“Majora Carter’s in the house!” Nancy Yao Massbach shouted from the podium in the ballroom of the Omni Hotel.
Massbach was one of the award chairs for the International Festival of Arts and Ideas’ Visionary Leadership Award, given in the previous six years to women at the vanguard of journalism, activism, and the arts. This year’s award went to Carter, who is at the forefront of urban revitalization with her work as an activist and entrepreneur in Hunts Point, a neighborhood in the South Bronx.
Carter outlined her story and philosophy in a conversation at Wednesday’s event with moderator, activist, and educator Dena Simmons, who Carter called “another fierce girl from Bronx.”
Carter said she grew up in Bronx “literally at a time when it was burning.” Even at 7 years old, “all I wanted to do was leave.” But as she got older and visited other places — even other parts of the city — she saw that “there was no such thing as an unsalvageable community,” and saw that she could try to do something about her own neighborhood.
She grounded her work in a compelling question: “How do you create a community that shows you don’t have to move out of a neighborhood to live in a better one?”
She started off in environmental work geared toward making her neighborhood more sustainable, helping establish Sustainable South Bronx and Green for All. But she quickly saw how those efforts were inextricably linked to economic and social issues. People in her neighborhood wanted parks. But they also wanted coffee shops, restaurants, and bookstores — and went to other neighborhoods to spend their money in them.
That led Carter to a realization: “This is how gentrification starts,” she said — not when white artists start moving in, but before that, “when you tell kids that there’s no value in the community.” She wondered instead if there was a way to self-gentrify, a phrase she had heard from a university president at an all-black college seeking to develop the poor neighborhood next to its campus. Maybe Hunts Points could engage in “development that’s by us and for us.”
So she struck out on her own as a consultant and, in time, real estate developer. She co-founded Bronx Tech Meetup and StartUpBox Software Services to make and keep tech jobs in the neighborhood. She works with Google, Cisco, and other companies that rely on technology. In real estate, she’s currently working on a two-block-long development in the neighborhood that has both apartments and businesses. She urges others to do the same — to “stay one step ahead of the development game by becoming developers themselves.”
The A&I award is not her first. She has been lauded by Goldman Sachs and the MacArthur Foundation, and was one of the first people to give a TED talk.
And yes, she opened that coffee shop, the Boogie Down Grind Café.
“We reinvent ourselves every day,” Carter said to Simmons at the Omni Hotel luncheon. But more pointedly, she realized that, in her own case, “I don’t have a choice.”
“I could show you all the rejection letters that I get to this day,” she added. But “I’m still here.”
Carter’s message was all part of the general message of the A&I’s luncheon, which also featured a fond sendoff — one of many to come — for A&I’s outgoing executive director, Mary Lou Aleskie. Anne Calabresi, A&I’s founding director (among many other things) called her “our in-house visionary.” Aleskie is departing A&I for a similar position at Dartmouth College.
Mayor Toni Harp tied Carter’s work to the broader political climate, saying that “we find ourselves in the shadow” of policies that seek to “isolate” and “alienate” us.
“We must redouble our efforts to seek common ground,” Harp said. “There is still a lot of work to do in this country.” Turning to Carter with gratitude, she said, “we need you.”
After Carter’s conversation with Simmons, she was presented with the physical embodiment of the A&I award. The ceramic plate, it was explained, was modeled after a design by artist Sol LeWitt.
Carter graciously accepted it. “I have always wanted my very own Captain America shield,” she said. Everyone laughed.