One of the best ways to understand an issue is to hear from someone who lives, breathes, eats and sleeps that topic – and has for years.
That’s exactly why social entrepreneur Majora Carter is this year’s SustainFest 2018 keynote speaker. Carter will speak about social justice and fair distribution – the 2018-19 CofC Sustains/Solves theme chosen by the College’s Sustainability Literacy Institute.
SustainFest, which is free and open to the public, will take place on Thursday, Aug. 30, 2018, at 6 p.m. in Cistern Yard. The first 200 students to arrive will get a SustainFest T-shirt. In addition to Carter’s remarks, there will be exhibitions by student clubs and organizations, musical entertainment by DJ Collective Disparity and food for purchase.
A Peabody Award winning broadcaster and a Fast Company magazine designate as one of the “100 Most Creative People in Business,” Carter is an urban revitalization specialist. Nearly two decades ago, she founded Sustainable South Bronx, a nonprofit organization committed to addressing economic and environmental issues through a combination of green jobs training, community greening programs and social enterprise initiatives.
In her multifaceted career, Carter has been a TED Talk pioneer; a real estate developer; a television and radio producer and host; and, of course, an entrepreneur. She has won numerous awards for her work, including a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship, and has served on the board of the U.S. Green Building Council for six years. In addition, she’s received seven honorary doctorates.
The College Today connected with Carter ahead of her visit to campus to learn her views on social justice and why it’s important for college students – and every citizen – to be engaged with those issues.
What is social justice and why is it important?
I don’t use the term “social justice” except to describe what I call the “Social Justice Industrial Complex,” which is shorthand for “low-expectations.” In a hegemonic society, a concept like “justice” means something very different to those on top than it does for those on the bottom, so it’s not a useful communication tool when you are trying to address everyone. I prefer words like “equality.”
What, in your view, are the most pressing issues that should concern young people in the U.S.?
They don’t vote. It’s nothing new, but young American adults traditionally let people who will not have to live with the consequences make decisions that people who are young today will have to live with for longer. Young people could have decided who our president is. Instead, the Supreme Court will likely not reflect how a majority of young people feel today about many social and environmental issues for the next 20 years.
In terms of how our economy is evolving, I see too much concentration of capital around mega brands. Banks don’t want to lend into real estate development that doesn’t come with credit-rated tenants, so that usually excludes the local businesses that give character to our communities as well as keep their profits local. It’s even more difficult when you add race to that picture. Our cultural commerce is eroding to the point where all cities are pretty much the same, and all of the profits are extracted. Large corporations are able to manipulate tax breaks and other incentives, but small businesses usually don’t have the bandwidth for that. We need to change that equation so it favors small business creation and expansion, in my opinion.
It appears that a lot of the work you’ve done has centered around helping and empowering communities. Is that because working on a local scale to affect change is the most effective approach?
People (en masse) are affected by what they see, not what you say. I have always strived to create projects that people have to walk past every day, so that even if they never hear of me, they are positively influenced in some way.
You attended Wesleyan University and studied film, and then finished an MFA at New York University. Can you describe how your career as a social entrepreneur got started?
TV and radio production, starting businesses or organizations, and real estate development are all creative activities – making something that was not there before. Having a strong liberal arts education that encourages critical thinking and problem solving allows you to continue learning and taking on new challenges.
What advice do you offer to college students who are interested in finding important ways that they, too, can make the world a more just and sustainable place?
Stay away from nonprofits and philanthropy in general – there are too many of those and their track record of improving on almost anything (domestically) is not great. Start or join businesses that make money doing what you like in the ways that you like it to be done. Be a good person, it’s not hard, but it does require listening to others and being open to change as time goes on.