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Sundance The GREEN: An Interview With Co-Host Majora Carter

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Earlier this year, The Sundance Channel announced the creation of a new block of programming called THE GREEN. Presented by Redford, the series consists of three hours of television that “will present original series and documentary premieres about the earth’s ecology and concepts of “green” living that balance human needs with responsible care for the planet.”

The two hosts that will be anchoring THE GREEN are Majora Carter and Simran Sethi. We recently had the opportunity to chat with Majora about the upcoming series, her foundation, Southern Sustainable Bronx, and the impact she hopes to have by exposing people to green issues through their television screens.

‘Razzi: Your TED talk is one of the most popular, and is, in fact, how we became aware of you in the first place. What has that exposure done for you? For Sustainable South Bronx?

Majora: It saved me and my staff a lot of time. We ask journalists to watch it before doing any interviews so that they can get up to speed on what we do. We put a lot of work into that presentation, and it’s very difficult to get that across in an average conversation. Now that it’s out there, and in such amazing company, it helps give legitimacy for our work to a larger audience.

‘Razzi: Why did you decide to become a host for green, and what are your expectations from the experience and opportunity?

Majora: I have often joked that since people pay more attention to some movie star buying a Toyota Prius than they do to real live environmental justice activists like me, the way to really get anything done was to become a celebrity. So when this thing started to look for real, I was reminded of the phrase ‘be careful what you wish for…’

It’s an opportunity to gain new allies in a fight that will ultimately benefit everyone – even those who stand in our way now. All this pop-green culture buzz may be off the radar next year, so I want to make the most of the zeitgeist while we can.

I absolutely commend the Sundance channel for choosing two women of color to host the show. It’s such a departure from say – Vanity Fair’s green issue cover last year. The environmentalist movement is so prone to the pitfalls of whites-only elitism, and that magazine fully perpetuated that stereotype. I know they were trying to help, but until we have broad base unity and support, we are very vulnerable.

‘Razzi: Do you get to have input into the types of stories the green will focus on? Are you interested in covering other inspiring stories surrounding urban sustainable development?

Majora: So far, I only do my op-eds and comments; we’ve suggested some subjects for them, but I would like to have much more input going forward.

There are so many to choose from that don’t have ‘gadgets’ or objects and TV friendly visuals to point to, but are real stories of interest with life and death consequences.

Every time I do a TV piece, I get emails and calls from all over the country of people doing great things. I am so lucky to be where I am in all of this, but there are 100’s of people out there fighting for their civil rights. If I can help to inspire them with this show, it is only repayment for the inspiration they give me to carry on.

‘Razzi: What’s your involvement with Robert Redford? Is there any collaboration there?

Majora: None, but he is so beautiful, respectful, and graceful about how he is using his celebrity. If they renew my contract for another season, I am going to make sure Mr. Redford puts on a “Green The Ghetto” t-shirt for the cameras!

‘Razzi: Has the transition to working in television come easily for you?

Majora: Yes and no. I have the great advice of my husband who works in the video industry when he is not working for me; and another great advisor with extensive experience in both broadcast and philanthropy, Ruth Ann Harnisch – who is too incredible to explain here. Somebody should do a show just about her!

They have both helped me refine my messages for this medium, which is very different from being live and on stage like most presentations. Our director on The Green, Chris Weinstein is great and so is the entire team from Sundance, so that really helps too.

I thought the 18 minute time limit on TED was hard; now I have less than 2 minutes. Instead of people seated in an auditorium, I know they could be talking on the phone, sending emails, or clipping their toe nails while I am on in their living rooms. That’s weird so I try not to think about it.

‘Razzi: Tell us about your wedding site — before and after you got involved?

Majora: In improving the area, the point where Lafayette Avenue meets the Bronx river was a nasty filthy illegal garbage dump where one was likely to find prostitutes, needles and condoms. It is nestled between a truck lot and a scrap yard; not the kind of place you expect to see anything nice at all. As optimistic as I am – even I would never have predicted it would be a place that anyone would ever get married in when I first saw it.

After multiple volunteer community clean-ups, the help of a front-end loader and crew donated by Con-Ed, and support from various city agencies, we got the area into good enough shape to start boating and river ecology programs. From there, we raised more money to improve the site. The city came through with a park more beautiful than I had imagined.

My husband and I had thought of doing the wedding out in the countryside somewhere Upstate. It took a leap of faith to plan a wedding at the park because, at the time, it was under a $3m renovation. Nothing was on schedule and it looked like a construction site with mud and machinery everywhere less than a month before the wedding.

Unfortunately, since our wedding day, the park has been locked up and off limits to the public because of some conflict with the D.O.T. (Department of Transport) and a rail road track you have to cross to get to the park. It is a real tragedy for the community. It’s such a shame.

‘Razzi: Tell us a little bit about the South Bronx Greenway — when is it scheduled to break ground? Are you excited?!

Majora: It’s scheduled to begin first phase construction in Spring 2007, but the city is claiming that there is no money for maintenance.

They have suggested that a Central Park conservancy model be used to develop private funding for our park maintenance. This is an unrealistic suggestion. The museums and other wealthy institutions/individuals that pay for Central Park have no interest in us, and our local businesses are not able to support anything like that.

Fortunately, the Clinton Global Initiative connected me with a wonderful man named Barry Segal in NJ. He has put up the first $100,000 to get the maintenance program started until the city can figure out how to spend some of the budget surplus they keep bragging about on a minimum level of quality of life for NY’s poor and struggling.

This project represents a new hope for the Southern Bronx and I am sure it will inspire ground level economic development that is so important to the life of a city, but that central economic planners have lost touch with.

And it has all these other benefits like obesity reduction, and youth development, and a great place for old and young to picnic, fish, and create good memories that have such immeasurable value. Oh god, I can’t wait to see this happen!

‘Razzi: Going green is hot. What do we do to sustain this momentum and keep people actively involved in changing their lives?

Majora: It is important not to ask the general public to go from a to z in one step. It’s too hard, and an initial bad or failed experience turns them off to future movement. We need to go a to b, b to c, c to d; and then maybe we’ll try d to g or h!

We really need to connect the ancillary cost of un-green practices. These are things that we pay for collectively now, but that individual corporations benefit from.
For instance, if we really calculated the cost of a gallon of gas to include everything form public health burdens, to war, it would be more than the price you see at the pump.
The same is true for many aspects of our day to day life. Green alternatives look more cost effective in that light. As they take off, economies of scale will bring those costs down further. Over time, the cradle to cradle philosophy of design will create value where we waste it now too. We have to be positive about reaching that point.

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