You Can Be Successful Where You Are: Majora Carter on Reclaiming Communities

Please note: This transcript has been automatically generated.

Brittany Packnett Cunningham: Hey, y’all it’s Brittany, if you hear a couple little noises in the back that’s because I’ve got a very special guest here at the mic with me who’s still learning how to talk and smile and do all the cool things. But you know, a yawn or two might be heard because baby M is in the studio. I just wanted to come and pop my head in and see how y’all were doing.

As for me, I am currently learning how to really, really keep up those boundaries that keep family time sacred, that keep mommy in the picture as much as possible, and allow me a little space to rest, too. One of the things I’ve really been discovering is that without those boundaries I would not have the time to rediscover who I am or maybe discover who I am anew.

My whole body is different. I do not know this body. I need to get to know it. My mind is certainly different. My priorities have changed completely, but most importantly, who I am down to the things that make me, me, some of them are more pronounced than ever. And some things that I held onto quite dearly have begun to fade away.

Isn’t that right? Yeah. Yeah. So I’m excited to be on this journey of discovery of myself and of the world with this little one right here because we together are UNDISTRACTED.

On the show today, Majora Carter. 

“There is so much money to be made off of our poverty. And that’s when frankly, I just got angry.” 

My UNDISTRACTED teammates Treasure and Cindi sat down with the MacArthur genius winner. But first, here’s Treasure with your untrending news.

Treasure Brooks: Yeah, it hasn’t even been a month since the school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, but in that time there have been more than four dozen mass shootings. I won’t even give you a count because at the rate we’re going and the hours between when I record this and when you hear it, the number will probably have gone up.

It’s happened before. Instead, I’ll turn to a bit of maybe encouraging news. On Sunday, 20 senators announced a bipartisan agreement on gun safety legislation. If passed, it would be the biggest restructuring of our gun laws in nearly 30 years. The proposal is just a fraction of what needs to be done. For example, it does literally nothing to ban assault weapons or raise the age for gun purchases, but in the absence of a comprehensive solution, there is one buried victory.

Domestic violence and gun control advocates have been trying for years to close a problematic gap in federal and state gun laws. You may have heard it called the boyfriend loophole, and this is what it means: by law, people convicted of domestic violence against a current or former spouse, live-in partner or co-parent, can’t buy a firearm, but there’s no similar restriction on dating partners who’ve been convicted of domestic violence. 

And according to the National Coalition of Domestic Violence, around half of intimate partner violence incidents are committed by dating partners. The bipartisan Senate deal will close that loophole. And that’s a good thing because as Shannon Watts, founder of Moms Demand Action puts it:

Shannon Watts: America is made up of this patchwork of different gun laws, some strong, some weak. We’re all only as safe as the closest state with the weakest gun laws. 

Treasure: So even if it feels like we’ve only moved an inch towards mitigating gun related tragedies, we are going to celebrate this inch. Good baby steps in it. Now keep going.

You can maybe almost guess what the next story’s about because it has not left the news. It’s about abortion. As you know, we’re waiting for the Supreme Court to issue its decision in the case that could overturn Roe V. Wade. I still can’t believe that I’m saying that sentence. Whew. And the moment it does, 13 states are expected to immediately ban abortion.

Now here’s something you might not have heard. According to New York Times reporting, in many of those states, the bans have no exceptions for cases of rape, incest, or threat to the life of the pregnant person. That’s notable because it means the new laws are even more extreme than pre-Roe laws, which often included those exceptions.

And now in a post-Roe world, Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Kentucky, Louisiana, Missouri, Oklahoma, Ohio, South Dakota, Tennessee, and Texas would all have abortion bans that are more strict than their laws in, wait for it, 1973.

Mississippi’s law makes the particularly cruel distinction of allowing abortion in the case of rape, but not incest. Let’s be clear, abortion is healthcare and it should be available to every person. You don’t have to have a, quote unquote, good reason like having been raped to need one, just not wanting to be pregnant is enough.

You knowing your mind and owning your body is enough, but these laws show just how little these politicians care about us. They don’t just want to roll back the clock. They want to reset it completely to a time when our bodies and minds didn’t matter.

