Good afternoon. I am not a farmer.
I'm not. I'm a parent, I'm a resident and I'm a teacher. And this is my world. And along the way I've started noticing — I'm on my third generation of kids — that they're getting bigger. They're getting sicker. In addition to these complexities, I just learned that 70 percent of the kids that I see who are labeled learning disabled would not have been had they had proper prenatal nutrition.
The realities of my community are simple. They look like this. Kids should not have to grow up and look at things like this. And as jobs continue to leave my community, and energy continues to come in, be exported in, it's no wonder that really some people refer to the South Bronx as a desert. But I'm the oldest sixth grader you'll ever meet, so I get up every day with this tremendous amount of enthusiasm that I'm hoping to share with you all today. And with that note, I come to you with this belief that kids should not have to leave their communities to live, learn and earn in a better one.
So I'm here to tell you a story about me and this wall that I met outside, which I'm now bringing inside. And it starts with three people. The crazy teacher — that's me on the left, I dress up pretty, thank you, my wife, I love you for getting a good suit — my passionate borough president and a guy named George Irwin from Green Living Technologies who helped me with my class and helped me get involved with this patented technology. But it all starts with seeds in classrooms, in my place, which looks like this. And I'm here today hoping that my reach will exceed my grasp. And that's really what this is all about.
And it starts with incredible kids like this, who come early and stay late. All of my kids are either IEP or ELL learners, most come with a lot of handicaps, most are homeless and many are in foster care. Almost all of my kids live below poverty. But with those seeds, from day one, we are growing in my classroom, and this is what it looks like in my classroom. And you see how attentive these kids are to these seeds. And then you notice that those seeds become farms across the Bronx that look like this.
But again, I am not a farmer. I'm a teacher. And I don't like weeding, and I don't like back-breaking labor. So I wanted to figure out how I could get this kind of success into something small, like this, and bring it into my classroom so that handicapped kids could do it, kids who didn't want to be outside could do it, and everyone could have access. So I called George Irwin, and what do you know? He came to my class and we built an indoor edible wall. And what we do is we partner it with authentic learning experiences, private-based learning. And lo and behold, we gave birth to the first edible wall in New York City.
So if you're hungry, get up and eat. You can do it right now. My kids play cow all the time. Okay? But we were just getting started, the kids loved the technology, so we called up George and we said, "We gotta learn more!" Now, Mayor Bloomberg, thank you very much, we no longer need work permits, which comes with slices and bonded contractors — we're available for you —
We decided to go to Boston. And my kids, from the poorest congressional district in America, became the first to install a green wall, designed by a computer, with real-live learning tools, 21 stories up — if you're going to go visit it, it's on top of the John Hancock building. But closer to home, we started installing these walls in schools that look like this with lighting like that, real LED stuff, 21st-century technology. And what do you know? We made 21st century money, and that was groundbreaking. Wow!
This is my harvest, people. And what do you do with this food? You cook it! And those are my heirloom students making heirloom sauce, with plastic forks, and we get it into the cafeteria, and we grow stuff and we feed our teachers. And that is the youngest nationally certified workforce in America with our Bronx Borough President.
And what'd we do then? Well, I met nice people like you, and they invited us to the Hamptons. So I call this "from South Bronx to Southampton." And we started putting in roofs that look like this, and we came in from destitute neighborhoods to start building landscape like this, wow! People noticed. And so we got invited back this past summer, and we actually moved into the Hamptons, payed 3,500 dollars a week for a house, and we learned how to surf. And when you can do stuff like this — These are my kids putting in this technology, and when you can build a roof that looks like that on a house that looks like that with sedum that looks like this, this is the new green graffiti.
So, you may wonder what does a wall like this really do for kids, besides changing landscapes and mindsets? Okay, I'm going to tell you what it does. It gets me to meet incredible contractors like this, Jim Ellenberger from Ellenberger Services. And this is where it becomes true triple bottom line. Because Jim realized that these kids, my future farmers, really had the skills he needed to build affordable housing for New Yorkers, right in their own neighborhood. And this is what my kids are doing, making living wage.
