With his wildly gesticulating hands and rapid-fire speech, Stephen Ritz is kinetic energy personified. He is strange and wild, and fascinating to watch – it’s not hard to see how he could inspire and motivate a room full of teens to do whatever he asked.

Changing landscapes and minds

What he began asking at first seemed simple enough – Ritz wants to change landscapes and change mindsets, one green wall at a time. His project, now called the Green Bronx Machine, grew from a simple seed of belief: that kids shouldn’t have to leave their neighborhood to see beauty, green, a landscape other than stark concrete and hard asphalt.

“Kids should not have to leave their community to live, learn, and earn in a better one” he says, matter-of-factly.

From this seed, a project grew that rapidly flourished into something with ripple effects beyond what even Ritz could have imagined. That first green wall would eventually grow to transform students with incredible barriers like learning disabilities, poverty, and challenging home lives into agents of change in their own lives.

Feeding mouths and hope

Image courtesy of http://stephenritz.com/

After building that first indoor plant wall and making it New York City’s first indoor edible wall, word began to spread and Ritz and his students headed to Boston to install a green wall on the top of the John Hancock building, and then in other schools, too.

With the money they earned for their efforts, they then began literally feeding their schools with the fruits (and vegetables) of their labors. Word continued to spread and suddenly this group of students from the south Bronx were in the Hamptons, designing and installing green roofs on million dollar homes.

When Ritz speaks about this, he covers so much ground so quickly that you almost don’t realize what an incredibly complex and far-reaching effect he’s had – how much time and energy and dedication this initiative took. To hear him talk about it, it seems like an effortless progression to go from simply growing some plants in classroom to creating real-life job skills for a marginalized group of teen, but where he took the Bronx Green Machine is anything but effortless.

Image courtesy of http://greenbronxmachine.org/projects/

Reach for the stars

It goes beyond getting some teens interested in gardening, Ritz developed a way up and a way out, something that contractor Jim Ellenberger quickly recognized when he hired the kids to participate in building affordable housing right in their own neighborhoods. Now not only were the kids acquiring the skills to build living walls, but real ones, too.

And he didn’t stop there. It’s almost impossible to keep up with the reach of this project, because one gets the feeling that by the time his achievements thus far are summed up, Ritz is already on to the next step, expanding this project with a bold new reach, a new corner of these students lives that was previously ignored.

The Bronx Green Machine has it all; 

  • Peer-to-peer mentorship
  • An attendance rate that skyrocketed from 40% to 93%
  • The first group of Green Machine high school graduates now in college, earning a living wage while they learn
  • Schools that grow in a classroom what they later eat in the cafeteria.

It’s incredible, really.

At one point Ritz quotes Martin Luther King Jr., “People need to be uplifted with dignity”, and this truly is the idea behind the Green Machine. Transforming students who visit food banks into students who grow food for food banks. Allowing students with a narrow future to see a future for themselves that suddenly cracks open and grows as many diverse opportunities as they do.

Stephen Ritz and his students are unstoppable, a force of nature bringing nature indoors and harnessing it to help grow up, and grow strong. Everything to gain, nothing to lose – take the leap!

Feature image courtesy of http://stephenritz.com/

By Madeleine Somerville

Madeleine Somerville is the author of All You Need Is Less: An Eco-Friendly Guide to Guilt-Free Green Living and Stress-Free Simplicity. She is a writer, wannabe hippie and lover of soft cheeses. She lives in Edmonton, Canada, with her daughter. You can also find Madeleine at her blog, Sweet Madeleine.