Just across the Bronx River from Soundview Park, is home to a nonprofit youth development organization that literally rocks the boat. This organization’s mission is to “empower young people from the South Bronx to develop the self-confidence to set ambitious goals and gain the skills necessary to achieve them.” Students work together to build wooden boats, learn to row and sail, and restore local urban waterways, revitalizing their community while creating better lives for themselves. We sat down with Adam Green the director and founder of Rocking the Boat, RTB and also, my former mentor, to hear his story.
It all started in 1994 when a young Adam Green took a semester off from Vassar College to volunteer at a junior high school in East Harlem. “The teacher there said he was building a boat and wondered if I would try to do it,” remembers Green, “I had never done anything like that before. The closest I’d come was volunteering on the Clearwater, the sailboat that Pete Seeger founded.” Green liked the idea of boats and education, so when the teacher brought in a set of plans from a hobbies magazine and wood he found from a construction site, he knew this was something he had to try. Once a week for eight months, he worked with the students to build an 8-foot dinghy that they then tested out by floating it in the pool in the basement of the school.
“It was a really thrilling experience. For the kids, it was giving them an opportunity to learn something that they could actually apply and see be put into practice. For me, teaching was kind of the same thing as the kind of learning that they were doing. It was learning how to communicate ideas and thoughts and concepts and seeing them be immediately digested and used and then put into practice themselves in the form of this boat and it was really exciting. Building a boat is a lot of fun. Putting your energy into something that you can actually see the result of. This wasn’t anything that I’d ever done either. I sometimes talk about myself as the first student because I got a sense of the same things I’d hope the kids were learning:” – Adam Green
Green resumed college filled with passion and inspiration to build boats and teach children. In 1996, he applied for a fellowship that offered seed funding for social entrepreneurship programs through the Echoing Green Foundation. This gave him the opportunity to redesign and create a long-term sustainable boat building program that gives kids an opportunity to learn something and put it into practice. This opportunity created the conditions favorable for germinating the seed for what is now Rocking the Boat.
While he did not win the fellowship, Green was offered the opportunity to run his boat building program at Hostos Community College, as an after-school program, outside of the classroom. “I love the fact that I could have relations with the students that were not in any way part of an academic context. I could relate to them as people, not as some formally defined role,” reminisced Green. In 1998, he reapplied with a different approach and won 5 grants to support the program. Rocking the Boat, Inc, officially launched in August 1998.
When RTB first launched, Green ran the program inside the basement of one of the New Settlement Apartments. “We were totally hidden in that basement,” Green recalls. “We were in that basement for two years and we built 3 boats. The only way to get there was through a side alley with metal cage-like doors and I measured 31 inches as the width; if you turn a Whitehall [boat] on its side, the widest point was 27 inches, so we had a whole 4 inches to spare.” Now the organization has its own space complete with workshop, storage, kitchen, offices and close proximity to a boat launch. Since then, they have built 52 wooden boats and sailboats; now in the process of building, number 53 and 54.
Rocking the Boat provides a series of youth development and public programs to high school students and community residents. These programs range from On-Water Classroom, Boat Building, Community Rowing and Sailing, Bronx River Camp, Sailing Camp, and Jobskills, a paid apprenticeship. Annually, the organization serves over 200 participants in its Youth Development Programs and thousands in its Public Programs.
RTB also provides social services provided by licensed social workers, to assist with “comprehensive social and emotional support,” says Green. The social workers work diligently with participants and their families to help them graduate from high school and apply to college or technical schools. While success rates are difficult to measure, RTB works hard to create a supportive environment where graduating participants can go out into the world feeling empowered. Currently, 93% of high schoolers graduate on time and 100% graduate at a later date. “100% of participants were enrolled in a college and currently attending this year,” says Green. His aim is for them to graduate with a degree within 6 years, or with a technical certification in 2 years.
Adam’s story gave me an even greater appreciation for the work that RTB does every day with young people in the neighborhood. As a child, I always had a love for boats. When I joined Rocking The Boat my focus was being a part of an extracurricular program that would teach me about boat building. I had no idea this decision would impact my life the way it has and lead me on my current career path. Rowing on the Bronx River introduced me to the maritime industry, which led me to attend SUNY Maritime College and begin a career working at NYC Ferry.
Come check out Rocking The Boat’s Community Rowing and Sailing which operates every Saturday from Memorial Day through Labor Day. Take NYC Ferry’s Soundview Route to the Soundview stop. These programs open to the public and completely free for anyone to participate. For more details, visit Rockingtheboat.org.