Now, if you're like me, you live in a building, there are seven guys out of work looking to manage a million dollars. I don't have it. But if you need a toilet fixed or, you know, some shelving, I gotta wait six months for an appointment with someone who drives a much nicer car than me. That's the beauty of this economy. But my kids are now licensed and bonded in trade. And that's my first student to open up, the first in his family to have a bank account. This immigrant student is the first one in his family to use an ATM. And this is the true triple bottom line, because we can take neighborhoods that were abandoned and destitute and turn them into something like this with interiors like this.
Wow! People noticed. And notice they did. So CNN called, and we were delighted to have them come to our farmer's market. And then when Rockefeller Center said, NBC, could you put this thing up on the walls? We were delighted. But this, I show you, when kids from the poorest congressional district in America can build a 30-foot by 15-foot wall, design it, plant it and install it in the heart of New York City, that's a true "sí se puede" moment. Really scholastic, if you ask me.
But this is not a Getty image. That's a picture I took of my Bronx Borough President, addressing my kids in his house, not the jailhouse, making them feel a part of it. That's our State Senator Gustavo Rivera and Bob Bieder, coming to my classroom to make my kids feel important. And when the Bronx Borough President shows up and the State Senator comes to our class, believe you me, the Bronx can change attitudes now. We are poised, ready, willing and able to export our talent and diversity in ways we've never even imagined. And when the local senator gets on the scale in public and says he's got to lose weight, so do I! And I tell you what, I'm doing it and so are the kids.
Okay? And then celebrities started. Produce Pete can't believe what we grow. Lorna Sass came and donated books. Okay? We're feeding seniors. And when we realized that we were growing for food justice in the South Bronx, so did the international community. And my kids in the South Bronx were repped in the first international green roof conference. And that's just great.
Except what about locally? Well, we met this woman, Avis Richards, with the Ground Up Campaign. Unbelievable! Through her, my kids, the most disenfranchised and marginalized, were able to roll out 100 gardens to New York City public schools. That's triple bottom line! Okay?
A year ago today, I was invited to the New York Academy of Medicine. I thought this concept of designing a strong and healthy New York made sense, especially when the resources were free. So thank you all and I love them. They introduced me to the New York City Strategic Alliance for Health, again, free resources, don't waste them. And what do you know? Six months later, my school and my kids were awarded the first ever high school award of excellence for creating a healthy school environment. The greenest class in New York City. But more importantly is my kids learned to get, they learned to give. And we took the money that we made from our farmer's market, and started buying gifts for the homeless and for needy around the world. So we started giving back. And that's when I realized that the greening of America starts first with the pockets, then with the heart and then with the mind.
So we were onto something, and we're still onto something. And thank God Trinity Wall Street noticed, because they gave us the birth of Green Bronx Machine. We're 3,000 strong right now. And what does it really do? It teaches kids to re-vision their communities, so when they grow up in places like this, they can imagine it like this. And my kids, trained and certified — Ma, you get the tax abatement. Thank you, Mayor Bloomberg — can take communities that look like this and convert them into things that look like that, and that to me, people, is another true "sí se puede" moment.
Now, how does it start? It starts in schools. No more little Knicks and little Nets. Group by broccoli, group by your favorite vegetable, something you can aspire to. Okay? And these are my future farmers of America, growing up in Brook Park on 141st Street, the most migrant community in America. When tenacious little ones learn how to garden like this, it's no wonder we get fruit like that. And I love it! And so do they. And we're building teepees in neighborhoods that were burning down. And that's a true "sí se puede" moment. And again, Brook Park feeds hundreds of people without a food stamp or a fingerprint. The poorest congressional district in America, the most migratory community in America, we can do this. Bissel Gardens is cranking out food in epic proportions, moving kids into an economy they never imagined.
Now, somewhere over the rainbow, my friends, is the South Bronx of America. And we're doing it. How does it start? Well, look at Jose's attention to detail. Thank God Omar knows that carrots come from the ground, and not aisle 9 at the supermarket or through a bullet-proof window or through a piece of styrofoam. And when Henry knows that green is good, so do I. And when you expand their palates, you expand their vocabulary. And most importantly, when you put big kids together with little kids, you get the big fat white guy out of the middle, which is cool, and you create this kind of accountability amongst peers, which is incredible.
