From Idea to Action: Stephen Ritz on growing an organization, a community, and greens

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In May, a colleague of mine and I attended the ribbon cutting event for the National Health and Wellness Learning Center in the Bronx. This is the first center of its kind and is part of the Green Bronx Machine programming. Between attending the event, learning more about the Green Bronx Machine, and checking out their student-run Facebook page, I was beyond excited to interview Stephen Ritz about his work as the founder, how he stays motivated, and what type of impact their organization has had – on participants, the local community, and beyond.

Wow, was I not disappointed! Our conversation left me in awe. His honesty, passion for the work, and genuine love for his community really shone through. Through urban agriculture, green education, and living-wage job opportunities, the Green Bronx Machine is setting an example for all of us. As Stephen Ritz says: The borough that was known for baggy pants and funky fresh beats is now home to organic gardens and indoor agriculture. It is the “Si, se puede” spirit.  

Stephen Ritz, National Health, Wellness, and Learning Center

“I’m one man in a cheese hat and bow tie, determined to end hunger, poverty, and educational inequity in this lifetime. And I’m absolutely convinced I can do it. Get on board or get out of the way!” Photo credit: Brendan Van Meter, Beaconhouse Media LLC. Courtesy of Green Bronx Machine.

Has your career always had a main focus or cause? How has it evolved?

I started teaching in the early 1980s, but I always think I have been an equity warrior – a teacher committed to going above and beyond, not only in terms of the classroom but of impacting kids’ lives and communities, and really being a voice for the voiceless. I’ve evolved into what I call the CEO – Chief Eternal Optimist of the Bronx, and now I’m also the CAO – Chief Agriculture Officer.  I’m not a farmer, I’m a people farmer! I like to plant seeds and seeds represent kinetic potential.

What inspired you to have that sort of commitment so early on?

I’m a child of the 60s so I grew up in the age of social revolution – I was inspired by Martin Luther King and Muhammad Ali. One was talking about peace and the other could tell you in what round (and how) he would knock you out while standing on solid moral principles! I think it’s a combination of the time in which I was born, good parenting, great mentoring, great schools, and just this fundamental belief that people should not have to leave their neighborhood to live, learn, and earn in another one. Every day is a gift and every day is an opportunity to do something great! Make no doubt about it, I stand on the shoulders of giants and am determined to forever pay it forward.

Have there been times where you doubted yourself or felt burnout? If so, how did you overcome this?

I get so much love that I could never be burnt out. You are always going to meet naysayers but if people aren’t doubting you or calling you out, you probably aren’t working hard enough! I always welcome feedback – good and bad – I’m glad to be pushing the needle in every which way possible. I’ve had some health issues and personal crises of my own, including the loss of children and major health crises…but I believe that which doesn’t kill you makes you stronger and you can use these opportunities as springboards for additional success. I refuse to be held back. It’s how you grow back and grow stronger.

What risks have you taken in your career? How did you decide to do so and what were the results?

Well I’m so glad you asked that one because building out this center was a tremendous risk – I quit my job, gave up a pension, gave up income… I raised a lot of money, donated a lot of my own personal money – I donated 100% of the prize from the Global Teacher Prize to fund this project in the least likely place to succeed. I could have picked an easier setting – where kids and faculty are on board, where the school is more successful, the community more involved and engaged – but we just got our New York State Science tests back and our students in fourth grade, including special needs and English language learners, have shattered the record for the school history on state performance. Seventy percent of the kids in school scored a three or a four which is tremendous and I did it with first-year teachers as well. In the first year, we saw 50% reduction in out-of-class time and behavioral incidents in school, which means teachers are teaching and children are engaged.  

As a Bronx native, did you participate in any youth programming that influenced your decision to create the National Health and Wellness Learning Center?

First and foremost, I stand on the shoulders of giants. Great parents, great teachers, great educators, great access. I was a neighborhood kid and when my parents weren’t raising me, I had access to kind, caring adults that helped me course correct when I shifted. Having access to kind, caring adults is the greatest thing for a kid in the world. I grew up in a community center, in a public school, in a public playground, and I grew up surrounded by love. To this day, I believe love is the answer. That said, this green thing that I’m doing…who knew! Ten years ago I couldn’t tell you ten kinds of vegetables and now I’m growing 37 kinds of fruits and vegetables in class, with kids, aligned with academic success. Once, while I was the Dean at Walton High School, someone sent me a box of daffodil bulbs and I wasn’t sure what they were! I hid them behind the radiator because I was afraid kids were going to throw them. About two months later, the steam had gotten to them and there were hundreds of flowers- that was a teachable moment! That year, my students and I planted thousands of bulbs across NYC to commemorate 911 – a movement was born.

