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Interview with Majora Carter: Achieving Social and Environmental Equality

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Mission Markets Interviews Majora Carter about Social and Environmental EqualityWe interviewed thought leader Majora Carter, who shares with us her perspective on impact investing, environmental and social justice.

Majora Carter founded Sustainable South Bronx in 2001 and by 2003 coined the term, “Green The Ghetto” as she poineered one of the nation’s first urban green collar job training and placement systems. Her organization spearheaded new policies and legislation that fueled demand for those jobs, improved the lives of all New Yorkers, and has served as a model for the nation. Since 2008, her consulting company has been exporting Climate Adaptation, Urban Micro-AgriBusiness, and Leadership Development strategies for Business, State and Local Governments, Federal Agencies, Foundations, Universities, and economically under-performing Communities. She has received an award from John Podesta’s Center for American Progress and a Liberty Medal for LIfetime Achievement from Rupert Murdoch’s: New York Post. She was listed by Fast Company Magazine as one of the 100 Most Creative People in Business, was described by the NY Times as “The Green Power Broker”, and was recently dubbed “The Prophet of Local” by the Ashoka Foundation’s Changemakers.org.

Q: How do you define environmental equality?

A: Well, if we look around, it is evident that some people are breathing dirtier air than others because of things like power plants, sewage treatment facilities, transport infrastructure, oil refineries, mountain top removal coal mining, etc. Some children go to schools built on brown-fields (chemically contaminated land). Some people live among well maintained trees and green open spaces, whereas others are living without those things and the attendant higher temperatures associated with no shade and more asphalt.

In every case, it’s poor people that are suffering the mental and physiological health effects of the decisions that led to these unequal conditions. Not surprisingly, these conditions of environmental inequality are for the most part not under the control of the low-income citizens who suffer the consequences.

Wealthier people don’t live near these things. Learning disabilities have been charted along side proximity to fossil fuel emissions sources. Health effects like asthma and obesity are also directly tied to where people live in relation to the moving parts of our dirty-energy economy. All people deserve the same shot at reaching their potential, but clearly that is not happening due to the environmental burdens that some people can afford to avoid.

Q: Many see a “trade-off” between achieving social and environmental goals. In your experience, has there been a “trade-off”, and if so, how have you handled it?

A: Public health and educational attainment are social goals, and there are environmental levers we can use to help reach those goals, so I don’t see any trade-off at all. In fact, changing a few of our environmental decisions is a far more cost effective way to positively affect social service expenses that seem to rise each year in tandem with increases in all of the areas where philanthropic and government social service spending are attempting to address things like educational outcomes, income disparity, public health, obesity, prison recidivism, domestic abuse, drug & alcohol abuse, etc. These problems are all taking more of our money, but not getting better.

Attainable jobs that local people can perform to repair and maintain their local environment represent better uses for many of the dollars I see being wasted by statistically ineffectual social service programs across the US. Local green manufacturing is another area where smart environmental decisions/support can save us money on the social-service back end.

Q: What do you see as your greatest achievement?

A: I saved the City and State of NY millions of dollars by training and placing people returning from prison and generationally impoverished citizens in horticultural infrastructure jobs – through one of the nation’s first urban green-collar job programs back in 2003. Over 80% of successful graduates are now tax-payers instead of tax-burdens.

I also wrote a $1.25M Fed DOT planning grant that led to the South Bronx Greenway project – now under construction with over $20M in City and State funding, and an additional $30M in Federal stimulus money.

Neither of these projects were widely supported by the social justice or the environmentalist communities when I put them forward; but I see more and more similar efforts in the cities and rural areas I work in across the country each day. Many people write or come up to me when I am in their area and tell me that their work was directly inspired by my pioneering efforts.

Q: What new initiatives are you most excited about at this moment in time?

A: I am launching a national brand of locally made products, starting with fresh produce. Across the US, our food system subsidizes practices that produce more CO2 and consume more water to produce food that is ultimately not healthy and does not produce local jobs for people who need them.

At the same time, the “local food” movement is scattered and difficult to define – whereas we know that American consumer power responds well to intelligently crafted national branding strategies.

I’ve been working with leaders in the field of branding, indoor urban micro-agribusiness technology, USDA, foundations, and institutional buyers & retail outlets to put together a competitive package that will generate enough profit to employ people and turn around the profile of many blighted neighborhoods in cities large and small.

Q: What is the ideal relationship between impact investing and philanthropy?

A: I think more philanthropic dollars should follow an impact investing path. So much money goes to organizations that like to study and talk about problems that have not changed appreciably in decades – except that they are getting worse. My experience shows me that attainable good-paying jobs are the most effective key to solving multiple social problems.

Philanthropy could do more if it supported the businesses of the future – ones that don’t cast the fates of ordinary people to the vagaries of world labor markets, but give pointed support to allow local economies to capture some of the capital that is currently hemorrhaging away and leaving very little in return.

Q: How do you see your own current and future role in the sustainable investing space?

A: Currently I am still learning the ropes and getting my business bona fides in order; but I am ready to advise on where we can uncover the biggest bang for the buck in terms of the intersection of environment, economy, and equality. Every time we have made steps towards greater equality for our citizens in the country, prosperity has followed – the American Revolution, Emancipation, Women’s Suffrage, Civil Rights, the Internet – these have all been net pluses for America. I want to be in on the deals that help make that progress and profit a reality.

Q: How do you see Mission Markets fitting into the big picture?

A: We need a neutral arbiter for those transactions to happen. All my knowledge and experience cannot be fully utilized in the current marketplace or philanthropy world. There are benefits to our economy that can blossom if we can effectively connect the capital and social outcomes and Mission Markets is the best tool I have seen so far to join those forces in a responsible way. I have really high hopes for its potential!

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Author: Mission Markets

Mission Markets operates a financial marketplace for the impact and sustainability community. On the Mission Marketplace members can raise capital, discover investment opportunities, buy and sell environmental credits, access comprehensive data and information, promote valuable products and services and connect with a community of like minded stakeholders. Our goal is to increase the flow of information and capital within the impact and sustainability sector and expand the stakeholder community as a whole.

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