UAS had the pleasure of hosting “People Power – Can’t Stop – Won’t Stop” Stephen Ritz this week. Ritz was able to provide our school with motivational speeches and class visits which touched the hearts of our students. Stephen was able to put into perspective the magnitude of issues facing his students who come from the South Bronx in the Borough of the Bronx in New York City. It is an area known as the poorest Congressional District in the United States. As Ritz stated, “there is tough and there is tougher.” His borough had no supermarkets, no parks, no libraries, no green space. 59% of his students live in adverse poverty and most come to school having had no food on their tables and one out of two are homeless. Life expectancy is 10 years less than people who live outside of the community. Ritz himself had health issues and tragedy set out to make a change. At first it was a small change to his community that has turned out to be a powerhouse in only 5 years.
This is a huge contrast to what our students are exposed to in Dubai. Ritz, in his speech, told us he comes from a “food desert” to the real desert. While not a farmer by trade, Ritz was noticing in his own community a huge increase of illness, food allergies, and behavior issues which is directly linked to availability to quality food. So his journey began. He began to teach his students how to grown plants. The food they grew outside was not possible to eat as the soil was toxic, so they moved it indoors and it soon became the first edible classroom in the United States. Ritz told us that “growing food is growing money.” His students have transformed a community from concrete and abandoned buildings to areas of luscious green walls, roofs, warehouses and school classrooms teeming with fresh greens to sell and eat. The community where unemployment was well above national averages suddenly had 2200 more jobs available.
By Ritz’s trial and error and a “don’t fear failure” attitude, students who have never left the Bronx were being invited to Rockefeller Center to beautify the area and being paid to do work they enjoyed doing. An important message Ritz left his audience is “find something you love doing and work it hard. Go out and change the world.”
Throughout his journey, Ritz has met many people along the way; Michael Jordan, Jennifer Lopez, Bill Clinton, Barak Obama, the Pope and his favorite, Oprah Winfrey. His Oprah story included how he was working out in LA and Oprah walked over to him and said, “Hey Stephen Ritz” and was wearing one of the Green Bronx Machine t-shirts. Ritz has been on CNN and is about to do a film with Usher and JayZ when he returns from his visits in the Middle East.
While his stories about his personal journey of the last 5 years were impressive his main reason for being here is to inspire our wonderful and capable students to create world change. He impressed upon us that “we are the world” and “students are the vehicle to inspire and create change.” Ritz hopes to partner up with our school and create gardens in the desert to provide fresh food using 90% less water and energy. Ritz will be meeting with our students to help inspire UAS student ideas to “change the world.”
Dubai is rich with opportunity and we have the student body who can design change. Through connections and “people power” we will create our own change and improvements to help make the world is a better place. His hope is that we will be able to create a sustainable project similar to one created in Los Angeles.