Let’s end with some hope. Shall. My hometown, the city of Oakland, shout to Yay area, has done what the federal government should have done decades ago. 

Oakland City Council has voted to formally recognize racism as a public health crisis. It’s not just an acknowledgement. The Oakland City Council has allocated $350,000 to hiring new employees to support the city’s Department of Race and Equity. And Oakland is not alone. According to the American Public Health Association, from October 2020 to 2021, 70 cities, three states and roughly three dozen counties also identified racism as a public health crisis.

With formal designation comes resources and real work, so way to go Oakland and get on board rest of America.

Coming up, we talked to the founder of Sustainable South Bronx Majora Carter about resisting the narrative that you have to leave your community to succeed. Right after this short break.

And we’re back. Our guest today is Majora Carter. Her name may be familiar to you from her Peabody award-winning radio show “The Promised Land”, or perhaps you’ve seen her book Reclaiming Your Community on store shelves. The subtitle “Nobody should have to move out of their neighborhood to live in a better one” tells you everything you need to know about Majora’s mission to keep dollars and talent in our communities. 

And let’s just say, I personally really related to it. Majora is also a MacArthur genius award winner, because of course she is for her work in the South Bronx. And she recently gave a TED Talk. 

The meteor’s Cindi Leive and I caught up with her at TED. 

Majora, we just saw you get a standing ovation for a talk that you gave on reclaiming communities and it was such a moment. We wanna hear all about what you talked about, but let’s start with your personal story. You grew up in the South Bronx and you said that you spent a lot of time plotting your escape.

Can you tell us a little about your story and about that narrative? 

Majora Carter: Sure. I did grow up in the South Bronx, literally during the 1970s and early 80s while it was burning. Like a nickname for it was the Burning Bronx because there was all this years of financial disinvestment. Landlords were torching buildings to collect insurance money ‘cuz there wasn’t mortgages or loans or anything coming in to help those buildings.

And uh, it was really tough. We lost about 60% of the population. It looked like a ghost town in many, many ways. And we were on the nightly news as the poster child of urban blight. It was just like literally was the kind of place that you were led to believe you had to grow up and get out of. And that’s how I felt.

Cindi Leive:  And when did you start kind of questioning that narrative? The imperative of, of getting out? 

Majora: Oh, I didn’t really start questioning it until, oh my gosh, I was in my 30s. I had moved back to the neighborhood, not because I really wanted to be there, but because I was broke and needed a cheap place to stay, which was mommy and daddy’s house.

And that’s when I discovered through that time that there was a huge waste facility being built on our waterfront, despite the fact that, you know, we’d already handled a lot of the cities, you know, waste and other kind of noxious use infrastructure. And it was good that I’d had some distance, you know, and some education and I realized this was happening to us because we were poor and politically vulnerable. 

And it really shook me, you know, to, to my core, to feel like, oh my gosh, like this was totally done on purpose. Because there’s like issues around systemic racism, you know, and just us being politically, not in a great place.

But then I also had to look at the fact that there’s always been beautiful people in my community. And it was just difficult like once I realized like how we were being perceived. And then also recognizing that I’ve always had all these, these beautiful people around me, like how could I think that.

And when it hit me, that’s when I was like, oh, I see it. What can I do? To literally change the narrative about how we think about ourselves and, and how we are also thought about. But mostly it was like how we see ourselves as, you know, the beautiful people that I always thought us to be. 

Cindi: And did that translate pretty quickly into wanting to stay?

Majora: Mm, yes, totally. It wasn’t like, I was like oh, I’m gonna stay now. It was just, well, what else am I gonna do? Like, I’m gonna be here. Like I gotta be in it to win it. And, uh, that is what I did. 

Yeah. Like my roots just got even deeper. 

Cindi: Yeah. You intentionally used the phrase low-status communities. Can you explain why those words and instead of what?

Majora: Yeah, so I use the term low-status to describe communities that most are often called things like poor or disadvantaged or underprivileged, because status, it implies, I think something deeper and larger. That’s just like deeply embedded and that there’s layers and there are specific layers and that’s where you go.

