An interview with Stephen Ritz, Founder of Green Bronx Machine

Stephen Ritz

Roxanne Krystalli

April 1, 2013

Cross-posted with our friends over at Bold.

Stephen Ritz considers himself the luckiest man in the world. As he narrates in his now-viral TEDxManhattan talk on his experiences as a teacher helping to green the South Bronx, his gratitude stems from being able to engage students in questions of health, nutrition, wellness, and sustainability while creating employment possibilities that mitigate environmental concerns.  Ritz’s students are among the most marginalized in New York City, hailing from the poorest Congressional District in America. It became Ritz’s goal to teach these students how to grow healthy food in a sustainable way. As Ritz’s TEDx talk showcases, this initiative expanded beyond the edible green wall that Ritz and his students created. The efforts had tangible effects on student learning, with attendance increasing from 40 to 93%. Ritz is now heading Green Bronx Machine, a not-for-profit corporation awaiting 501(c)(3) approval, whose aim is to “grow, re-use resources, and recycle- our way into new and healthy ways of living; complete with self sustaining local economic engine.”

Ritz shared his insights in his contagiously enthusiastic manner at the Columbia University Earth Summit on March 29, 2013. Roxanne Krystalli had the pleasure of catching up with Ritz as part of the Summit and learned more about his hopes and ideas for the future.

Roxanne Krystalli: You mention that the benefits of working on the green wall extend beyond “changing lifestyles and mindsets” to affect not only students’ nutrition, relationship to farming and sustainability, but also their relationships to each other. How did you see the dynamics in your classroom transform over the course of the project? 

Stephen Ritz:  The underlying principles in my classroom are collaboration and coalition rooted in design-based problem solving; kids cannot work by themselves or with each other towards anything positive with a closed fist. This involves ensuring that on a daily basis, there is always something engaging and productive for them to do that makes them feel great and worthwhile. Inherently, this work requires people to come together, to work together, to suspend judgment, to listen, to advocate, to have faith, to have patience and most importantly TO NURTURE! By design, my cohorts are students who would never aggregate together, much less regard themselves as “brothers and sisters.” As our results have shown, we are changing dynamics not only in my classroom, but school-wide, community-wide, citywide and having national impact! My students are learning that they matter, their plants depend on them for daily sustenance; that’s a great starting point!

Roxanne Krystalli: One of the most inspiring aspects of your initiative is that it grew and spilled over from one classroom project to a broader movement of students becoming invested in growing their own food and contributing to affordable housing for themselves and their families. What were the critical moments in the expansion and scaling of this endeavor and what were some lessons that arose from such moments? 

Stephen Ritz: My students understand the challenges of their lives, their homes and their communities far better than many realize; they are negotiating, responding to and living with these challenges daily. They don’t need advanced degrees in sociology to understand and differentiate between their lives and lives of privilege or to figure out who gets off the train at what stop. This initiative impacted them right where they live, right where they eat, right where they go to school; it has changed the way they see themselves and their relationships and possibilities for impact at their personal ground zero. Beyond making dollars, this really makes sense. I responded to the students needs and interests – they made them known to me clearly, concisely and repeatedly – and if I didn’t understand, I always asked for their input; the fact that I was willing to listen made a huge difference. The students were and are responsible for most of this, I was and remain the conductor of the orchestra! Inherently, they all want a better life and they know that I am determined and willing to help them achieve that. We’re all in this together!

Roxanne Krystalli: What advice would you have for educators, community leaders, or parents seeking to start a similar initiative in their communities? 

Stephen Ritz: Keep it simple, start small and start with a small handful of dedicated students. Identify easily attainable goals and celebrate them with frequency. This work should not be another brick on the pile but rather a seamless integration of what you’re compelled to do within the context of what you’re mandated and paid to do. Always try to build bridges and community with small concentric circles of success. Have the students read, write and advocate and always connect to common core and academic standards. Informed people are great resources!

Roxanne Krystalli: Did you encounter any resistance or skepticism in the early phases of Green Bronx Machine? If so, how did you overcome it? 

Stephen Ritz: I never focus on resistance or skepticism, I see crisis an opportunity and always accept the challenges. Success and living well are the best means to achieving a broader acceptance and ability to grow the work. I always try to “get to yes” as inclusively as possible in all that I do mindful that the work is not about me, it’s about all of us! My mindset is win, win, win and that together, we can all prosper! I try to lead by example and overcome obstacles by highlighting the features, benefits and advantages of what I hope to do within the context of where and with whom I hope to do it. People respond to leadership and success. I simply give it 100% daily and keep coming!

Roxanne Krystalli: In ten years time, how do you see the Green Bronx Machine changing the Bronx?

Stephen Ritz: For many reasons, as the health of the Bronx goes, so goes the health of NYC, NYS and the nation! The fact that we have taken a small, single classroom initiative and seen it become a national model speaks to the impact we are already having! Realize this, 30,000 pounds of vegetables later, my favorite crop is organically grown citizens, graduates, voters and members of the middle class! That’s impactful right where we live but nationally as well; win, win and win, together we can all prosper! Green Bronx Machine is proof the Bronx CAN – Change Attitudes Now -and that we are poised, ready, willing and able to export our talent and diversity in ways that benefit all Amer-I-Cans! One year ago I spoke to the US Green Building Council, one year later, I am their national Green Apple Education Ambassador; the work and impact we will have in the next decade will be amazing! I see decades of lost opportunities becoming the next decade of the greatest opportunities ever! Si se puede!

Thank you, Stephen Ritz, for your work and inspiration! You can spread the word about Green Bronx Machine and follow its latest initiatives on Facebook.

Roxanne Krystalli is a graduate student at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, where she is exploring the gender dimensions of armed conflict. She chronicles her experiences with women affected by war worldwide at Stories of Conflict and Love.

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