How Black Leaders & Their Brilliance Inspired the Green Our Planet Story
August 17, 2023
Looking back on the last ten years building Green Our Planet with Kim and our team I’ve been musing on how we got here. I mean what led us to creating Green Our Planet? Why did we do it? As I look back to the years before Green Our Planet to the nudges and gentle guidance from books, stories and people I admired, it’s clear to me that the foundation of Green Our Planet is largely built on the experience, stories and brilliance of black American leaders. This is that story.
Creating Joy and Justice in Communities: making the impossible possible
Little did I know the day that I picked up the book Making the Impossible Possible by Bill Strickland from the coffee table in my good friend Kristin’s house that this story would change my life. In the first few pages of the book Bill shared how when he was a senior in high school, he was in despair because he was about to graduate and he didn’t feel there was much hope or opportunity for him in the gritty and rundown neighborhood where he lived in Pittsburgh. One day, walking by the doorway of the art lab in his school he heard the sound of jazz music and the delicious smell of coffee caught his attention. He poked his head inside the door and his art teacher beckoned him to come over to where he was working a potters wheel. The teacher encouraged Bill to join him. As Bill felt the wet clay forming beneath his hands, the sound of the music and the smell of the coffee stirring his senses and his soul, he felt in that one moment his life changed.
For the first time he felt in his body that the impossible was possible, he could do something positive and exciting with his life. After graduating from the University of Pittsburgh, over the next 35-40 years Bill transformed the neighborhood where he grew up by building a beautiful center called the Manchester Bidwell Center with art studios, a recording studio, a commercial horticultural center and a culinary amphitheater. Inspired by his art teacher’s example, Strickland has spent more than four decades striving to bring purpose to the lives of thousands of disadvantaged kids in Pittsburgh’s North Side.
By introducing them to the arts, he says he can help cure the “cancer of the spirit” that still sickens so much of inner-city America. He created after school art, photography and music programs for young people. 98% of his students graduate from high school, twice the local average. Kim and I read his book avidly, voraciously because Bill confirmed something we had long suspected.In the moment when you create something beautiful you transform yourself and the world. When you add a lifetime of these moments together you can create something magnificent. That’s what Bill did. He made it possible for students feeling lost and despairing in high school in Pittsburgh to have somewhere to go, a place where they could learn how to transform that despair into creativity, hope and so much more.
The Thought Seed was planted
Bill’s book Making the Impossible Possible was a tiny seed planted in Kim’s and my mind in 2006 but it would take another seven years before it would flourish, flower and bear fruit and become Green Our Planet that’s because we needed more clues, more inspiration to lead us to our right path. It was in 2010, another book called Whatever it Takes about an amazingly charismatic, smart and extraordinary leader called Geoffrey Canada that next struck our souls by lightning. Similar to Bill, Geoffrey grew up in a gritty neighborhood in Harlem with his single Mom and his brother. One of his biggest challenges as a young boy was staying out of a gang and at the same time not getting beaten up or sucked in by the violence. Like Bill, Geoffrey had his mom and some teachers who believed in him and pushed him to take school seriously.
When he graduated with a Masters in Education from Harvard the question Geoffrey asked himself was what would it take to change the lives of poor children—not one by one, through heroic interventions and occasional miracles, but in big numbers, and in a way that could be replicated nationwide? The question led him to create the Harlem Children’s Zone, a ninety-seven-block laboratory in central Harlem where he is testing new and sometimes controversial ideas about poverty in America. Geoffrey Canada’s conclusion: if you want poor kids to be able to compete with their middle-class peers, you need to change everything in their lives—their schools, their neighborhoods, even the child-rearing practices of their parents. Before the HCZ existed, on average 8% of young people from the neighborhood went to college. Today, over 90% of students from the HCZ attend college.
This book landed in me and Kim in a way that we knew it was pointing us in the direction of our right path. This was another story that showed us that education could be the greatest generator of opportunities for a country. I knew this in every cell of my body because I’d had the good fortune to benefit from a decision made by the Irish government in the 1960s to invest in education, to give young Irish people the opportunity to thrive and become their best selves.
My friends and peers went on to build an Ireland that is now a thriving financial services center, the headquarters in Europe for Google, Facebook and many other tech giants. In the 1980s when I was growing up Ireland’s labor market was one of the worst performing in Europe. Unemployment in 1986 was 17%. Today unemployment is 4%. The average salary when I was growing up in Ireland in the 1970s and 80s was the 3rd lowest in Europe and today salaries are the third highest in the world. Some of this extraordinary growth and dynamism came from giving young people who had previously not had the opportunity to receive an education. The Irish government simply used education to tap into and unleash the potential of the citizens of a country. Geoffrey Canada did the same. Suddenly an entire community, Harlem, that had been oppressed, left without resources, cut off from the system is now ignited through education by the HCZ.
So now Kim and I had two inspirational leaders, Bill and Geoffrey, showing us that education was one of the most effective ways to create justice in society. And those examples coupled with my own lived experience growing up benefiting from a free education in Ireland stirred in us a keen interest in how we might somehow work in education to help create justice.
The final piece landed for us in 2011 when we heard about Michelle Obama’s, Let’s Move campaign. Launched in 2010 this campaign was the first time a high profile figure in the White House had shined the light on childhood health and obesity and taught us how important exercise and access to fresh healthy food could transform communities and lives. First Lady Obama built the first vegetable garden at the White house and firmly got behind gardens in schools across America as effective teaching tools. She started a conversation about what our kids eat and how they move and how this impacts how they feel about themselves.
Let’s Move and the school garden movement is not just about the physical and emotional health of our kids, but how gardens and exercise can help kids be successful and joyful in school and in life. This was extremely exciting to me and Kim. Neither of us had gone to a school where we’d had the opportunity to learn outside, in a garden. But both of us love nature and spend much of our free time outside. Kim in the jungle in Peru. Me, running and hiking outside wherever I lived. Nature touches us, makes us better people. But what we hadn’t realized was that nature, a garden could be a powerful teaching tool in schools. First Lady Obama changed all that not just for us but for teachers, parents and communities across the country. There has been a resurgence in the role of gardens at schools across our country and so much of that movement is thanks to Michelle Obama.
So in 2013, Kim and I co-founded Green Our Planet. Teachers started requesting that we help them build gardens at schools and then we worked with them to create curricula, chef nutrition programs, farmers markets, entrepreneurship programs and more. Kim and I answered the call. We said yes. We said yes because we’d learned from Bill Strickland, Geoffrey Canada and First Lady Michelle Obama that creating opportunities for our young people to thrive in school is one of the fastest and most effective ways to transform and create joy and justice in communities.
Thought Seeds by Ciara Byrne, CEO of Green Our Planet
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