On Being with Krista Tippett

Cal DeWitt and Majora Carter

Discovering Where We Live: Reimagining Environmentalism

Last Updated

January 17, 2008

Original Air Date

January 11, 2007

Environmentalism and climate change are hot topics; yet they’re still often imagined as the territory of scientists, expert activists, and those who can afford to be environmentally conscious. We discover two people who are transforming the ecology of their immediate worlds in Dunn, Wisconsin and New York’s South Bronx.

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Image of Calvin Dewitt

Calvin Dewitt is a professor at the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies of the University of Wisconsin at Madison. His books include Earth-Wise: A Biblical Response to Environmental Issues.

Image of Majora Carter

Majora Carter is founder and executive director of Sustainable South Bronx. She was awarded a MacArthur "genius grant" in 2005.


January 17, 2008

KRISTA TIPPETT, HOST: I’m Krista Tippett. Today, “Discovering Where We Live: Reimagining Environmentalism.” My guests are linking everyday life and ecology in new ways, from southern Wisconsin to the South Bronx. Calvin DeWitt is transforming a rural wetland and bringing environmental science to Evangelical Christianity. And from one of the poorest and most toxic neighborhoods in the U.S., Majora Carter is changing the face of the environmental movement.

MS. MAJORA CARTER: You do have to make it relevant. Like, it’s not this pie-in-the-sky thing. It’s, you know, believe me, I think that the rainforests in Brazil should be protected, but it’s too far, you know, from the general daily lives of so many people, especially poor people living in their communities, whether they’re living in the Rust Belt, whether they’re living in the South Bronx, you know? It’s like you’ve got to meet people where they are.

MS. TIPPETT: This is Speaking of Faith. Stay with us.


MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett. This hour, we revisit my conversation with two people who haven’t waited for climate change to transform their immediate worlds. One is unraveling ties between ecology and injustice in the South Bronx; the other is a scientist and Evangelical Christian in south-central Wisconsin. Theirs are not trendy or elite forms of environmentally conscious consumption. They’re ways of living that nurture our societal framework and its relation to daily life in the natural world.

From American Public Media, this is Speaking of Faith, public radio’s conversation about religion, meaning, ethics, and ideas. Today, “Discovering Where We Live: Reimagining Environmentalism.” My guests reveal far-flung places on the spectrum of ecology and both forge a new kind of link between community and cause. Later, we’ll hear from Majora Carter, an artist by training, an urban strategist by passion. From one of the poorest and most environmentally ravaged neighborhoods in the U.S., she is changing the face of the environmental movement.

MS. CARTER: There still is this disconnect, you know, between, you know, what’s considered, like, official environmentalism or what I call official environmentalism, what they think is called that, and, you know, what actually happens to real-life people, you know, on the ground, that can’t afford a Prius.

MS. TIPPETT: First, I’ll speak with Calvin DeWitt. He’s a biologist and zoologist and professor of environmental studies at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. He’s also been creating and living in a sustainable community in the rural wetlands of Dunn, Wisconsin, just south of Madison, for three decades. And Cal DeWitt is a lifelong Evangelical Christian. The environmental magazine Grist once wrote that he’s been one of the prime movers behind almost every significant collaboration between Evangelicals, scientists, and politicians, calling for concerted action to battle global warming. In the mid-1960s, Cal DeWitt was galvanized by an essay which is still one of the most widely reprinted articles in Science magazine’s history.

In it, historian Lynn White Jr. put modern ecological crisis squarely at the feet of Christian cultures and colonizers who recklessly applied God’s commandment in Genesis that human beings should subdue the earth and have dominion over its creatures. But as Cal DeWitt understands it, the root of the word translated as dominion means stewardship or service, a root also of conservation, and he calls the Bible an ecological handbook. Cal DeWitt has put it into practice in this way, beginning with the marsh beneath his feet.

MR. CALVIN DEWITT: I live on Waubesa Wetlands, which is a very large marsh, and my lawn has 70 different species of plants. It’s a rich and abundant place for animal life. It looks just like anyone else’s lawn from a distance, but when you come up close, you’ll find it’s multi-textured and it’s got just a vibrant life. I recall one year during migration, for example, that 3,000 robins descended on my lawn to eat earthworms because I am producing so many, not by trying, but because that’s what happens.

MS. TIPPETT: How does it come to be so textured and various?

MR. DEWITT: I do what I call ecological lawn-mowing. When one species really gets the upper hand, I’ll just mow it closer to the ground or I might let it go up four or five inches and then cut it. When my lawn needs seeding, I let the grass grow to full height, let’s say, on a small patch, 10 by 10 feet, wait until it seeds, then cut it. And that means that for much of the summer, then, it looks like you forgot to shave on one part of your face…


MR. DEWITT: …but it’s ecological lawn-mowing. And one of the things to start this off is you can look up the meaning of weed in a dictionary and you discover that it’s defined as a plant growing where you don’t want it to grow. So, I got rid of all my weeds just by looking out at them all and saying welcome. So, no pesticides, herbicides are necessary.

