Willamette University, Students at the Mill Stream

Majora Carter discussed her work in urban sustainability during a visit to Willamette.Majora Carter discussed her work in urban sustainability during a visit to Willamette.

Carter met for a round-table discussion with a group of Willamette undergraduates.Carter met for a round-table discussion with a group of Willamette undergraduates.

Dempsey Lecture inspires innovation in the field of sustainability

In this year’s Dempsey Lecture, Majora Carter — an economic consultant, Peabody Award-winning public radio host and environmental justice advocate — presented the Willamette University community with her creative strategies for transcending race and class lines that can pose a challenge to sustainability solutions.

She began with a controversial confession: “I have something in common with the Tea Party. I believe that we should have a smaller government by creating jobs for our most expensive citizens.”

Those “most expensive citizens” are the thousands of people who repeatedly cycle through the American prison systems due to what Carter claims is a lack of hope. Carter’s enterprise kills two proverbial birds with one stone: offering constructive jobs to these at-risk citizens, while also establishing fresh approaches in the world of sustainability.

Carter, a New York Bronx native, initially pioneered this movement by founding Sustainable South Bronx — an activism group whose first major project was to convert an illegal garbage dump on the Bronx River waterfront into what is now Hunt’s Point Riverside Park.

Greening the Ghetto

Carter’s lecture shed light on many misconceptions of environmental justice, urban sustainability and the imperative need to reexamine American food production and consumption culture. She focused on the importance of engaging communities, especially those in areas such as the South Bronx where knowledge is often a commoditized privilege.

“You can’t assume people know these things,” she says. “I left the South Bronx for college, and suddenly I saw a lot of things members of my community didn’t see. They weren’t denying it was happening, but they were denying that there was anything they could do to change it.”

Carter left Sustainable South Bronx in good hands and moved on to running the Majora Carter Group. She highlighted several of her colleagues’ successes across the country, including an urban bee-keeping operation in Chicago. She cited statistics showing that nationwide, 65% of convicts return to jail, yet for those in the Chicago program, this stat is fewer than 10%.

“This job training system is the most exciting project I’ve undertaken,” she said. “People who told me they wouldn’t ever be anything suddenly realized that they could learn skills that are both useful and that contribute to their self worth. It was truly a beautiful thing.”

From the Bronx to Salem

Earlier in the day, a small group of Willamette students sat down with Carter for an intimate question and answer period. The discussion yielded a number of valuable truths for those students on the brink of the transition from theoretical classroom discussions to their application in fields such as Carter’s.

Though the group comprised primarily senior environmental science and politics majors, the students also represented a colorful variety of minors and backgrounds. When combined with Carter’s interdisciplinary advocacy, this diversity fueled a multi-faceted discussion, integrating topics such as art as advocacy, economic policy and sociological dilemmas involved in class division in the environmental sector.

Peggyjoy Hodgen ’11, an environmental science major, said the discussion provided exciting insights into the fields of urban sustainability and justice, in which she hopes to pursue career opportunities. She also said it was empowering for her as a woman to hear from a leading female in the field.

“Connecting with public figures such as Majora shows us how we’ll really be able to solve issues,” Hogden says, “and allows us to feel empowered in both our skills as scientists and our acquired passion for applying knowledge in a meaningful way.”