“For a seed to achieve its greatest expression, it must come completely undone. The shell cracks, its insides come out, and everything changes. To someone who doesn’t understand growth, it would look like complete destruction.” – Cynthia Occelli
One of the most soul-satisfying things about attending the Social Innovation Summit is the number of people you meet there who have taken great ideas for social change and translated them into action. Nowhere is the impact of social change more important than in the educational sector, and the summit, held on Nov. 19-20 in Silicon Valley, did not disappoint on this score. The incredible line-up of speakers included the founders of such innovative educational initiatives as Nirvan Mullick's Caine’s Arcade, Steve Mesler's Classroom Champions and Kimberly Bryant's Black Girls Code -- to name just a few.
But one talk brought the audience to its feet for a standing ovation, and it was the one I came to the summit to see: Stephen Ritz’s rapid-fire, exhiliarating tour of how the Green Bronx Machine has helped empower and transform the lives of school children in the historically poorest congressional district in the nation, the South Bronx in New York City. How does he do this? By teaching his students how to become urban farmers.
Growing something greater: The Green Bronx Machine
The seeds of the Green Bronx Machine were planted back in the 1980s when Ritz shifted from playing basketball in Europe to teaching school in the South Bronx. “There was a tremendous teacher shortage,” Ritz told me at the summit. “The Bronx was burnt. I went to work in a building that was the only building standing in an eight-block-square radius.” Many of the kids in his classroom were either homeless or in foster care, and suffering the ill-effects of bad nutrition
with conditions like obesity and diabetes. Ritz saw the possibilities for turning that situation around. “I don’t see crisis. I see opportunity,” Ritz said. “I’m not into incremental change. I’m into wholesale change. I want to transform lives.”
Cultivating success for the long term: Education and jobs
By getting kids engaged in growing and enjoying fresh food in the classroom, Ritz has seen daily school attendance increase from 40 percent to 93 percent. Because he integrates the vertical farms into the curriculum, he sees high engagement by students. And because he is teaching them to farm and create vertical gardens and green walls (which he calls the “new green graffiti”), they are learning how to be entrepreneurs in addition to scholars.
The program has so far helped to fund and create 2,200 youth jobs. And the jobs persist after graduation. His kids go on to work as teachers, landscapers, green roof and green wall installers, as well as grocery store employees, and more.
All this activity is grabbing attention. The latest honor in a long string of recognition and awards is that Ritz’s fourth and fifth grade students have received a personal invitation to the White House by Chef William Yosses to show and tell what they are doing. But the recognition and awards are not what drives Ritz. “We are Am-er-i- cans! We are Mex-i-cans! We are African Am-er-i-cans! We can all do this, but more importantly, we must do this. It’s much easier to grow a healthy child than to fix a broken man,” he said.
"For-purpose" not "nonprofit"
Ritz, who calls himself the CEO (Chief Eternal Optimist) of the Bronx, refuses to be defined by anything with the word “no” in it. The Green Bronx Machine is not a 'nonprofit' enterprise, he will tell you. It’s a 'for-purpose' enterprise. It is indeed a true triple-bottom-line program, where 'people' are kids, 'profit' is jobs, and 'planet' is urban agriculture. Students in his program have now grown more than 30,000 pounds of vegetables both outdoors and indoors, in rooftop gardens, urban gardens and classroom gardens. “We don’t see walls, we see places to grow food,” Ritz said. The vegetables are eaten by the students and their families, but they also go to local orphanages and other organizations in need of delicious, fresh, locally grown produce.
Another Social Innovation Summit attendee, Ricardo Carvajal, president of the Instituto Thomas Jefferson
, had traveled from Mexico to hear Ritz speak. “When I saw his TEDxManhattan talk in 2012
,” he told me, laughing, “I said to my staff, ‘I want to marry that man. Let’s marry him. Find him and bring him here.’” Now they are working together. Ritz continues to travel all over the world to encourage other schools to adopt the Green Bronx Machine model. In addition to consulting with Carvajal, Ritz was a delegate at WISE (World Innovation Summit for Education)
, lectured for Hebrew University, and recently spoke at Congreso Nacional De Educación in Medellín.
Ritz just opened a new Health, Wellness, and Biodiversity Center
in a 100-year-old reclaimed school library in the heart of Claremont Village, South Bronx. The Center now serves 300 kids and 20 teachers per week with fish tanks, food towers, bicycle-powered blenders and much more. Future plans include facilities for urban agriculture, food preparation, robotics, computer access, solar technologies, hands-on science experiments and integrated art projects, to name a few.
The success of the program has come in part through partnerships, and Ritz is seeking more of them. My advice: For the intense endorphin rush that comes with deep commitment to positive change for the future, contact Stephen Ritz and talk to him about the possibilities. Oh, and go “like” the Green Bronx Machine Facebook page
. Do that for his students, who maintain the site. Ritz himself is not on Facebook – he’s too busy laying the groundwork for the Class of 2025.
“The eyes of future are looking back at us,” concluded Ritz at the end of our conversation. “They are demanding that we get this right. If we don’t get it right, who will?”
Image credits: Stephen Ritz, The Green Bronx Machine. Photos used with permission.
Julie Noblitt is Community Manager at Benetech, a nonprofit that develops and uses technology to create positive social change, and an MBA candidate at Presidio Graduate School in San Francisco. Images in this post used with permission of Stephen Ritz.