MS. TIPPETT: But wait, tell me what that means. They’re still there, right?

MR. DEWITT: Oh, yes, they are.

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah. You welcome them and — oh, so they’re not weeds. You don’t define them as weeds anymore, OK.

MR. DEWITT: They’re not weeds by the — they are not weeds…


MR. DEWITT: …because a weed is…

MS. TIPPETT: Something you don’t…

MR. DEWITT: …something you don’t want. And if you want them, they’re automatically gone. Then, of course, I’ve been chairman of my own town, the town of Dunn, and led it through a stewardship effort so that my whole community could join in this great privilege of taking care of the land, and we have 34 and a half square miles of land pretty well secured for agriculture, for human dwellings, for wetland preservation, and then also for prairie restoration. Every two years, we have a biennial parade of prairies in our town, which is our counter to annual parades of homes held in other communities.


MR. DEWITT: So, we’re trying to live wholesomely. We’re listed on Web sites as an example of a sustainable community.

MS. TIPPETT: A sustainable community. And does that necessarily mean, I don’t know, less profitable, less — does it — what do you sacrifice for? I mean…

MR. DEWITT: We sacrifice congestion, busyness, frantic behavior, frequent trips to the mall. That’s what we sacrifice. What we gain is peace, wholesomeness, less TV watching, more hikes, more enjoyment, when the cranes return to the marsh in the spring, and less expenditure on recreation because the recreation is all about us. Jesus’ teaching, ‘Behold the lilies of the field, behold the birds of the air,’ is really well taken here, and beholding is so much different than just checking off species on a life list.

MS. TIPPETT: And as you well know, in our time people are waking up to the environment largely because of what seems like an impending crisis.


MS. TIPPETT: And when you started doing this, you and your community, your town in Wisconsin, 30 years ago, it sounds like, more than 30 years ago…


MS. TIPPETT: …you must have been seen as kind of radical. How was it received then?

MR. DEWITT: Very definitely. We were really looked at as being really odd because there wasn’t really any crisis, although I think you could discover it if you worked to find it. But what we did is we studied our town, we did an inventory of all of the things that were present there — farms and marshes and springs and historic sites, Indian trails, buildings, our tobacco farms included — and what happened after we did this very careful and very extensive inventory is we fell in love with the place. We, most of us didn’t know where we lived. We just moved in and out rather oblivious to the beauty of things. And once…

MS. TIPPETT: How many people are we talking about here, I mean, then and now?

MR. DEWITT: Then, 4200. Now, it’s 5300.

MS. TIPPETT: Is there a downtown?

MR. DEWITT: No, there’s no downtown. Our downtown is the town hall built in 1932 by a Norwegian shipbuilder, and it’s surrounded by an intensive rotational grazing farm, and it’s a place where there are Holstein cows and pasturelands and a white town hall that looks like a little church standing out by itself in the country. We have about 12 communities scattered across the face of the town, each one with their own little park, and we do have town meetings where everyone can speak their piece at our meetings.

MS. TIPPETT: And do you have stores? Where do people go grocery shopping or…

MR. DEWITT: No, we don’t have any stores. We have a few — it’s mainly rural and they’ll go grocery shopping in the wider region, but a lot of us grow our own food in our own gardens. We do have a farmers’ market at the town hall and, increasingly, we’re trying to establish community-supported agriculture farms. We have Hmong farmers and those who farm for flowers, flower production and prairie plant production as well.

MS. TIPPETT: Environmental scientist and Evangelical conservationist Cal DeWitt. I’m Krista Tippett, and this is Speaking of Faith from American Public Media. Today, “Discovering Where We Life: Reimagining Environmentalism.”

Cal DeWitt has never had difficulty reconciling faith with science and his commitment, as he describes it, to the biosphere. He helped found the International Evangelical Environmental Network and helped galvanize Evangelical support for the Endangered Species Act of 1996. The Au Sable Institute for Environmental Studies, which Cal DeWitt ran for 25 years, creates academic curricula for over 50 Christian colleges and universities. And in 2002, together with a British physicist, Sir John Houghton, Cal DeWitt organized a watershed forum to expose conservative Evangelical leaders to the hard science of climate change. The chief representative in Washington, D.C., of the National Association of Evangelicals, Richard Cizik, has said that he was converted to the science of climate change at that meeting. And Cizik and others have gone on to raise awareness of such issues in churches across the country.

MS. TIPPETT: I think until quite recently the environmental movement as such — and this is probably just as much a stereotype as the idea that all Evangelicals are anti-science. It was considered to be something somewhat left-wing, right?

MR. DEWITT: Mm-hmm, yeah.

MS. TIPPETT: I think secular. I think that was an association. And do you — has it, has it seemed to you and are you engaged in that it was important to also find a new vocabulary to bring this movement, to make it accessible and to allow it to speak to more people out there in our culture?

MR. DEWITT: Yes, I think there is need for new vocabulary. There also is another irony here, and that is that many Christian people, including Evangelicals, have been part and parcel of many of these organizations that we think of as being secular, like the Sierra Club, the Nature Conservancy, and all these other environmental groups, so…

MS. TIPPETT: You’ve also pointed out, I think, that the president of the World Wildlife Federation is an Evangelical Christian.

