Kevin: Schools do not exist in a silo. They are tied to communities. High teacher turnover rate paired with brain drain of students can have dire consequences for communities that may already be economically or socially disadvantaged. How can we prepare students for career opportunities and still encourage them to invest in their local ecosystem? What are the benefits of retaining educated students for a community? And how can we support student success and foster community engagement among teachers and families? This is What I Want To Know, and today I'm joined by Majora Carter to find out.
Kevin: Majora Carter is a real estate developer and urban revitalization strategist. She applies corporate talent retention practices to reduce brain drain and help stabilize neighborhoods. Majora is the founder of Boogie Down Grind, a hip-hop-themed specialty coffee and craft beer spot where local groups can collaborate on projects and community development. She also founded Startup Box, a social enterprise designed to increase opportunities for underserved community members to be part of the tech economy. Today she joins us to discuss how schools can contribute to sustainable talent development. Majora, welcome to the show.
Majora: Thank you for having me.
Kevin: Knowing a little bit about your work, I was so struck by the notion of sustainable community talent. You grew up in the Bronx, where you are still living and working. Talk a little bit about what led you on this journey toward ensuring that people who come from a community feel the commitment to stay and invest in a community.
Majora: I was one of the kids growing up in the South Bronx in the 1970s and early 80s, and literally, the neighborhood was burning around us. Years of financial disinvestment did lead to poverty in our community — the type of things that made people believe this is just a place for urban blight. So the bright kids, whether academically or athletically or artistically inclined, were led to believe that we had to measure success by how far we got away from our communities. And education was generally the way out. So I started planning my escape when I watched as the two buildings at either end of my block burned down — my brother was killed — as a result of the gang violence in the community. And yeah, I was seven years old; I was like, I'm out of here. And I knew I was smart, and I was planning to go to Bronx High School of Science, which I did, and then went to Wesleyan University. And it was just like, I've arrived. But we were dealing with brain drain, and it's not something that we take into account that happens in American cities or communities in general.
And it's like, that's what happens in the developing world. But really, what happens is that the best and the brightest within our communities are led to believe that they shouldn't be a part of its future transformation. And that was something that, once I got older and mostly started working in the environmental world and realized that because we happened to be a poor community of color and thus vulnerable politically, we got dumped on. But by association, we also were losing our talent to other communities so that they could go and enrich them. And that made me wonder: why is this continuing to happen? And that's when I realized: we can create the infrastructure that allows people in our own communities to see the value in them.
In the same way, if you're a company and you want to hire good talent, that's how you keep them. You give them reasons to want to stay. And I was like, we can do the same things with our communities and show that you don't have to move out of your neighborhood to live in a better one. But it also creates the cycle where we see value in our own community and, thus, by association, in ourselves.
Kevin: One of the challenges that I've seen as a byproduct of all this is that people, oftentimes with good intentions on the outside — they come in and they implant their vision on these low-status communities. And their vision, as I said, may be altruistic, may be well-intentioned, but it doesn't take into account the cultural mores of the low-status community.
Majora: So there are really only two kinds of real estate development in low-status communities. One is the kind you'd be seeing in gentrification and displacement, which I think people know about. They build the kind of things that are not meant for the folks that are already there. But what's interesting is that those same people leave those neighborhoods when they can in order to experience the nice cafes and bars and restaurants and things of that nature. And the other kind is something we call poverty-level economic maintenance. And that's where billion-dollar industries, whether it's pharmaceuticals and healthcare, again, huge government contracts go to those, whether they're public or private, hospitals or healthcare systems. But again, the communities aren't getting any better, as is evidenced by the fact that those lifestyle illnesses continue to rise. And then, for "affordable" housing development, especially for very low-income folks and homeless shelters, again, big dollars go into those developer fees which are paid to the developer not to make quality housing. But actually, what we see is that so much of that poverty is concentrated.
And when you concentrate that poverty, what you also concentrate are low educational attainment, higher rates of poor health outcomes. It's a lack of hope, more poverty and certainly more unemployment associated with those communities. We don't keep the infrastructure in our communities so that people can see that it's not just poor and uneducated people in our communities, because that has never been the case, ever. But suddenly that's the way that I believe, whether it's the media even, and definitely the nonprofit industrial complex that's supported by our government look at those places. And that's how we're treated, and that's how development happens. And again, it doesn't ultimately benefit the people that are in our own communities.