And so status implied to me that something larger was at work. And in this case, it was just that, you know, that inequality was simply assumed for neighborhoods like that. They were just gonna be that way. 

Treasure: So in your latest book, you use the phrase “talent retention” as a critical part of revitalizing depressed communities.

I’m wondering how you came to that term. And can you explain what lens we should be using to identify who the talented among our communities are?

Majora: Yeah. Um, so I’m an entrepreneur. Have been before I even knew what it was, and you know, I took a page out of the, the book of any successful business. It’s like, you don’t hire great people, so they go and work for somebody else.

You hire them because you’re expecting them to kind of lean in with you. And so that’s why you provide benefits or, you know, give them reasons to stay and it’s not even always money. It’s more like, how do they feel about what they’re building like you? Um, oh God, who’s the, the, the guy that wrote The Little Prince

Treasure: Saint-Exupéry?

Majora: Yes, yes! That, and, um, there’s this beautiful quote, which I’m gonna maul, but it’s something like, look, if you want, you know, some people to, you know, build a boat and, you know, travel the seas, like you don’t just give ’em wood and axes and chop stuff up. You give them a yearning. You know, for the endless expanse of the sea. And I was like, oh yeah, that’s how you build great companies.

That’s how you build great visions. And, you know, it’s just so beautiful. And it’s the same thing with communities. Like if your people start to see that their community has something in it that makes them feel like this is the best place in the world to be, that’s how they’re gonna act. But they have to feel like it’s something worth protecting. Something worth fighting for, something worth dreaming on.

And it’s the same thing with companies. And I think it’s the same thing with communities. 

Treasure: You also talk about talent extraction. Oh, so what role does that play in? What forces exactly are doing that extracting? 

Majora: Sure. It’s interesting because billions of dollars every year that are pumped into low-status communities and they, and low-status communities, I wanna be really clear. They’re not just inner cities, they’re Native American reservations. They’re, um, you know, all white, you know, former rust belt towns where jobs have come and gone.

But what they all, you know, have at the root of them is that inequality is assumed both by the people that are in them and the people that are outside of them. And these billions of dollars, often their government programs and, and the nonprofit industrial complex as well.

And I think that many of them, the programs that they start are actually quite well meaning, you know, where they identify, you know, the athletically, academically, artistically gifted young people in particular, they’re the ones that go into the gifted and talented programs. You know, they’re the ones that get like the extra art lessons, you know, there’s the program, there’s the college readiness stuff and things like that. But there’s both stated and subtle underpinnings of saying like, look, you’re gonna grow up and get outta here.

You’re gonna grow up and be somebody. And we’re expected to leave. We’re expected to measure success by how far we get away from our communities. And I remember that, like, it was yesterday, it was just really clear. It’s like, you’ve got a big, beautiful brain Majora. Great imagination. You’re gonna do something with yourself.

And, you know, I was like, and I was like, yeah, you’re right I am. And it gonna be outta here. Like literally I remember that at like seven. I’m seven years old. I’m out. 

Treasure: Oh my gosh. I was, now I’m feeling emotional and I was emotional during your talk because that’s my story as well. I’m from Oakland, California, and I went to boarding school at 13 years old in New York through the program A better chance. 

Majora: Yes. Okay. 

Treasure: And even that language, a better chance, you know, at what and why isn’t it universalized? 

Majora: Yes! Right! It would be different. And I think if it was just like, there’s an assumption, like you go back home and you take your beauty and your talent and it’s, it’s there to share with your community.

But, it, we don’t do that. That’s what I think is just so horrific about what actually passes for development in many of those communities, cuz it’s literally saying to people like you’re nothing where you are if you stay there. But then what does that mean for the people that are left behind? 

So it it’s isolating, you know, to the people who get out. And it’s also like just as, as socially isolating, I think to the ones that are left behind, but in a different way. And either way we’re not like repairing and, and nurturing, you know, the, the, the social fabric within those communities or even creating more opportunities for economic recovery.

So it’s just like, so who wins on that one? Somebody’s winning. It just boggles my mind. And it was an evolution. It was, because at first it was just like, okay, let’s support our communities. And let’s, you know, then when it, when it really hit me, I was like, oh, this is bigger than anything I ever thought. Like, there’s so much money to be made off of our poverty.