MR. DEWITT: Yes, he is. That’s Larry Schweiger, and he’s a very committed Evangelical. What has really taken hold within the Evangelical world and beyond is the concept of creation care or caring for creation. That has defused a lot of people’s nervousness about using the word, the environment. I have no problem using the word environment. The coining of this word by Geoffrey Chaucer when he used it first in the form environing, which became environment, what came about from that was the first time that we could actually separate ourselves from the other. Before that, we had no ability to do that in Western culture, because it was The Creation and we were…

MS. TIPPETT: Part of it.

MR. DEWITT: …always part of it.

MS. TIPPETT: So this was the environment as something separate, outside us human beings.

MR. DEWITT: Yes. Linguistically, we had created, through Chaucer, a way of separating ourselves. So what’s important about the revitalization of the word The Creation and creation care and caring for creation, is that it brings these two together again.

MS. TIPPETT: I think you make an interesting and important observation, as an Evangelical, about how quickly Evangelical Christianity can move when it has, you know, as we say, Richard Cizik, the vice president of governmental affairs of the National Association of Evangelicals, says he was converted to the science of climate change and…

MR. DEWITT: Yeah. And he says, “Much as I was converted to Christ”…


MR. DEWITT: …which is quite a statement, but you’re quite right.

MS. TIPPETT: And that conversion is an aspect of that faith. It’s also very non-hierarchical compared to other traditions, and you say that that also allows Evangelical Christianity to be responsive.

MR. DEWITT: It does. In the Evangelical world, there’s a fear of hierarchy, and most of these churches are only loosely organized. Some have denominations, but there’s a great distrust in human authority, and the teaching is the Bible is our source of life, of work, and of practice. So if the reading of the scriptures shows that caring for creation is a vital part of the human task and we have been neglecting that, then that calls for a conversion. And Evangelicals are very used to the idea of taking about-faces, which is really what conversion is about.


MR. DEWITT: And this, interestingly, I was able to observe in the early to mid-1970s on world hunger issues. Bread for the World was formed, and all sorts of things like that. Hunger-relief organizations were formed. It was remarkable.


MR. DEWITT: So what I’m thinking is going to happen here is much like it’s happening at Boise Vineyard right now, the Vineyard church in Idaho.

MS. TIPPETT: Oh, tell that story. That’s about this environmentalism on the ground in, in…

MR. DEWITT: Yeah, it really is on the ground.

MS. TIPPETT: That would be a Pentecostal congregation, wouldn’t it, a Vineyard church?

MR. DEWITT: It is Pentecostal.

MS. TIPPETT: OK. So what’s, what are they doing?

MR. DEWITT: Boise Vineyard has Pastor Tri Robinson who has a daughter who had been taking environmental studies courses and was on to her dad to say something about the environment. And Tri Robinson is a conservative, Republican rancher.


MR. DEWITT: What he did, thanks to his daughter, was to discover that he should do something about that, and it took him about six months of Bible study to find out, you know, how he would say this biblically. And then with some fear and a lot of prayer, he gave a sermon on caring for creation. And remarkably, for the first time ever, the congregation stood up and gave him a standing ovation.

MS. TIPPETT: Though he’s not just preaching about it, is he? I mean, aren’t they organizing locally?

MR. DEWITT: Oh, they have regular programs that bring people high in the mountains to restore trails, to eliminate invasive species, to recycle materials. They have a food pantry, for example, that not only is a food pantry, but it serves 23 other food pantries. The place is just absolutely vibrant and alive and, of course, their membership is just growing tremendously because there have been all sorts of disenfranchised environmental types kind of waiting for the church to do something, and here it is. It’s happening. So watch out.

MS. TIPPETT: You’ve worked all over the world, I know. I noticed that you’d worked in Cambodia, working with them on wetland stewardship, Lower Mekong Delta, conservation leaders.


MS. TIPPETT: I wonder, as you are out in the wider world, with the way you’ve reconciled your Christian underpinnings with your observations as a scientist, do you also discover this happening in other traditions? Do you discover resources from other traditions working in the same way?

MR. DEWITT: Well, I’m working mainly with Christians and with Jewish people and largely work in the United States. And the reason is that in all these other countries I work, the U.S. is seen as the beacon, as the model, as the leader, yet we are not seen in the area of the environment, at least in recent decades, as being the leader we once were. Religion basically is — as Wayne C. Booth at the University of Chicago says, “Religion is the passion to live rightly on earth and to spread right living.” And we really do know a lot about how to live rightly.

MS. TIPPETT: With the natural world as well.

MR. DEWITT: With the natural world, yeah. We really do. And in America, we have perhaps the richest treasure of this knowledge, and now to go out into all the world and preach the good news is really all of our business. One of the things I would do if I were in our Washington administration is I’d summon a great deal of wise thinkers from the Netherlands to come over or we would visit them there and we would sit at their feet and learn, learn to learn.