Kevin: There's such a confluence of perception and realities when it comes to this whole issue. And when you talk about infrastructure needs, obviously, real estate is a big part of it. And when you made your commitment to ease the brain drain, made sure you maintain sustainable talent in your low-status community — you became a real estate developer. And that was one of the first things you did.
Majora: And when we did our own market research and discovered that people weren't leaving the neighborhood because, when they could afford to do so, for things like it's high crime or anything like that; that never even factored in. What factored in: it's, do I have a cool place to hang out with my friends? And they would leave their own neighborhoods to go to those places. And that included residents and teachers, actually, as we're talking about education. We were told by, actually, more than a few of the folks that we surveyed that they were just really tired of their teachers — and they loved their teachers — but they would leave so quickly, and the teachers would move to areas that had schools and that actually had things like restaurants and cafes and bars or places to hang out with their friends afterward. Maybe they needed to talk about a principal or another issue that they had, but they needed those spaces.
And when we didn't have those spaces, they realized that, that's where their teachers were going. And so, their students were missing out on actually having veteran teachers stick around because the quality of life in the teaching community, within the community, was not great. So, building these third spaces, whether they're cafes or restaurants or things of that nature, literally makes the quality of life for educators to be better. Our cafe: we started a little cafe called the Boogie Down Grind, and it was not uncommon for a teacher — you could see a teacher with a parent or a kid who just needed a place away from school to have a conversation. And it was just a wonderful space where people felt like: this is something that feeds me, that speaks to me. Because I need to have these kinds of places, a place that's neither work nor home but creates a safe environment that makes me feel like my community is worth staying in.
Kevin: What about this issue of economic stability? Because a lot of what happens when you have working-class and low-class wages is people can’t afford to live, so, what are some of the things that you see that you're doing or needs to be done?
Majora: Definitely more needs to be done in helping people understand just first triage is that there are plenty of folks within low-status communities that actually do own property. But because we've been led to believe that there is zero value in our communities, that we are so quick, when somebody gives us a call, a predatory speculator and says, I'll buy your house for cash, they'll be like, who's this sucker on the other end of the phone who wants this crap in this crappy neighborhood?
Kevin: Right. Right.
Majora: As opposed to understanding the value that's inherent within that real estate and what it could mean for wealth creation. So, making sure that we're educating people on that and understanding that was a really important thing.
Kevin: Talk a little bit about some of the transformation that you've seen, and you mentioned Boogie Down Grind, hip-hop specialty coffee and hangout spot, and there's the real estate development you've done, but the community is quite a bit different because of your work, and I know you should be proud of that. But talk about some of the transformation from a psychological point of view, in terms of what people say to you when they feel empowered to believe in their communities again.
Majora: It's been exciting to witness, literally witness in my own community, but also bear witness with other folks who actually read some of the stories in my book and are actually rethinking their own communities. We're seeing things like the Boogie Down Grind, and it allows us all to connect with each other and to see how beautiful we are. And I want to say, those kinds of stories, of: I want to build a business here; I'm going to start a business; it's literally going to have a Bronx address, which is not something that many of us were even considering doing. But seeing that their example is also the thing that provides another person with that example that, oh, wait, great things are here. We can stay in our own community and build stuff together that's going to support us. And I think people understanding a bit more about things like Black Wall Streets is that this isn't a crazy idea.
And I know, and I think that there's some psychic fear, and I'm not saying it shouldn't be, actually, the same way that savagely and without consequence Black Wall Streets, not just the one in Tulsa, Oklahoma, but all over this country were just burned to the ground or disappeared in other ways. And so I get that; that's something that we should recognize and understand that that is part of what's keeping us from going forward, just because it's real. People are still getting shot in the street, but I think the courage that it takes for people to actually see themselves in a way that much in the country tells us that that's not how we should see ourselves. But all folks are doing these incredible things, but really it's just showing the value and beauty of our own community.
Kevin: Most of the plans, as you said, really don't take into account the voices or the interests of the people who live there. And when it comes to schools, we're facing a huge teacher shortage.