And that’s when frankly, I just got angry. I did. 

Cindi: I’m sure. You talked before about the moment that you began to realize that you wanted to resist this narrative that you have to leave. You have to get out. And I I’m curious for you Treasure, if you remember, when you started to question this idea that a better chance meant a chance somewhere else.

Treasure: I think this concept that you have to leave home to change home, it’s it’s so pervasive among my generation, especially because we are the most advantaged. Particularly, you know, Black, low-income communities. They’re more government programs and non-government programs than they’ve ever been to help us.

Majora: Yes. But we’re not getting any better statistically. 

Treasure: No, statistically we’re not getting better. And I think for me, when I entered into these predominantly white affluent institutions, I recognized there was a lot of psychic and emotional violence at play. 

Majora: Yes. 

Treasure: And so it made me have to contend with this idea of, well, what am I really being saved from?

You know? Yes, maybe physically I’m finding some refuge, the lights aren’t getting turned off. Um, however, the emotional deterioration of being in those spaces and not being able to be my authentic self, always made me really question, you know, just the whole schema of this grand plan. And, and I, I wanna ask you, because that word “talent”, it has such a broad history, especially in the Black community.

I’m, I’m immediately thinking of Du Bois’ talent to 10th model where he proposes to uplift 10 percent of the, you know, young, Black population and hopes that they’ll reinvest in their communities. And obviously that’s a contentious idea because, who is talented and are these the people that adhere to white respectability politics?

So I wanna understand how you came to use that term and also what sort of strategies or, um, methods should be put in place for those that are viewed less favorably in our communities?

Majora: Thank you for saying that because I understand what he was saying, but the whole idea of talent there’s, everybody’s got something, but do they even wanna share it?

And it’s often the ones who actually can make money and are doing it and who take their money out. You know, as, because if they’re not investing in their own communities, um, where they’re making a lot of money or they’re making a little bit of money, but if you’re taking your money and you’re spending it someplace else, and if we can build opportunities for you to spend your money in yours, in your own community, so that dollar could circulate over and over and over again, then that’s the talent.

It is so much broader than that. Because it’s obviously more than 10 percent. 

Treasure: Well that, I’d also say that what you are advocating for, viewing community members in low status communities as stakeholders. You talked, um, about the fact that they’re, it’s so lucrative. These environments are so lucrative, but the returns are not going to the community members themselves.

I think just in reframing that, the social conditions that produce, you know, people that bottom out the people that aren’t perceived as talented, that lead to incarceration, that lead to dropout rates. There’d just be such a rapid decline that there wouldn’t even be this need to differentiate who has potential and who doesn’t.

Majora: Yeah. But the thing is like, everybody does have some potential. 

Treasure: Absolutely.

Majora: Period. But it’s just like, is that potentially even realized if they don’t see someone who’s acting on. Like, that’s the thing that I’ve noticed. It’s like, if you don’t see it, will you believe it? And if you definitely don’t see it in your own community and that’s all you see, you won’t even be able to experience the idea that there’s any potential in you that, that you should be showing to the world.

That’s what I find like, so curious and, and, um, Because we’ll we some, I, I see it sometimes in my own neighborhood. Like you, this is the way you really wanna hurt my feelings. This is how you hurt my feelings. Um, you have, uh, like someone from my neighborhood and I’m talking like people who like, appreciate the work that I do.

You know, I was walking from the subway, I actually had a meeting downtown and I was coming back home and it was night. And so I see this guy who often came to my cafe during the day, and so we’re coming out of the subway and, and he’s just like, what are you doing here? And I was like “going home” and he literally stopped in his tracks and he was like “You live here? You live in this neighborhood?” ‘Cuz to him, I was successful and successful people don’t stay.

And I was just like, how interesting it was, you know, for people to kind of, even in our own neighborhoods to discount, like what’s like authentic to that neighborhood. What does that say? Like, I think that comes from a place of trauma and all sorts of places where we’ve been led to believe there’s no value in our community.