MS. TIPPETT: That’s a model for you, the Netherlands?

MR. DEWITT: I think the Netherlands at this point is a model because — we have an immense amount of knowledge in the United States; the Dutch have the will to actually do something about it, because that nation stands to lose the entire country if it doesn’t act.

MS. TIPPETT: Right. Well, that’s mobilizing too.

MR. DEWITT: All we’re going to do is lose New York and south Florida and Louisiana. That’s all we lose. But they’ll lose the whole country, so…

MS. TIPPETT: That should be frightening enough, losing those three places.

MR. DEWITT: I think so. I think so. And, of course, many of our cities are taking the lead on this, but we now have to take the lead nationally.

MS. TIPPETT: You say that your students often ask you, ‘Why do you do this work with such joy?’ Although you are right in the middle of this knowledge — the front lines of knowledge about the ecological crisis — I worry that the knowledge we’re getting also can paralyze us. I don’t, I don’t experience you to be paralyzed in any way. I mean, is it — do you not…

MR. DEWITT: No, it’s true.

MS. TIPPETT: …talk about the fear or do you just, you know, how do you end up having this approach, this sensibility?

MR. DEWITT: The way I approach this is the way I have heard others do it, too. Ours is to be faithful, not necessarily successful. But the thing that you do know is that if you’re faithful in pursuing integrity of the earth, integrity of society, that it may become contagious. And I know that from my own town of Dunn, and I’m hoping now that we’ll be doing that for the entire biosphere, for the whole creation.

MS. TIPPETT: Cal DeWitt is a professor at the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies of the University of Wisconsin at Madison. His books include Earth-Wise: A Biblical Response to Environmental Issues.

This is Speaking of Faith. After a short break, reimagining environmentalism from another angle. Urban strategist Majora Carter on the ecological restoration of her beloved, beleaguered neighborhood, the South Bronx.

MS. CARTER: You know, believe me, I think that the rainforests in Brazil should be protected, but it’s too far, you know, from the general daily lives of so many people, especially poor people living in their communities, whether they’re living in the Rust Belt, whether they’re living in the South Bronx.

MS. TIPPETT: In many ways, our radio program is just the beginning. We’re continuing to make my unedited conversations available as MP3s through our podcast and Web site. Here’s your chance to hear what was cut from my interview with Cal DeWitt. You can also take a visual tour as Cal DeWitt walks us across his land in Dunn, Wisconsin. Discover more and share your reactions at speakingoffaith.org. I’m Krista Tippett. Stay with us. Speaking of Faith comes to you from American Public Media.

MS. TIPPETT: Welcome back to Speaking of Faith, public radio’s conversation about religion, meaning, ethics, and ideas. I’m Krista Tippett. Today, “Discovering Where We Live: Reimagining Environmentalism.” My next guest, Majora Carter, is a new breed of environmentalist, homegrown, without formal expertise, yet crafting wildly successful, concrete initiatives from the raw realities of urban life. In 2005, she was awarded a MacArthur genius grant. She’s the founder and director of a vibrant organization that is setting benchmarks for the City of New York as a whole. It’s called Sustainable South Bronx. Unlike Cal DeWitt, Carter is not a religious activist, but her work drives at the deep interaction between social ethics, economic injustice, and ecological hazard. She calls herself a social justice environmentalist.

The South Bronx, where she grew up, is one of New York City’s poorest neighborhoods and historically perhaps its most environmentally toxic. It has a higher concentration of industrial facilities than other sections of the city. Power plants, waste transfer stations, and high diesel truck traffic contribute to increased pollution and poor community health. An estimated 17 percent of Bronx school-age children have asthma, three times the national average. Majora Carter left home to attend college at Wesleyan, and she never thought she would return.

MS. CARTER: I mean, I grew up, you know, when the South Bronx in and of itself was burning. You know, this was a time of, not just spiritual divestment, but actual financial, you know, divestment. And so lots of landlords were torching their buildings in order to collect insurance money. And if you had, you know, any kind of intellectual acumen, then your job, you know, your duty to yourself was to leave an area like the South Bronx as soon as you could.

MS. TIPPETT: When she went away, Majora Carter trained as an artist, not an environmentalist. But looking back now, she says that her study of art helped her come back to a ravaged, demoralized community with fresh eyes insistent on beauty.

MS. CARTER: I think, originally, I looked at the arts as a way to kind of insulate myself against, you know, the horrible things that I had to see…


MS. CARTER: …you know, in my daily life when I was young.

MS. TIPPETT: Kind of find beauty out there.

MS. CARTER: Yes, exactly. So it was a way to become somebody else or see things in a different way. But I do think that it really did help support, you know, the work that I do right now because it helps me see things, again, in a way that I didn’t before. So, when I looked at our waterfront, you know, I didn’t necessarily see only the industry that was there. I didn’t only see, you know, some of the garbage that was floating in the river. I saw possibilities. I was like, ‘This place could be transformed.’ And that is, I think, what inspires me. Because, no, I don’t have the background. Sometimes it bothers me that I don’t. But for the most part, it’s just like most people are not going to go to school for environmental, you know, studies or anything like that.

