Adam Green is the founder and executive director of Rocking the Boat, a youth development organization that uses boat-building and sailing to empower young people in the South Bronx. While boats might seem like an odd choice for youth engagement in the largest city in the US, Green says that the hands-on work of building and sailing a vessel impacts students’ lives in a wide variety of ways. Because traditional education is mainly theoretical and lacks opportunities for experiential learning, the practical experience of building a boat, learning to sail it, and conducting environmental research makes learning feel exciting and meaningful. The boats themselves, he says, are an “amazingly powerful medium” that represent journeys, both literal and personal. They also help connect New York City residents to the water that surrounds them, which is particularly relevant in the Hunts Point area where Rocking the Boat works. This part of the South Bronx is very low-income and has been subject to significant environmental degradation because of industry, but it’s also surrounded by a beautiful waterfront—Green says people often mistake his photos of Hunts Point for Maine!
In his work with Rocking the Boat, he’s found that boats are an excellent way of connecting people to the wealth of natural resources that surround them, demonstrating that people don’t need to leave their neighborhoods to experience natural beauty. This in turn is a powerful metaphor for Rocking the Boat students: just as bountiful natural resources already exist in their community, the potential for growth and success already exists within its residents. One of Green’s major emphases is challenging the narrative that people from marginalized urban communities must leave those communities to “make something of themselves.” Students’ learning experiences within the program are supported by a team of social workers, who work with Rocking the Boat to connect students with other resources and help them translate their experiences on the water into personal growth in other areas of their lives.
This broad-based approach to youth empowerment is crucial in Hunts Point, which lies within the poorest zip code east of the Mississippi and is primarily home to people of color. While addressing systemic issues of race and class through boat-building is a major challenge, Rocking the Boat makes an impact in a number of ways. Firstly, they hire their program graduates, with many former students on staff in a variety of full to part-time positions that offer meaningful, community-oriented employment. The program also helps students develop skills that prepare them for further education and employment; in fact, 100% of Rocking the Boat students have graduated from high school and gone on to college, trade school, or some other form of post-secondary education.
When it comes to race, Green says they try to address the topic consistently, both with students and among staff. Because sailing and boat-building are traditionally white-dominated fields, staff works to address racism, microaggressions, and the importance of interacting with students in ways that empower them. Green also emphasizes the fact that Rocking the Boat is one of the very few sailing programs that works specifically with youth of color and doesn’t send them away from their communities.
So how did Rocking the Boat go from initial idea to fully-realized nonprofit? Green says the initial inspiration came from his own sense of frustration with his education and place in the world. After arriving at Vassar, he struggled to find a path and felt that his academic education wasn’t going anywhere, so he decided to take a semester off to find something that felt meaningful. During that time, he began volunteering on the Hudson River Sloop Clearwater, where he met a junior high teacher who partnered with him to create his first-ever boat-building program. The experience of helping those junior high students build a vessel created such a sense of purpose and joy that he decided to develop it into a full-fledged program. After returning to Vassar, he worked to transform his volunteer project into a complete idea, which culminated in a partnership with a South Bronx community college that allowed him to start an after-school program. From there, a combination of fellowships and collaborations with other South Bronx community organizations allowed Rocking the Boat to become an independent nonprofit in 2001. The development of the organization, Green says, was a process of testing ideas, challenging himself, and listening to community members to determine what was working and what wasn’t.
For students interested in starting their own community nonprofits, Green’s advice is simple: start doing it. The important thing, he adds, is not to immediately strike out on your own, but instead connect with existing organizations that have developed relationships and trust in the community. It’s also crucial to be humble enough to know that you need to give your idea a test run, and working with people who already know what they’re doing is a great way to do that. Immediately postgrad, he says, is a great time to do this, if you can.
To learn more about Rocking the Boat and their work, check out their website at www.rockingtheboat.org.