God, I'm going to run out of time, so I've gotta keep it moving. But this is my weekly paycheck for kids; that's our green graffiti. This is what we're doing. And behold the glory and bounty that is Bronx County. Nothing thrills me more than to see kids pollinating plants instead of each other. I gotta tell you, I'm a protective parent. But those kids are the kids who are now putting pumpkin patches on top of trains. We're also designing coin ponds for the rich and affluent. We're also becoming children of the corn, creating farms in the middle of Fordham Road for awareness and window bottles out of garbage.
Now I don't expect every kid to be a farmer, but I expect you to read about it, write about it, blog about it, offer outstanding customer service. I expect them to be engaged, and man, are they! So that's my incredible classroom, that's the food. Where does it go? Zero miles to plate, right down into the cafeteria. Or more importantly, to local shelters, where most of our kids are getting one to two meals a day. And we're stepping it up. No Air Jordans were ever ruined on my farm. And in his day, a million dollar gardens and incredible installations.
Let me tell you something, people. This is a beautiful moment. Black field, brown field, toxic waste field, battlefield — we're proving in the Bronx that you can grow anywhere, on cement. And we take orders for flowers. I'm putting the bake sale to shame. We take orders now. I'm booking for the spring. And these were all grown from seeds. We're learning everything. And again, when you can take kids from backgrounds as diverse as this to do something as special as this, we're really creating a moment.
Now, you may ask about these kids. Forty percent attendance to 93 percent attendance. All start overage and under-credit. They are now, my first cohort is all in college, earning a living wage. The rest are scheduled to graduate this June. Happy kids, happy families, happy colleagues. Amazed people. The glory and bounty that is Bronx County.
Let's talk about mint. Where is my mint? I grow seven kinds of mint in my class. Mojitos, anybody? I'll be at Telepan later. But, understand this is my intellectual Viagra. Ladies and gentlemen, I gotta move quick, but understand this: The borough that gave us baggy pants and funky fresh beats is becoming home to the organic ones. My green [unclear] 25,000 pounds of vegetables, I'm growing organic citizens, engaged kids. So help us go from this to this. Self-sustaining entities, 18 months return on investment, plus we're paying people living wage and health benefits, while feeding people for pennies on the dollar.
Martin Luther King said that people need to be uplifted with dignity. So here in New York, I urge you, my fellow Americans, to help us make America great again. It's simple. Share your passion. It's real easy. Go see these two videos, please. One got us invited to the White House, one's a recent incarnation.
And most importantly, get the biggest bully out of schools. This has got to go tomorrow. People, you can all do that. Keep kids out of stores that look like this. Make them a healthy plate, especially if you can pick it off the wall in your own classroom — delicioso! Model good behavior. Get them to a green cart. Big kids love strawberries and bananas. Teach them entrepreneurship. Thank God for GrowNYC. Let them cook. Great lunch today, let them do culinary things. But most importantly, just love them. Nothing works like unconditional love.
So, my good friend Kermit said it's not easy being green. It's not. I come from a place where kids can buy 35 flavors of blunt wrap at any day of the moment, where ice cream freezers are filled with slushy malt liquor. Okay? My dear friend Majora Carter once told me, we have everything to gain and nothing to lose. So here, and at a time when we've gone from the audacity to hope to hope for some audacity, I urge you to do something. I urge you to do something.
Right now, we're all tadpoles, but I urge you to become a big frog and take that big, green leap. I don't care if you're on the left, on the right, up the middle, wherever. Join me. Use — I've got a lot of energy. Help me use it. We can do something here. And along the way, please take time to smell the flowers, especially if you and your students grew them.
I'm Steve Ritz, this is Green Bronx Machine. I've got to say thank you to my wife and family, for my kids, thank you for coming every day, and for my colleagues, believing and supporting me. We are growing our way into a new economy. Thank you, God bless you and enjoy the day. I'm Steve Ritz.
Sí se puede!
A whirlwind of energy and ideas, Stephen Ritz is a teacher in New York's tough South Bronx, where he and his kids grow lush gardens for food, greenery — and jobs. Just try to keep up with this New York treasure as he spins through the many, many ways there are to grow hope in a neighborhood many have written off, or in your own.
Stephen Ritz teaches at-risk kids in the South Bronx.