MS. TIPPETT: Right. But they do have essential understanding of what is true, and what is beautiful, and what is going to help make their lives whole. And I mean, if you think about it, I mean, just when you said that — most people are not going to go study environmentalism — it’s, it occurs to me that one day, probably not too far in the future, it will seem ridiculous that we should ever have thought that this should be something that experts know about. I mean, because, really, we’re talking about the stuff of our daily lives, aren’t we?

MS. CARTER: Absolutely. And that is something, you know, my parents were completely uneducated. I mean, I think if they went up to the sixth grade, it was a lot, you know? But they understood, as you build your home, as you build your life around you, as you build, you know, look outside of your home, you’re building a community. And it should be something, you know, that you want to see more of…


MS. CARTER: …something that you want to respect and love. And you know, I do remember that very clearly, like my family being incredibly house-proud. And you know, I might not have appreciated their taste in a lot of ways, but, you know, everything was very much about, like, how — what you put out to the world. And I think for poor communities, you know, in particular, we’re not expected to put anything out in the world that’s beautiful for people to see. You know, and that has as much to do with the way I view my community and the work that I do as a part of it. Because all we’re trying to do is help folks understand that regardless of how poor you are, you know, regardless of what color you are, you have an inherent beauty, and that you should be able to look outside of yourself and see that too, and that our, you know, administrations, our regulators, our, you know, legislators, really helped to — need to support that, especially when it’s politically expedient to go the other way.

MS. TIPPETT: So, start telling me the story of how you became an environmentalist.

MS. CARTER: You know, I moved back home because I had to, I was broke, and I started grad school. And I only wanted to do arts-related community development, but got there and realized that those funny smells that I smelled in the neighborhood for a really long time were actually, you know, as a — all these industries that were there. And then, we discovered that the city and the state were planning on building a waste facility on the waterfront that would have handled about 40 percent of the city’s commercial waste in addition to all that we already handle.

MS. TIPPETT: And was this when they were redirecting the — Fresh Kills landfills shut down.


MS. TIPPETT: And that got lots of publicity as a great move. And then, what you found out is that there were — that, I mean, it still had to go somewhere, all that waste.


MS. TIPPETT: And it was going to the South Bronx.

MS. CARTER: Exactly. And the move to close Fresh Kills was a good one. It never should have been opened in the first place.


MS. CARTER: It was never handled the way it should have been, and that wasn’t our problem. Our problem with it was, you know, equitably distributing those kinds of burdens essentially around the city.


MS. CARTER: And poor communities of color were handling about 95 percent of another kind of waste stream and this would have brought even more to us.

MS. TIPPETT: Which is incredible.

MS. CARTER: Yeah, exactly. And the fact that, you know, had we not found out about it completely by accident, we could have had that on our waterfront right to this day.

MS. TIPPETT: You’ve said in other interviews that people were very demoralized and dejected, and that you really had to work just to get them mobilized about this. And I mean, it seems to me, in a way, you had to make them hopeful, but before that, you almost maybe, you had to make them angry.

MS. CARTER: It’s very true. I mean, to hear people say, of course, you know, if you tell them like, ‘There’s this 5200-ton-per-day waste facility is coming to the waterfront.’ And you hear people say, ‘Well, of course, it’s going to come here. This is where all that kind of crap comes.’

MS. TIPPETT: Right. And what can you do against something like that, that machinery?

MS. CARTER: You figure out where folks are. And you know, we realized, OK, we’ve got one of the country’s highest asthma rates here. Parents are taking their kids into the emergency rooms a couple times of a week sometimes, you know, just to, like, open up their tubes. And it’s just like, ‘Oh, my God.’ So we help people make the connection between their health, and especially their children’s health…


MS. CARTER: …and all of the facilities that were already located in the community. And little by little, it grew, you know, into this groundswell of support for like, ‘This is our community, you know? We want better for ourselves.’ And little by little, that’s what happened. And I remember one of the most amazing moments of my life, and literally, I backed into the room, so I didn’t even know it was happening. We had our last public hearing that we could have had, you know, to tell the state and the city that we could not tolerate this. And I backed into the room because as I was talking to somebody. And I turned around and it was my old junior high school auditorium with 700 seats, and they were all filled with people from my neighborhood. And I was like, and I just cried, like, right there. And we kept the administrative law judge there until 12:00 midnight. And the only reason why they stopped was because the court reporter ran out of paper.

MS. TIPPETT: Social justice environmentalist Majora Carter. After that meeting, the city of New York halted its new waste transfer plants. But very quickly, it became important to Majora Carter not just to be vocal about what she was against. She convened community-wide visioning meetings. And in 2001, Carter founded a nonprofit, Sustainable South Bronx. Sustainable South Bronx currently has five major initiatives underway, many of them inspired by environmental models Majora Carter has studied from Chicago, Illinois, to Bogota, Colombia. I asked her to talk a bit about a few of them, beginning with the Greenway Project, now a $30 million restoration of the Bronx River waterfront.

