A man on a mission, award-winning educator and best-selling author, and founder of the non-profit Green Bronx Machine, Stephen Ritz, has inspired thousands with his work in sustainability education. With a long-standing relationship with Esol Education, our schools and our students, offering innovative solutions to a cleaner and greener world, Mr. Ritz talks to STRIDES about the importance of a “green education” and what gives him hope for the future.
- Why do you think gardening and caring for plants has such a transformative effect on students?
In an increasingly digital world, caring for anything alive has a transformational effect on children and adults; it moves us all to a sense of nurture, to interconnectedness with other living things and serves to remind us that our daily actions connect to other living things and ecosystems both large and small. When we teach children about nature, we teach them to nurture; and when we teach children to nurture, we as a society embrace our better nature. Seeds represent genetic potential and the process of gardening teaches children about genetic potential. Gardening teaches people that a seed well planted can yield a crop of epic proportions. Gardening teaches people patience, perseverance and hope – when you place a seed in the soil, you are betting on the future and your potential to see that seed grow to fruition. Most importantly, all the data in the world indicates that when children grow food, they will eat it. Driving healthy living and sound environmental practices are critical to the collective work we as educators need to instill and embrace.
- What do you think are the top three most urgent issues in sustainability and food security that we need to communicate to our students?
Number One - reducing food waste is critical to the health of the planet and people; it is the easiest problem we can fix, literally overnight, with huge impact. We need to regard and respect food as the nourishment and total sum of human and environmental inputs that it is rather than a simple commodity to be bought and sold – that concept can and will change the world and spark empathy and compassion on a multitude of levels that will help to heal all that ails this planet and our race. Number Two – eating less animal protein, specifically red meat. I say this from an environmental perspective and a human health perspective. Simply put, the way we produce and consume animal proteins is neither healthy nor sustainable – for people or the planet. I take great umbrage with factory farming of animals from humanitarian and environmental perspectives – and I believe children who are exposed to this reality respond equally with outrage. Further, the food itself is creating a health crisis of epic proportions. Number Three – moving away from processed foods and returning to whole foods. The issues here include the overconsumption of sugar, salt, chemicals and even carcinogens which are impacting health exponentially as evidenced by diabetes, obesity, heart disease, early on-set of puberty and other health issues. Let food be thy medicine and let thy medicine be thy food. With processed food also comes the realities of plastics, packaging, trash and other pressing environmental concerns that are plaguing our planet and spoiling our nest. By voting with our fork, we can save ourselves and the world.
The solutions I am most excited about involve courage, compassion and collaboration – the willingness and ability to cooperate, work together, and to coalesce for a greater global good.
- What motivated you to come to the Middle East and to work with Esol Education?
Simply put, the Abushakra Family and Esol Education have a reputation and legacy second to none. The opportunity to work in an intimate family setting with global players and impact is the dream of a lifetime. While I am very committed to public education, the opportunity to work in a private school committed to public service enables me to grow something greater and connect with students all around the world – thus, a multiplier effect. My work has always spoken to my ability to connect with and treat my students and colleagues like they are my family, similarly, to work with the Abushakra and larger Esol Family allows me to experience that amazing feeling in return. It bears noting that the Abushakra Family has visited my school in the Bronx which speaks volumes to who they are as well. If you attend an Esol Education school, your children and their children will attend an Esol Education school. Coming to the Middle East is the perfect culmination of my career to date. I have always been committed to innovation – despite a lack of resources and opportunities. Here in the Middle East, there is an absolute commitment to innovation – it is part of the culture here - and a willingness to commit resources. Indeed, I feel as though I am home!
- What kind of solutions do you hope to see your students innovate for the future?
The solutions I am most excited about involve courage, compassion and collaboration – the willingness and ability to cooperate, work together, and to coalesce for a greater global good. The work at The Sustainable City and Fairgreen International School, for example, speak to that future. We are growing happy, healthy, high-performing children with a sense of empathy, global and human ecology and a commitment to leaving the world better than we found it; that excites me!
- What keeps you positive and hopeful about our future?
That we can innovate, iterate and ideate into the future towards solutions and opportunities in line with the best interests of people and the planet while living responsibly, ethically and happily speak to adding days to our lives and adding life to our days. Simply put, the children keep me positive and hopeful about our future. Through them and with them, I believe we can turn outrage into optimism, tough-mindedness to tender-heartedness and crisis into opportunities that build value for all. When I walk through places like The Sustainable City in Dubai I see how forward thinking the world can be and how bright our future is.
Get to Know Mr. Ritz
1. What is your favorite children’s book?
It's so hard to pick one, Able’s Island is right up there
2. Favorite healthy meal?
I love a good fatoush and here in UAE, I’m referred to as the “The Hummus Snob.” I also love a good bowl of soup! I really enjoy simple, whole, food.
3. 3 top plants to plant with kids at home?
Basil, arugula (rocket) and carrots. By myself, I love growing heirloom tomatoes and Asian eggplant.
4. Who is your superhero?
Robert Shetterly – the author of “American’s Who Tell the Truth” and also my Dad.
5. If you could have a magic power, what would it be?
I do have a magic power! I grow children and vegetables! And I wear a magic bow-tie, cheese hat, and green shoes!