Putney conference focuses on climate justice for all

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PUTNEY — It was the proposal for another sewage plant in the South Bronx that inspired Majora Carter to start exploring how to make "low-status communities" more meaningful and valuable to their inhabitants.

"It's not just about, 'How do you fight against something?' but, 'How do you fight for the community?'" Carter told an audience Sunday morning at the first ever Putney Climate Justice Conference at The Putney School.

A sewage treatment plant, a sewage pelletizing plant and four electrical power plants were already in the neighborhood Carter returned to when she went to live with her parents while attending New York University. She said she could pretend not to see the injustice of the proposal, or she could be part of an effort to look at how to change the course of the community.

Grant funding through the U.S. Forest Service helped spearhead the cleanup of a riverfront spot in 1998 that led to a park the following year. That gave way to activities and parties.

"We didn't have the culture of actually going to parks in our own communities," Carter said. "We literally had to teach folks there was something to do there to get them down to the river."

A photograph in a slideshow featured Carter with former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg at a groundbreaking event at Hunts Point Riverside Park. The mayor had just announced $3 million in funding for the project.

These details elicited a large round of applause at the conference.

"It was an incredible spot that got people to see the value of open space in that way," Carter said. "It was easily the most beautiful space in the area ... and it could reflect right back on the people."

Mahogany Brown, a senior at The Putney School, told attendees more than a year went into planning the conference that looks at climate change and systems of oppression. Sophie Perry, another senior at the school, said the goal is to understand how complex environments in society intersect.

"[I]t is really clear that climate issues aren't just related to climate," added Carter, the event's keynote speaker who is an urban revitalization strategist, public radio host and environmental activist.

One of her goals is to help communities — which may have worse than average air quality and schools, and less parks and trees — retain talented residents by improving their locale and offerings.

Over the last few years, she said, the South Bronx has seen record numbers of college-bound high school students. What these students and other educated residents want are stock options, home-ownership opportunities, restaurants, "cool bars and great social places that may make people feel they are part of the larger world."

"When those communities lose talent, they lose the day-to-day consumer dollars that allow everyday businesses to grow," said Carter, and that makes it tougher to achieve generational wealth and get reinvestment in the communities.

She went to similar places in the United States and said focus groups showed the communities want the same stuff people want in middle-class communities. A list of desires might include coffee shops, family restaurants, nice parks, housing that matches local incomes and citizens with similar aspirations. Health clinics, pharmacies, dog feces, litter and homeless shelters were not so welcome.

Carter frowned upon seeing three "99 cent" stores within three blocks of one another in her neighborhood and the overcrowding of establishments like liquor stores and payday lenders.

"It's like, a little variety might be an interesting thing here," she said. "Your money doesn't work for you in these places where there's cash-checking stores, pawnshops or Rent-A-Centers. It's literally a tax on your own money."

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Carter made it clear that she takes no issue with government-subsidized housing but said "poverty-level maintenance structures" have the effect of concentrating poverty and creating worse health outcomes, lower rates of education achievement, and higher rates of incarceration and environmental burdens.

For her, the worst part for communities facing such issues is the lack of hope.

"If you're taught from your earliest days the best way is to get out, what happens if you don't?" Carter said. "What happens if you get left behind?"

Her projects focus on using real estate to transform communities for social, economic and environmental gains.

Birch Coffee in the South Bronx became locally owned after partners used capital to get it off the ground.

"We're just reclaiming some part of coffee," Carter said. "Because coffee is literally the blackest beverage."

StartUp Box trains employees in the South Bronx to work as software testers with companies in the technology sector. Carter and a team identified that "quality assurance" — often found overseas, in different time zones and with some challenges in translation — could be their niche in the industry.

Big windows at the StartUp Box office give passersby a glimpse of the employees who are of minority groups.

"It was a source of pride for folks in the community to see that," said Carter, who also hosted gaming tournaments in the office that saw cops and men of color interacting during a period of racial tension following the death of Eric Garner after an officer put the black man in a chokehold in July 2014.

Other projects Carter had a hand in bringing to life include a cycling gym called Eye Cycle and painting a mural on a building.

Carter received a standing ovation after saying that people do not have to move out of their neighborhoods to find better living conditions.

"Now may be the time to build the monuments to the hope and possibility that we know is possible," she said.

In responding to one attendee's concerns about a false dichotomy around rural and urban desires, Carter credited fear and instability with bringing a lot of members in her community to vote for President Donald Trump. They are not deplorable, she said, recalling presidential candidate Hillary Clinton's phrase for some of Trump's voter base. "They were just worried about their lives."

Maya Feldberg-Bannatyne, a junior from another school, wanted advice on how to start fundraising for a community farm. She said she would hear a lot of talk about what is wrong in the world but not a lot about action or initiative. Then there would be anger at the school administration.

"We don't really know if there's money. I have to be careful," said Feldberg-Bannatyne, acknowledging her teachers in the room.

Carter advocated for talking with community members and finding out if others had any interest in the project. When Carter first start conceptualizing the park, she had not identified any funding source. It just became "this thing that could actually happen," she said.

Reach staff writer Chris Mays at cmays@reformer.com, at @CMaysBR on Twitter and 802-254-2311, ext. 273.


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