MS. CARTER: You know, we build these street-end parks, like the one, the start of it was one that my dog helped me find, which was really amazing.

MS. TIPPETT: And tell that story.

MS. CARTER: A few years ago as we were battling this waste facility, I kept getting these applications, you know, to apply for waterfront restoration funding, like seed grants. And I thought, ‘That’s really, really sweet, but these folks don’t understand that you can’t get to the waterfront from our neighborhood.’ And around the same time, I got a little crazy dog who took me jogging one day…

MS. TIPPETT: And why couldn’t you get to the waterfront?

MS. CARTER: A few years ago, I, as we were battling this waste facility, I kept getting these applications, you know, to apply for waterfront restoration funding, like seed grants. And I thought, ‘Oh, that’s really, really sweet, but these folks don’t understand that you can’t get to the waterfront from our neighborhood.’ And around the same time, I got a little crazy dog who took me jogging one day.

MS. TIPPETT: And why couldn’t you get to the waterfront?

MS. CARTER: Because there was — oh, there was industry all over the waterfront. And you just, I mean, you could see it on a map that we were a peninsula, but there was no way you can get to the water.


MS. CARTER: So, she took me out one day and dragged me into what I thought was one of the many illegal dumps that we had in the neighborhood. But what happened at, you know, behind the piles of garbage and weeds and other disgusting things, was the river, you know, the Bronx River. It was right there.

MS. TIPPETT: That must have been an amazing moment, though, for you to have grown up there and suddenly discover that the river was there, that it was part of the landscape.

MS. CARTER: Oh, you had to be there. I mean, at 6:00 in the morning, you know, in the — it was right after sunrise and the sun was glinting off the water. And you know, if you didn’t look behind you, you didn’t see the piles of garbage behind you. And all I saw was this amazing possibility. I was like, ‘This is the beginning. This is it.’ And like, literally, I ran home and like, you know, wrote, rewrote the proposal. And we were funded for that little seed grant. And we got, ended up, it was only $10,000, but we ended up leveraging that about 300 times over into a $3 million park, which was just completed just in time for my wedding, actually. I got married there.

MS. TIPPETT: Oh, congratulations.

MS. CARTER: Yeah. Yeah, it was just so beautiful, I can’t even tell you.

MS. TIPPETT: So, another thing you’re working on are what are called green roofs, I’d never heard of this, or cool roof?

MS. CARTER: Green and cool roofs, yeah. They’re, it’s a really interesting thing. It’s the stuff they’ve been doing in Germany for years. And cool roofs are highly reflective surfaces that don’t absorb solar heat and pass it on to the environment. And green-roofs’ materials are soil and living plants. They’re both used instead of petroleum-based roofs…


MS. CARTER: …roofing materials, which degrade under the sun, and you actually breathe that stuff in. And they retain storm water, so they don’t dump them into the sewage treatment system, which, incidentally, are often in communities like the South Bronx. And the coolest thing about them is that they actually attract wildlife. And so when we first opened up ours, we were actually invaded by a little pack of butterflies the first day we put it up. It was very, very cute.

MS. TIPPETT: And it sounds like also that you do think of cities, urban areas as just these hot, hot, hot, and it sounds like these roofs also don’t trap heat in the same way.

MS. CARTER: Yeah, exactly.

MS. TIPPETT: And so that is a — that would be, in an urban area especially, a real improvement in quality of living for lots of people.

MS. CARTER: Yes. They, that concept that you’re talking about is called urban heat island. And it literally simple means that cities, you know, because of all the blacktop and the asphalt, you know, they actually retain heat, you know, and then give it off at night, whereas surrounding country sides have more vegetative surfaces and they don’t, so they’re naturally cooler.

MS. TIPPETT: They cool down, yeah.

MS. CARTER: So that, yeah, so the process of actually looking at ways to vegetate more of a city surface is simply a way, you know, of using a natural resource as a way to counteract that. So it makes a lot of sense. But you know, again…

MS. TIPPETT: But again, it’s so simple that it takes a while to get that message across.

MS. CARTER: Exactly.


MS. CARTER: Exactly.

MS. TIPPETT: OK, so you also have the Bronx Environmental Stewardship Training Program.

MS. CARTER: Yes, and we’ve been doing the program since 2003. And we have like about a 90 percent success rate, with about 80 percent of those people actually moving directly into the field of ecological restoration.


MS. CARTER: Yeah, so, and you know, and these are folks that, you know, some of them have actually never had a job, you know? We’ve had, the South Bronx has one of the highest unemployment rates. You know, we’ve got a 25 percent unemployment rate. You know, so teaching people, whether they’re, just general life skills, you know, job readiness, and then also giving them tools so they can actually participate in this green-collar, you know, workforce development that’s actually happening around the country…

MS. TIPPETT: Green-collar workforce, I love that.

MS. CARTER: …yeah, and seeing people just grow in that capacity, it’s like, you know, they really start to understand, you know, their relationship to their own environment. You know, as they walk out their door, they recognize that they are part of it. And it’s really, really very cool.

