Majora Carter’s Speech “Home(town) Security” Was Much More Than Improving The Environment

It seems only fitting that on Earth Day, Majora Carter would give a speech to the Penn State community, about her urban revitalization strategies and about their relevance to us. I had expected a speech full of scientific information about the nature of creating a sustainable environment within communities. Instead, I had the opportunity to listen to a deeply personal and humbling speech about the nature of identifying problems within the community and figuring out ways to solve them.

Carter began her speech by painting a portrait of her parents, who grew up in Georgia and moved to the South Bronx to build a better life for themselves and their family. This hopeful life wasn’t the reality for Carter, who grew up in an impoverished neighborhood where landlords would burn down their buildings because they could get more money from the insurance than they could from their tenants.

When Carter was eight years old, her older brother was killed in their neighborhood having been caught in gunfire. The violence and poverty that defined her neighborhood was enough for Carter to become determined to leave. Carter turned to her education as a way to work her way out of her neighborhood. Vowing never to return.

After earning a high school degree at The Bronx School of Science and Wesleyan University, Carter went to earn her masters degree at New York University. At this point however, she was broke and needed to move back in with her parents. The eight year old girl who promised herself she would never return to her neighborhood in the South Bronx returned, with more experience and distance. Carter describes her hometown as a “poor community of color that was politically vulnerable.”

It came to no surprise that a sewage facility was being built near her neighborhood. Carter explained that she could have ignored the news, but instead she actively decided to help change her community. This advocacy campaign would be the start of her career as an urban¬†revitalization¬†strategist. She explained that it was “not we what to fight against, but what we want to fight for.”

Carter’s career was launched after she founded a project called Sustainable South Bronx, where her first major project was cleaning up a park on the edge of the Bronx River. Carter would continue the rest of her speech explaining her various projects and accomplishments, pairing them with a presentation of stunning before and after pictures. She emphasized the importance of our perception of our community. If we see empty streets, closed down stores or decrepit parks we lose hope in the potential of our community and of ourselves. More than her work for the environment, Carter was passionate about helping the people in these communities, setting up important training and placement of people into green collar positions. She described these people as “generationally impoverished or in and out of the justice system.” Carter actively worked to get these people a means of income while improving the community. Carter also enlisted the help of high school students in some of her projects, renewing the communities’ faith in kids they had already written off.

Carter quoted Martin Luther King Jr. when he said “..I hope that you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience..” Of course MLK Jr. was concerned with civil rights, but Carter said that we need to be impatient with identifying and acting upon our goals for our community. Carter explained that the templates for change and her various projects in the South Bronx are applicable in all types of communities. She explained that every community faces problems; economically, socially, politically, etc., but it is about creating hope for the community. Carter explained that she grew up where the measure of success was getting out and creating a life for yourself outside of your hometown, leaving a sense of hopelessness for those left behind. Her goal is to create an economically diverse and environmentally friendly community in which members strive for success within the neighborhood.

When the speech was over, the room was open for questions. Audience members asked her questions about her work on many platforms, but it was one question that resonated with me as a member who knew very little of Carter prior to her speech. The audience member asked how Carter overcame her fears when tackling her monumental projects. Carter explained that whenever you gain greater success you become a greater target, but if you feel strongly about what you are doing you are doing something good. She explained that every step you take with a project you should know you are doing something good for your community, and you will be okay. She finished by saying: “Stay strong, and have fun.”

Carter believes in her neighborhood  and encouraged us all to do the same, to actively seek change and to not be afraid to address the problems within our own communities.

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