Charles Orgbon III, CEO of Greening Forward, is 20 seconds into his speech to an auditorium filled with architects, engineers, teachers and builders and it is clear that he is the brightest person in the room.
And the youngest—Charles Orgbon III is in high school.
So what do you do when the youngest person in the room is taking his elders to task for not giving real voice or decisions to children?
“I hear well-meaning and well intentioned adults say youth are the future, but the reality is youth are today. Youth are the leaders of today and youth can drive transformational, substantive change– if given the chance.”
Pacing the stage with a bright, wide smile, Orgbon is friendly, but insistent.
“I challenge adults to soften your hearts and let young people share decision making responsibility with you as an adult… So… how many of you have youth on your board of directors or as a part of your leadership team?…”
He smiles and waits in the silence.
“It’s obvious. Young people are uniquely qualified to say what works for young people, so if your program is serving young people, where are they?
Why aren’t they part of your evaluation committee?
Why aren’t they designing the schools that we get to go to school in?
Why aren’t we designing the curriculum that is taught to us?
The school boards that are led by grey haired adults–where are the students in that process that they are making decisions that affect our lives?”
Orgbon smiles to the crowd and continues.
“I believe that as adults we all have a powerful role in challenging young people to take that leadership role. Use your power to help a young person find his. Because when youth are challenged to create change in their communities we will rise to that challenge.”
“It’s a diversity issue; it’s a democracy issue..” Orgbon points out, looking into the crowd of mostly white adults at the USGBC Green School Summit in Washington DC.
They are listening intently and applaud his speech, enthusiastically.
Diversity, democracy and inclusion are themes that have echoed through every civil rights movement. But will the generations that recognized the rights of women and people of color now recognize the rights of youth to protect their future?
Climate change means that decisions on energy use will affect the world of our future–our youth–far more than the grey haired people who are making these decisions. Our youth will bear the brunt or fruits of these decisions, but have no voice or vote in making them. This is unjust. It is also poor planning. You don’t leave the safety decisions to the people that get off at the next stop or long term financial decisions to the people who are cashing out.
Orgbon is asking youth to rise up to claim their stake in their world and the adults to reach out to meet them. This can be a vibrant, peaceful revolution that empowers us and protects our world for our youth—for many generations to come. It doesn’t take a war, just an open door and outreached hand.
It’s a place that needs optimism.
The Bronx is a tough neighborhood with high unemployment and the rumble of food insecurity. The New York City Coalition Against Hunger reported in December, 2013 that nearly 49 percent of Bronx children lived in a household with an inconsistent food supply.
Equally alarming, children in the Bronx have little access to fresh food, often eating foods high in sugar and fat, but low in nutritional value.
“We have some of the greatest rates of juvenile diabetes and juvenile obesity in the nation,” Ritz says. “And we can change that. We absolutely have the power to change schools in this generation.”
So where does Ritz get this optimism?
He grows it—with his students.
“The excitement and joy that these little kids feel putting a seed in the ground and watching it blossom—OMG! “ Ritz exclaims. “It’s game changing! It’s empowering!”
“When they know that they can grow their own, they really start changing the way they see their relationship to the world and their place in it,” Ritz says. “They are growing, the plants are growing, and they are responsible for it.”
Vegetables are sprouting in trays, on walls, and from the sides of tower gardens. This growing infuses the classroom—and their lessons. Students learn the science of nutrition and growth. Names of vegetables teach consonant blends. The price of supplies and earnings help students learn math. Growing puts green in their wallets and trains students for jobs and business. With their learning aligned with their lives, students can create, taste and count real reasons to come to school. School attendance grew from 40 percent to 93 percent. Students are heading to college, not jail.
“For so many, food is the problem. Yet for all of us, food is a solution,” Ritz says.
In places adults didn’t think could grow plants, Ritz and his students are growing an answer to poor prenatal nutrition, the cause of 70 percent of learning disabilities. They are growing an answer to dropping out, unemployment and powerlessness with relevant learning, work and constant encouragement. “We are Ameri-CANS!, not Ameri-can’ts, “ Ritz proclaims.
“I’m not a farmer,” Ritz says, “But I’m planting. I’m planting seeds.”
Ritz has planted success in his students with this approach. But there is only one Stephen Ritz. How do we grow crops of transformative teachers and learning projects?