Green Bronx Machine: Green Miracle in the South Bronx

Stephen Ritz and Green Bronx Machine took some of the toughest, most neglected kids in America and turned them into happy, thriving, productive citizens.

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.