What I really believe is marginalized, underserved, low-status communities have the greatest natural resource in the world and that is unused human potential. What we are doing is tapping into that in ways that add value to 100% of society, but most importantly, impact the quality of our lives on a day to day basis, right where we live.

There’s always been great youth programming in the Bronx. What’s unique about us is that we had the foresight to see the green movement coming. When you teach children about nature, you teach them to nurture. When we teach children to nurture, we as a society collectively increase our better nature. We are the only program in the country where children grow vegetables in school that their parents will be using after school. It goes full circle. We are growing vegetables and we are growing academic outcomes and performance.  

Students who were running in the halls are now working in class for the privilege of powering a blender with a bicycle! We are net positive with food and energy at the end of the week! It’s spectacular.

White House Executive Pastry Chef Bill Yosses cooking with students. Photo credit: Brendan Van Meter, Beaconhouse Media LLC. Courtesy of Green Bronx Machine.

White House Executive Pastry Chef Bill Yosses cooking with students. Photo credit: Brendan Van Meter, Beaconhouse Media LLC. Courtesy of Green Bronx Machine.

I actually have one of my own stories to share with you from the event. I was in the corner looking at the seedlings and I asked one of the students if he was missing class to help out with the event. He let me know that he was, but that it was okay since he was specifically told that they were chosen because they were the “best of the best”, and that they were either ahead of their class or would make up the day’s lesson on their own. He was clearly very proud and really enjoyed your program. What about the other students – the ones that may not be as engaged at first or as excited about school – how do you encourage them to also be the “best of the best”?

Well the best of the best… is it perception or is it reality? Haha!  We had a kid who committed some very egregious acts last year and a lot of people would have given up on him but I saw it as a teachable moment. How do you give up on a ten-year-old kid? How do you write him off? I’m here to tell you he passed all of his tests with flying colors and was so excited and getting a bunch of awards…so for me, every kid is the best of the best but the reality is every single child in this school passes through this program and is an eager and willing participant.

I always tell children they’re the best of the best, and if not, they’re the aspirational best! They are all qualified to be at the event. The fact that they’re excited and telling you they’re the best of the best  is AWESOME-SAUCE. This is a Bronx community where being a nerd is not always cool. It is cool to be a nerd in this class. It is cool to be a geek. In this class, the geeks shall inherit the Earth and probably make the classroom run a little better, so we encourage inner nerdom and inner geekdom. In a community where children lack access to a proliferation of positive models or simply want to grow up to be an athlete or an entertainer, we want to redefine potential and outcomes for kids. Every child is the best of the best in their own special way and they’re all unique and special learners – odds are the scholar who told you that probably never had someone to share that kind of news with prior – it is their personal SI SE PUEDE moment. I can see the silver lining in all kids and all opportunities. It tickles me pink to hear that! This is an inclusive and diverse environment for all.

What’s interesting is that the seedling work is perhaps the most tedious work. Remarkably the kids who tend to gravitate to it are some of my special needs kids because it’s repetitive. It is the absolute baseline for everything that happens so it’s creating collaborative relationships between the children. In a community that for so long has been plagued with the food desert terminology. I believe here, we are creating a rainforest – hyper-connected, hyper-local, very niche-specific. People talk about sustainability. I like to talk about restoration, regeneration, and transformation. Clearly, you got a good sense of that which is awesome.

My students, compared to children from the Upper West Side or Upper East Side or parts of Brooklyn, have so many less hours of quality social-academic interaction for a variety of reasons…it’s the equity difference and the opportunity difference. So the fact that my kids are learning these very critical skills – Oh I am smiling ear to ear! You made my day. I love that. That’s what this is all about! In fact, data indicates that children here have a significantly less life expectancy than their peers 2-3 miles away – we need to change that ASAP. That is what this work is all about – EQUITY and OPPORTUNITY for ALL!