Kevin: Teachers don't feel valued. And in many of the communities where they do teach, they do not live. So there's not only the commuter issue, but it's the feeling like they have to go somewhere to practice their craft. From a brain drain and sustainable talent point of view, and also this idea of what livable communities look like, talk about the role of education and schools that are able to inspire children, have talented and enriching teachers who live in the community, and we can help incentivize that as part of any redevelopment project. Talk about that and how we should approach it.
Majora: I think you have to be incredibly deliberate. And in general, there isn't a whole lot of that. There are some really amazing examples around, where some very visionary developers are trying to build teacher villages. And it's something that we are really focused on as part of workforce housing, because you've got to create affordable housing for ranges of incomes and, in particular, teachers, so that there is that feeling that this neighborhood is a value to many folks, and especially I think for younger teachers, building that model in. So that is an absolute dream of mine to build the kind of fairly large-scale development that has economically diverse options for both home ownership, as well as rentals. Keeping in mind that there are working professionals who need that.
Kevin: That's right.
Majora: And a teacher is always one of them. But I do believe that there is a crop of new developers, of which I'm one of them, and who's absolutely focused on creating more opportunities. Now, is it harder for us to do that? Because I think that the dominant idea is that when you're building the capital stack to promote more economic diversity, you might make a little less money. Just from an investor point of view, that's like, well, why would you do that? But we're like, because our communities deserve to be great, and we know that concentrated poverty literally minimizes that from every aspect and from every social aspect and indication. Education, health, incarceration: you name it. And so, why would we do that to our communities?
Kevin: And I'd like to chat with you more about that. I have one more education-related question; this is what I really want to know. How do we adequately prepare our students to embrace career opportunities and, at the same time, prepare them to commit to invest in their local ecosystem so they won't want to run away?
Majora: I love that question, in part because it just reminds me of the fact that people will be attracted to things that they see and that they know and that seem normal. So, if folks in a low-status community are seeing one of the reasons why they leave our community is because of things that are attractive, whether it's other entrepreneurs or cool places to hang out, they're not here because we're not creating the infrastructure for them to see. To see others that are just like them and have those aspirations. And so, when we build it, when we give people reasons to stay, and they do, then suddenly people can see that. I've lived, was born, raised, still live in the neighborhood, and so there are people who really appreciate the work I've done. They know I'm associated with the cafe, with Bronxlandia, with Hunts Point Riverside Park. But then they'll say, so, Majora, where do you live now? And to them, I'm very successful. And they feel like-
Kevin: So what? You're not here.
Majora: Yes, exactly. Success doesn't live here.
Majora: And according to the way that the nonprofit industrial complex works, people that can do good things — they might come and sprinkle fairy dust or whatever on a project, but they don't live here. And I'm like, no, this is my home. I live here. There are lots of us that live here. You live here. I was that kid who was like, I'm out. So I get it. I totally get it. But we have so much that's inherent within our community that is powerful, that is based on beauty and talent and that we have here in abundance. Now we just have to learn to keep it here.
Kevin: Yeah, well said. And people cannot aspire to something they don't know. It's hard. And see, Majora Carter, you're doing tremendous work. Thank you so much for joining us on What I Want To Know.
Majora: Thank you. Thank you so much for having me.
Kevin: Thanks for listening to What I Want To Know. Be sure to follow and subscribe to the show on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or your favorite podcast app, so you can explore other episodes and dive into our discussions on the future of education. And write a review of the show. I also encourage you to join the conversation and let me know what you want to know. Using #WIWTK on social media. That's #WIWTK. For more information on Stride and online education, visit stridelearning.com. I'm your host, Kevin P. Chavous. Thank you for joining What I Want To Know.
Majora Carter is a real estate developer and urban revitalization strategist. She applies corporate talent-retention practices to reduce brain drain and help stabilize neighborhoods.
Majora is the founder of Boogie Down Grind, a hip-hop-themed specialty coffee and craft beer spot where local groups can collaborate on projects and community development. She also founded StartUp Box, a social enterprise designed to increase opportunities for underserved community members to be a part of the tech economy.
Join The Email List
Sign up and get notifications on new What I Want to Know podcast episodes.
Thanks for subscribing!
Check your email to confirm your subscription.
What I Want to Know
In this podcast, you will hear from leaders in education as we talk through learning solutions for homeschool, online school, education pathways, and topics tailored specifically to online students and parents.