But she came to national attention in February 2006 when she challenged Al Gore after his speech at the Technology Entertainment Design conference. Carter had just approached Gore with an offer to partner on some environmental work, but felt brushed off when he suggested she apply to his foundation for funds. "I have come from so far to meet you like this," she said when she took the microphone in the question-and-answer session. "Please don't waste me." Her plea was met with applause from the audience and an apology from Gore, who asked her to join the board of the Alliance for Climate Protection, a global warming think tank he helped found.
White-collar workers, blue-collar workers--and if Majora Carter has her way, there will be green-collar workers, too.
Carter, 39, heads Sustainable South Bronx, a nonprofit organization that works to empower residents of New York City's poorest borough to create a greener, cleaner environment.
Carter, who calls herself a social-justice environmentalist, is nominated as one of Beliefnet's Most Inspiring Persons of the Year for her efforts to stop government from using poor urban neighborhoods as toxic dumping grounds and for helping residents to help themselves.
"All we are trying to do is help folks understand that regardless of how poor you are, regardless of what color you are, you have inherent beauty and you should be able to look outside yourself and see that too," Carter said in a January 2007 interview on American Public Radio's "Speaking of Faith." "It is about helping ourselves and helping others at the same time."
Carter, the youngest of 10 children born and raised in the South Bronx, didn't plan on being an environmentalist—she hoped to become an artist. But after getting degrees from Wesleyan and New York University, she moved back home to the Hunt's Point section of the South Bronx in 2001.
At that time, the city planned an enormous solid waste management plant on the Hunt's Point waterfront to process 40 percent of the city’s garbage in an area already blighted by industrial sites. Children already suffered disproportionately with asthma. When Carter learned of the plan, she decided to fight it. She managed to convince enough local residents and make enough noise about it that the city pulled back on the plan.
To turn South Bronx residents--mostly poor people of color--into activists, Carter takes a practical approach. "You don't talk about global warming and climate change," she told NPR’s Krista Tippett. "You talk about jobs and crime reduction and their children's health. That's how you build an army of support…you make it relevant. It is not this pie-in-the-sky kind of thing, and believe me I think the rainforest in Brazil should be protected, but it’s too far from the general daily lives of so many people, especially poor people…you've gotta meet people where they are."
In late 2001, Carter founded Sustainable South Bronx, which works on several fronts. Its South Bronx Greenway Project is a $28 million pedestrian green beltway along the Hunt's Point waterfront that provides residents of this peninsula with their first waterfront park. The SSB's Green Roof Project works to put layers of soil and foliage on city roof tops to cool buildings naturally. And its Bronx Environmental Stewardship Project has placed 80 percent of its "green-collar" trainees in jobs in ecological restoration. Four years after starting SSB, Carter received a MacArthur Fellowship.
That Carter is an artist and not a formally trained environmentalist may be keep her perspective on the South Bronx fresh. "When I looked at our waterfront I did not necessarily only see the industry that was there, I didn't only see the garbage that was floating in the river," she has said. "I saw the possibilities. I was like, this place could be transformed. And that I think is what inspires me."