Tower growing greens, Photo Credit: Jhia Jackson

“Using 90% less water and 90% less space in our Tower Gardens, we’re growing vegetables and the vegetables are growing students, schools, teachers, and communities.”

You mentioned that you’d lost a lot of weight. Congratulations! Was it important to you to model the same change in behavior that you were encouraging in the kids?

I lost over 100 pounds. When the Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. and State Senator Gustavo Rivera started the Bronx CAN Health Initiative and dared everyone to lose weight, and Gustavo got on the scale and weighed 300 pounds and so did I, I decided there was some good advice there and I lost 120 pounds.

My health issues in midlife were reflective of what these kids are exposed to everyday – we are living in a MESS – Manufactured Edible Synthetic Substances – empty calories, hyper stimulating, hyper-exciting options that do little to fuel our bodies and minds yet suck our energy, money and health elsewhere. It reduces our quality of life, our life spans, as well as our living, learning, and earning potential! That’s just awful. The coolest thing is we can change that, and the quality of education, with a fork! 

At the ribbon cutting event, it felt like you and the other supporters of your program have  created a family-like atmosphere.

The fact is, we roll as a community and we roll as a family. It’s critical. It takes a village to raise children. A family atmosphere – a place of warmth, of love, of nature, of nurturing – in a community that has the highest percentage of kids in shelters and single family homes and kids being raised by people other than parents, speaks to what this program is all about and I am all about – LOVE.

My family and I have put in countless hours here, we live the work – it is not what we do but who we are! The children know and love my wife, my daughter and we all roll as an extended family – there is an accountability that transfers out of this building and across the entire community and back. We are working to create the kind of community accountability and support that moves a community to collectively do better in life and hold each other accountable every step of the way. When you’re here everyday, 60+ hours a week, that’s the kind of credibility that really moves people to think they can do better in life.

I’m about outcomes and I’m not about income. I refuse to be defined by the words “non” and “not.” We are Amer-I-Cans, not Amer-I-Can’ts! When it comes to nonprofit, 501(c)3 status, I define our work and organization as “An impact driven for purpose organization with 501c3 status!” My job is to put myself out of business and create a new normal. That’s why I volunteer.

There is a huge painting of you in the back of the classroom wearing some sort of cheese-like hat. What’s the story behind your hat?

The hat – kids have always called me the big cheese. When I was 300 pounds I was very definitely big cheese, but I also was the Dean of Students so it had a double meaning. I went to this conference in Wisconsin and I didn’t know anything about the Green Bay Packers or Cheeseheads, but when I saw that crazy cheese hat, I had to get it! I fell in love with it.

If a student has 30 days of perfect attendance, or does five random acts of kindness, they get to wear the cheese hat and be on the wall of fame! In a world full of costly behavioral interventions, a $9 cheese hat has flipped the script on school attendance and being nice. I have lots of great stories about it. I had a couple of toddlers take a bite out of it because they thought it was real cheese! It goes to show you that sometimes the answers are right in front of us. That love and appreciation go a long way. We need to get back to the basics.

You have conviction about yourself, your work, and your ability to have a huge impact. Have you always been like this?

I’m filled with three things- passion, purpose, and hope-  which (I believe)  will get you very far in life. I’m blessed! Yeah I have a lot of energy, I hope people use it and feed off it to make something great.  I don’t always say the right thing – I’m known for mega presentations and way wordy talks, but I try to bring my A Game to all that I do daily. Make no doubt about it, I am and will forever remain a lifetime learner and work in progress. My goal is to come out and give a big talk and have one slide that says “We’re Hiring!”

How we treat our children, all children, is reflective of how we treat our society.

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About Author

I have always used Idealist as my first stop for job, volunteer, and internship opportunities. Because of this, I have been lucky enough to be a part of a wide-variety of nonprofits and social impact organizations - from artistically mentoring young children with chronic illness, to serving LGBT women with cancer, to overseeing an industrial arts summer program for youth! Always in pursuit of new challenges, I've earned a BA in Dance, Sociology, & Ethics and a MS in Bioethics. In addition to my work with Idealist Careers, I am a nanny, freelance professional dancer, and pursuing a PhD in Sociology with a medical emphasis.

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