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm. One thing that just strikes me dramatically about your story and what you’re doing is, in the larger culture, people are waking up to the environment and to ecology by way of what’s being presented to us as an impending crisis, you know? People are saying climate change is terrifying and so maybe I need to look at what I can do in my life for my community. It seems to me, in your community, people in that community lived with an ecological catastrophe for years…


MS. TIPPETT: …and had begun to experience that as normal. There, you and others around you are waking up to the environment by way of making it better. It’s a wonderful contrast, actually.

MS. CARTER: Yeah, and making it better, like, for the here and now. You know, I think that, but, and another one of the projects we’re working on right now, it’s called a recycling industrial park. And all it is, it’s a collection of businesses that process and use recycled materials, OK? And we handle so much of the city’s recyclable materials, you know, within our community as — in our neighborhood, that it’s not even funny. But it produces a lot of truck traffic. It’s almost entirely truck-based. And so we’re like, ‘Wait a second. Why aren’t we looking at recyclable materials as raw material, you know?’ Because you can, and there’s lots of precedent out there to show that that’s the case.


MS. CARTER: And also, you can barge this stuff out, you know, by water and use rail access. So we found a site that would accommodate this. And it could produce between three to 500 jobs. You know, we’re hoping, and we’re doing a feasibility study on it right now, reduce the amount of truck traffic. And also, it will allow for our greenway, you know, to be developed…


MS. CARTER: …you know, through that area as well. And so we understand that if we’re going to be a part, you know, of the solution, we have to engage the problems. Like, waste material isn’t going away. Why aren’t we using it and turning into something else?

MS. TIPPETT: And it’s the problems that are right in front of you.

MS. CARTER: Mm-hmm, yeah.

MS. TIPPETT: I mean, you are all contributing to whatever all of us have to do to minimize the effects of climate change if that’s what we’re up against.

MS. CARTER: Absolutely.

MS. TIPPETT: But you’re doing it by working on, as you say, the here and now, I mean, very practical parts of life.

MS. CARTER: It’s practical, but it, and it, you know, it also serves a regional purpose.


MS. CARTER: You know, it’s like, yes, we’re working on this because, you know what? As the 60,000 diesel truck trips that come through our neighborhood, yeah, it has a direct impact on our health. But we understand the impact that that also has on climate change because we recognize it. I mean, we’ve got to like reduce these greenhouse gases. But guess what? We’ve got them right now.


MS. CARTER: So it is about, you know, helping ourselves and helping others at the same time.

MS. TIPPETT: Social justice environmentalist Majora Carter. I’m Krista Tippett, and this is Speaking of Faith from American Public Media. Today, “Discovering Where We Live: Reimagining Environmentalism.” Majora Carter caught the attention of influential environmental circles when she challenged Al Gore at the 2006 TED Conference, Technology Education Design. Gore hadn’t yet won his Nobel Peace Prize then or when I spoke with Majora Carter last year. But his documentary and book, An Inconvenient Truth, had solidified his role as an icon of American environmentalism.

During her speech at that conference, Carter described approaching Gore in the hallway earlier that day to ask him how grassroots groups, such as hers, were part of his vision. He responded by directing her to a grant program. Carter said that Gore’s assumption that she was approaching him for money felt dismissive. And this, she says, was also emblematic of a narrow view in the official environmental movement. Gore later apologized and invited Carter to join his efforts. She received applause when she told him and the assembled audience that she wasn’t there to ask Gore for money. She was there to make him an offer of collaboration.

MS. CARTER: (Excerpt from speech) What troubled me was that this top-down approach is still around. Now, don’t get me wrong, we need money. But grassroots groups are needed at the table during the decision-making process. Of the 90 percent of the energy that Mr. Gore reminded us that we waste every day, don’t add wasting our energy, intelligence, and hard-earned experience to that count. I have come from so far to meet you like this. Please don’t waste me. By working together, we can…

MS. CARTER: Being born a poor black girl, you know, from the ghetto, I never forget who I am, ever. And so for me to get up on that stage, you know, and just be able to say like, ‘I was making you an offer,’ was not so much for him, it was for me because I knew that if I didn’t get up there and say it, I knew that I would have been letting down a whole slew of people that probably were not going to have that chance to get up there and say something like that on behalf of the work that we do.

MS. TIPPETT: Are people in your neighborhood watching An Inconvenient Truth?

MS. CARTER: No, they won’t even show it in neighborhoods like ours. And I think that is part of the problem. It’s a fantastic film and I’m really glad it’s getting the attention that it’s getting. But you know, again, there still is this disconnect, you know, between what’s considered, like, official environmentalism or what I call official environmentalism, what they think is called that, and what actually happens to real-life people, you know, on the ground, that can’t afford a Prius.

MS. TIPPETT: Right. So, you know, I was talking to Cal DeWitt. Do you know him? He’s an Evangelical Christian. He’s a scientist. He’s been working on this for 40 yeas in rural Wisconsin.

MS. CARTER: Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah. Yes, I have heard of him.

MS. TIPPETT: You know, so he’s been on the ground in another way in another place, you know, doing this long before it was fashionable.

