Allie Vugrincic’s hopes were dashed initially when she discovered that this year’s campus-wide theme would center around “real utopias.”
“I was disappointed,” explained the first-year student from Warren, Ohio. “I like the idea of utopias, but I don’t believe they can exist in the real world.”
But while writing Utopia: A Work of Fiction, a 30-page novella based on her friends, Vugrincic came to change her mind. “I learned that we create our own utopias out of chaos.”
This is a point that Majora Carter, the keynote speaker for this year’s Spectrum Series, made during her time on campus yesterday (Sept. 12).
Carter, an internationally recognized eco-entrepreneur and urban revitalization strategist who is credited with revitalizing her South Bronx neighborhood, doesn’t take it personally when people don’t buy in to the idea of a real utopia. “It’s all about you,” she said. “What does it look like for you?”
Carter grew up in the South Bronx during a housing and public health crisis. There was violence in the streets and high pollution in the area causing an increase in asthma rates among young people. When she was just eight years old, her brother, who had served two terms in Vietnam, was gunned down as a result of gang violence in a nearby neighborhood. Within a week, she watched as two buildings on either end of her street were burned to the ground.
“Around that time, I started preparing my escape,” she said. “And education was my way out.”
She headed to Wesleyan University and later to NYU to do her graduate work, but she soon found herself back in the South Bronx living with her parents to make ends meet while wrapping up her master’s degree. At first the move felt like a blow, she told the audience at Swasey, but it actually was serendipitous — for her and for the South Bronx.
It was in 2001 that Carter founded Sustainable South Bronx, which became one of the nation’s first urban green-collar training and placement systems. (She later founded the Majora Carter Group, aimed at the same ideals.) Carter has received a number of awards and honors for her work, including a MacArthur Fellowship, or “Genius Grant,” and her TED Talk was one of only six that launched the well-known website.
In addition to delivering the opening convocation as part of the Spectrum Series, Carter divided her time on campus between visits to classrooms, meeting with students in the entrepreneurship program, and visiting the Bryant Arts Center, where Vugrincic’s Utopia and the other 45 pieces for the Class of 2017’s creative project are currently on display. “[Real utopias are] fun, messy, and something you’ve got to strive for,” Carter told the students. “Everyone has the capacity to do it.”
“Students often believe they can’t make a difference,” said Mark Moller, dean of first-year students. “Majora shows how you actually can make change.”
In an environmental studies class, a student asked Carter if she could share the one moment in her career of which she is most proud.
Carter’s immediate response: “I have a lot of those moments.”