And if it is, then it should leave. The viewers can’t see the look on, on Treasure’s face. 

Cindi: Yeah. This is resonating. You were talking before about the things that do make people wanna stay and how we sometimes underestimate that they’re not just sort of , you know, the vital services, they’re also the things that just make a place enjoyable.

What, what do you see as those kinds of things?

Majora: You know, there, so they’re third spaces and that’s like a, you know, cutesie, little urban planning term for, um, you know, places that are neither, uh, work nor home. But, they almost always involve some form of social gathering. So their cafes, their restaurants, their parks, their, um, you know, bookstores, just something that, you know, brings people together in, in the, in the act of community.

Because community is it’s. It’s not just a place. It really is an activity. And, um, and that’s one of the reasons why we started our cafe. That was the thing that we heard the most when we did our market research, that people would leave the neighborhood to, to experience things like, you know, cool cafes and coffee shops. And, you know, just as a place to like, you know, meet up with somebody for a little bit or whatever.

And so we, we actually tried to get someone to come in and we found some very cheap leases and, um, we got them just to hold onto them to offer them to a cafe owner and nobody wanted to come because to most people, it was too early on the development, you know, curve to have something like cute cafe in our neighborhood.

Even though, again, our people would leave the neighborhood to go to them in other parts of the city. And so we did it ourselves.

Cindi: Can you talk a little bit about that? 

Majora: Sure. 

Cindi: So, so what did you do? 

Majora: We did, so it say, uh, so we started it off as a joint venture with a really amazing coffee shop called Birch Coffee.

And we decided to kind of like, frankly, like go back to our own roots, which is really embracing, you know, the hip hop culture of our community. ‘Cuz “Boogie Down” literally is the name of, of the, the, the Bronx. And uh, we’re also the birthplace of hip hop. So we literally, we are the Boogie Down Grind Cafe. 

Cindi: Oh, I love that.

Majora: And you know, we’ve opened up the space and the thing is like, it’s a, it’s a sort of like a, a community curated space. So everything from art exhibits to musical showcases, you know, credit repair workshops and yeah. So we’re super excited about stuff like. 

Treasure: I’m, I’m curious to know, since you started your consulting firm, um, Majora Carter Group, if you’ve experienced any backlash from South Bronx community members when looking to relocate businesses into the community, especially considering, you know, the suspicion around gentrification.

Majora: Sure. Yeah, sure. I mean, definitely, honey. I was on a, let’s see, I was in the, uh, front page story of The New York Times and gossip piece, um, which basically, I think the title was something like “Hero of the South Bronx Now Accused of Betraying It” because I took on a client that some local activists thought was just a bad idea.

You know, they were very interested in food justice and I think rightfully so, they had some issues with how the city didn’t do the right thing by actually letting the community know what was actually happening and doing a really smart environmental, you know, assessment of what the impacts would be on a particular site.

But when I did my homework, um, I realized that it probably was a better idea to have a company like this online food grocer come in because of the number of jobs that they could create, you know? And it was really unfortunate, I thought, because, you know, they just looked at me and they were like, look, you’re just you, you used to be, you know, down with the people.

And now you’re like with the man, and it’s just like, We could talk about this if you wanted to, but they weren’t interested. And that was it. 

Cindi: I wanna ask you a really quick question before we go to our last question. You talked before about preparing people for home ownership, and one of the things that you talked about in your TED Talk that I thought was so interesting is how difficult it can be for people who do own homes in this community to hang onto them because they’re constantly being offered all cash for their homes and that that’s happened to you. 

Can you just talk a little bit about that phenomenon and what we do to get out of it? 

Majora: Oh, absolutely. I mean, I think whether there’s big or small real estate companies or private equity firms, you know, who can who’ve figured out how to, um, you know, buy up homes, rent them.

And it’s a, it’s a big deal, but they’re banking on people in low-status communities not understanding the value of their communities. And you know, so long before gentrification starts, because I don’t think it starts when you start to see, you know, doggy daycares and cafes where you didn’t see ’em before, it starts to happen when we start to see no value in our communities.