MS. CARTER: Right.

MS. TIPPETT: And what he’s been doing the last years is building bridges between the science of the environment and climate change and conservative, Evangelical religious people. And he talks about the, you know, the importance of building new vocabularies that speak to different new people, again, outside…

MS. CARTER: Right.

MS. TIPPETT: …this kind of official movement, which hasn’t reached everyone. You know, are there words that we associate with environmentalism that don’t work in your community? And are their words or ideas or images that are really powerful for you that you want to, you know, inject into the movement or into people’s imagination about this?

MS. CARTER: Yeah, oh, so many. But it, for us, it’s more about concepts and what really resonates to people.


MS. CARTER: Like for, you know, again, if you’re talking about a really poor community of color, you know, that has a 25 percent unemployment rate, you know, and kids who are getting sick with asthma, that’s what people are going to be concerned about. So we had to make sure that as we were building our projects, that we spoke to those needs, and then would add environmentalism onto it.

MS. TIPPETT: So you’re talking about, you’re not talking about environmentalism. You’re talking about asthma, you’re talking about jobs.


MS. TIPPETT: You’re talking about obesity when you talk about the Greenway Project…


MS. TIPPETT: …giving kids places to run and play…

MS. CARTER: Exactly.

MS. TIPPETT: …and people places to walk.

MS. CARTER: We’re talking about crime reduction, you know? Because the more people, you know, out on the street in the community doing positive things, like going for a run, means that the less negative things, you know, like robbing people actually happens.


MS. CARTER: Snd we’re changing our language to meet the needs of the people that are there because they are different. If, like, 75 percent of the people in your community don’t even own a car, why are we talking to them, you know, about café standards? It’s like they don’t really care.



MS. TIPPETT: Or buying a Prius.



MS. CARTER: You know, it’s like, ‘Give me a break.’

MS. TIPPETT: So this is taking me back to a place we started when you just talked about sustainability and how, for you, it’s about seeing the whole. And I mean, this is giving detail and structure to what that whole means for people…

MS. CARTER: Right.

MS. TIPPETT: …in their everyday lives, in their families.

MS. CARTER: Right, right. And that’s how you build an army, you know, of support. That’s how you build people taking, you know, personal interest, you know, in this stuff because you do have to make it relevant. Like, it’s not this pie-in-the-sky thing. It’s, you know, and believe me, I think that the rainforests in Brazil should be protected, but it’s too far, you know, from the general daily lives of so many people, especially poor people living in their communities, whether they’re living in the Rust Belt, you know, whether they’re living in, you know, New Orleans right now, whether they’re living in the South Bronx. You know, it’s like you’ve got to meet people where they are.

There are West African traditions and religions that actually speak to, you know, your role, you know, as an active part of your environment. And like everything around you, whether it’s, you know, the iron that you use to make a tool, you know, whether it’s, you know, the tree that you carve a drum out of, you know, you are intimately, you know, associated with it. You know, it’s a part of you as you help craft it, as you use it. And so the, building those connections and understanding that you ultimately have to nurture them, you know, as an active member, you know, of the environment, is one of the most compelling things, you know, that I’ve learned. And it’s just something that I want to continue to build on in my life.

MS. TIPPETT: I still, you know, I also just think it’s fascinating to think about you translating those ideas from a wild, lush, natural landscape, open landscape, a lot of, and to, you know, to the South Bronx, to an American urban area that, when you were growing up just a few decades ago, was just in decay…


MS. TIPPETT: …and as you say, in flames.

MS. CARTER: Yep, yep, in flames. Gosh, yeah, I just, I want to just, you know, the image just sort of popped up in my head. When I was, my, one of my earliest memories, I was about 7 or 8. At the beginning of the summer, you know, I watched the two buildings at either end of my house burn down. And then at the end of the summer, my brother was killed, you know, as a result of a drug war. And I just remember thinking, ‘I got to get out of here.’ And now I’m back. Yeah.

MS. TIPPETT: Majora Carter is founder and executive director of Sustainable South Bronx. Earlier in this hour, you heard scientist and Evangelical conservationist Cal DeWitt.

We’d love to hear your reactions to this program. Share your thoughts at speakingoffaith.org. Download MP3s of this program through our Web site, our podcast, and our weekly e-mail newsletter. View images of the changes taking place in the South Bronx and take a visual tour as Cal DeWitt walks us across his land in Dunn, Wisconsin. You can also listen to my entire unedited conversations with Majora Carter and Cal DeWitt. Discover more at speakingoffaith.org. And Speaking of Faith has become a popular offering on iTunes U, an enriching resource for teachers and lifelong learners. This free collection is organized by subject and features additional tools for learning. Let us know if you use Speaking of Faith in your courses. Your input will help shape our offering. Learn more at speakingoffaith.org.

The senior producer of Speaking of Faith is Mitch Hanley, with producers Colleen Scheck, Shiraz Janjua, and Rob McGinley Myers, with assistance from Anna Marsh. Our online editor is Trent Gilliss. Kate Moos is the managing producer of Speaking of Faith, and I’m Krista Tippett.