From Organic Connections magazine:

In the midst of New York City’s South Bronx—a place tra­di­tion­ally rife with gang activ­ity, poverty and crime—has sprung up a thriv­ing, con­tribu­tive pop­u­la­tion of young peo­ple. They are green­ing and beau­ti­fy­ing neigh­bor­hoods, grow­ing healthy food and pro­vid­ing it to peo­ple who would never oth­er­wise see it, let alone eat it, while they them­selves are becom­ing remark­able exam­ples of suc­cess. This is the Green Bronx Machine—led by Stephen Ritz, one very inspir­ing man.

“We are grow­ing our­selves into a whole new econ­omy in the bul­let field, bat­tle­field and plastic-waste field of the South Bronx,” Ritz told Organic Connections. “We’re prov­ing that we can grow food prof­itably, effi­ca­ciously, and more impor­tantly, inte­grate it into our lives in ways that ben­e­fit all.

“Green Bronx Machine was born out of the belief that we can all suc­ceed. If you teach those who are tra­di­tion­ally apart from suc­cess and make them a part of suc­cess, together we can all pros­per. We’re sit­ting on the biggest oppor­tu­nity for us in the South Bronx—growing, resourc­ing and recy­cling our way into a whole new economy.”

Beginnings in Severe Challenge

While his influ­ence is being felt through­out and now well beyond the Bronx, Ritz is first and fore­most a teacher. It was a major chal­lenge placed before him in that capac­ity that was the gen­e­sis of Green Bronx Machine.

“At one point I had a group of sev­en­teen kids, prob­a­bly the most chal­lenged kids in this school,” Ritz explained. “A lot of them came to me via the crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem. One thing to know about kids ages 16 to 21 who come out of the crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem is that they usu­ally go back in. Most of them did not want to be in school—nothing to do with me, but hav­ing every­thing to do with just not suc­ceed­ing at school and a lot of other life chal­lenges. Someone approached me about a poten­tial project out­side of school involv­ing some com­mu­nity beau­ti­fi­ca­tion and restora­tion that also involved skills like car­pen­try, plumb­ing and a lot of demo­li­tion work.

“These kids were very excited to get out of school. I had com­man­deered this project, but I had a lot of sup­port from col­leagues who really didn’t know how to engage these young­sters; they were thrilled that I was will­ing to own these kids and lit­er­ally make them my fam­ily and take them off everybody’s hands. We got out of school and, lo and behold, the kids really suc­ceeded. They took to this and it became their green graf­fiti, if you will.”

What hap­pened to those sev­en­teen kids? “They all grad­u­ated; that’s the most impor­tant thing,” Ritz con­tin­ued. “But not only that, the bulk of them went on to the Bronx Environmental Steward Training Program in the South Bronx. They moved them­selves into living-wage jobs and/or post-graduate oppor­tu­nity, which is really what the promise of pub­lic edu­ca­tion is about.”

Growing Their Own Food

As the pro­gram pro­gressed, Ritz became keenly aware of another issue. “Where I live there is very lit­tle access to locally grown food and, even more impor­tantly, very lit­tle access to fresh fruits and veg­eta­bles,” he said. “Like so many oth­ers, I was 100 per­cent dis­con­nected from what I ate. But through the kids nur­tur­ing plants, one thing led to another. We went from orna­men­tal plants, green roofs, green walls and com­mu­nity gar­dens ulti­mately to vegetables.

Read the rest of this article at Organic Connections magazine.