Because when the neighborhood doesn’t seem like much you can say, oh, I’ll like buy your house for cash and it doesn’t end. People don’t even know the value of it. They will generally sell for early and cheap and we’ve seen it happen time and time and time again. And so I think one of the things that we can do is just like, if you commit a crime and you can’t afford an attorney, you’ll get a public defender assigned to you, right? 

So we could do the same thing for homeowners. Like, as those deals get registered, somebody could reach out to them and be like, yo, um, do you know what you’re, what you’re sitting on? Just wanna make sure ‘cuz if you do and you wanna sell, go ahead. But what are they offering? Oh really? Okay. You know, it’s worth more. 

You don’t have a mortgage? Wait, so you that’s all that equity in your house. Just, just to let you know and you could make whatever decision you want.

Cindi: But that people are traditionally underestimating the amount of value the homes that they do have. 

Majora: Always, almost always. 

Treasure: Wow. Okay. We wanna close by just asking you to tell us this story and so correct me if I’m wrong, but you shared in your TED Talk that your father was a Pullman Porter.

Majora: So my daddy was a gambling man, okay. And, uh, so he was a Pullman Porter, but yes, he played the ponies and he was in Los Angeles on a run, which wasn’t his normal run. And, uh, he went to a racetrack and won $15,000 cash. In 19, early 1940s. And he literally carried the money, $15,000 in cash. He was back home, back to New York City ‘cuz he was living in Harlem at the time, but he wanted to buy a house and he found a family that was willing to sell it to him.

Literally near this, this rail station that there was talk that it was gonna be reopened, ‘cuz at that point it wasn’t open and he was like, I see you’re selling this house, I’d like to buy it from you. and they sold it to him. My dad he would have the, the conductor slow the train down when it got to that point, so he could literally jump off the train and climb up the embankment to walk two blocks to our house, as opposed to going all the way downtown to Penn Station which is the, the, the main access point. 

And it was just really very funny. And so now I actually acquired that rail station and I’m transforming it into an event hall and music performance venue.

And it’s not been fully transformed yet, but basically we use it right now. And so there’s like performances, videos are shot there, pop-up shops or flea markets are there. And I’m very excited about that. 

Treasure: Whew. oh my gosh. 

Cindi: What an incredible feeling to be building something in that building in that same building.

Treasure: Yep. Rewriting history and really forging such a beautiful future in your hometown. Thank you so much for everything you’ve done, Majora. 

Majora: Thank you. 

Treasure: Thank you for being with us.

Majora Carter is an urban renewal strategist based in the Bronx. We talked to her in Vancouver at TED 2022. To hear Majora’s talk when it’s released subscribe to the TED Talk’s daily podcast, wherever you listen.

I’m still thinking about what Majora says about how we measure success by how far we get away from our communities. It’s such a symptom of our culture’s toxic individualism. The idea that if a few folks can, quote, get out, then by the power of rich benefactors and institutions they’ll be saved. But in reality, nothing is more powerful than community.

And we have everything we need right now to build that. If we wanna help, we can start by questioning the way that we think. Why do we say, oh, she made it from the Bronx to Manhattan or in my case, she went from Oakland to Harvard. Why do we assume that getting out is the goal and how can we make our communities, places people really want to stay? And then respect them for doing that. Those are the questions for me. I hope they resonate for you too. 

Be well, wherever you are.

Brittany: That’s it for today, but never for tomorrow. UNDISTRACTED is a production of The Meteor and Pineapple Street Studios. 

Treasure Brooks is our correspondent.

Our lead producer is Rachel Ward.


Our associate producers are Alexis Moore and Marialexa Kavenaugh. 

Thanks also to Hannis Brown, Davy Sumner, and Raj Makhija.

 Our executive producers at The Meteor are Cindi Leive and myself, and our executive producers at Pineapple are Jenna Weiss-Berman and Max Linsky. 

You can follow me at @MsPackyetti on all social media and our incredible team @TheMeteor.

Subscribe to UNDISTRACTED and rate and review us on Apple podcasts or most places you find your favorite podcasts. 

Thanks for listening. Thanks for being. And thanks for doing.  I’m Brittany Packnett Cunningham.

Let’s go get free.