, for instance, will attract a certain kind of economic development that we do not have right now. I also realized the construction in the area would be crazy big. There was about $25 million to start building the first phase of the South Bronx Greenway, but when the economic stimulus package happened, and it was a shovel-ready project, another $25 million dollars came down the pike, bringing $50 million dollars into the South Bronx. Five-Zero million. Unprecedented.
Although I had reached out to both the Sustainable South Bronx and The Point, asking if there was anything I could do to be helpful as the next phase of the project came up, nobody responded. And I was like, Okay, as long as the two groups that are allegedly working on the Greenway make sure that the people from the local community will be employed as this thing is being built, great. But when construction started I saw pretty much only white people working on it, clearly not from the South Bronx. They clearly did not get the connection between economic needs and the environment – it’s not that difficult to get at leaest a few local hires and apprenticeships out of a $50M project, they just didn’t do it.
The mentality seems to be that there aren’t enough resources.
I know! But there is enough. There always is. I stopped fighting for crumbs a long time ago. I’m like, You know what, I’m going shopping and we’re gonna make a really big pie. And then we’re gonna go shopping again and we’re gonna make an even bigger one. I am done with this scrounging around on the floor because there’s always money. And when I see somebody, whether it’s from my community or another community like mine, doing great, I’m like, Oh snap, seriously? Home girl did that? This is powerful! And I think that’s the experience of most people because they’re inspired by the example.
The folks who contributed to that article are a very small minority. There are a whole lot of other people who are just like, You go baby. When you succeed, we all succeed. And there are way more of those supportive voices, than there are of these petty people, who really just need to love themselves.