Ron Finley grew up in South Central Los Angeles, a "food desert" where nutritious eats are chronically unavailable. But when the fashion designer, personal trainer, poster collector, and father got tired of driving 45 minutes to buy an organic tomato, he decided to grow his own. Since then, he's started a gardening revolution in his inner city neighborhood, professing that "gardening is gangsta" and that an easy way to promote human rights at home is to "go plant some shit."
The fame of this "renegade gardener" took off after his February TED talk (the video has over a million views and can be viewed at the end of this article). The New York Times called him "an Appleseed with an attitude."
"People have been away from the dirt for so long."
Because of all the hype, I definitely wasn’t expecting to see Finley saunter onto the stage of Seattle’s Queen Anne United Methodist Church wearing a pair of cargo shorts with saggy pockets, a pair of Vibram FiveFingers shoes—the ones that have little spaces for each of your toes—and a brown T-shirt that read "Get Dirty." As the pastor introduced him, Finley stretched his arms, broke out his camera, and took a couple of pictures of the audience. He wandered over to check out a picture on the wall and jumped around like a little kid—perhaps a little kid with ADHD.
Finley’s take on gardening is similarly active. In the fall of 2010, he planted a "demonstration garden" on the strip of land between the curb and the sidewalk—also known as a "curb strip"—in front of his house in South Central Los Angeles, a neighborhood where he has lived all his life. He says he was tired of living in the "food prison"—where the lack of access to healthy foods was causing diabetes, obesity, and other health problems.
"If you look at the statistics, the drive thrus literally are killing more people than the drive-bys," Finley says.
Finley’s garden is a public explosion of color and smells. "I wanted people to get their senses blasted," he says. He didn’t just plant food, but also jasmine, lavender, and sunflowers that grew to ten feet tall. And it got the neighborhood’s attention. People would creep past his yard in their cars, rubbernecking. One day a kid strolled down the street wearing his headphones and then stopped dead in his tracks when he saw the sunflowers.
"Yo, is that real?" Finley remembers him saying. A few days later, the kid was in the dirt helping out.
Finley encouraged people to take what they needed from the garden. He shared tomatoes, peppers, melons, eggplant, pumpkins, and more with anyone who passed by his home, often people with few financial resources and little access to vegetables.
In May of 2011, however, Finley received a citation from the city, which considered his plants "obstructions." They asked him to pay $400 for a permit or remove the garden. After getting 500 signatures on a petition posted on change.org and gaining the confidence of a city councilman, Finley received a permit for free and eventually provoked the city to relax its laws on curb strip usage.
"Growing your own food is like printing your own money."
Since then, Finley has created the organization LA Green Grounds, which plants vegetable gardens in South Central yards free of charge and has installed public gardens in curb strips, homeless shelters, abandoned lots, and traffic medians. The all-volunteer organization has installed over 30 gardens. Finley gets people in the soil and hooks them on fresh homegrown vegetables and a do-it-yourself attitude.
"People have been away from the dirt for so long," Finley says. "Once you get them in it, they’re gone." His admittedly simple idea is catching on in South Central. As for changing eating habits, Finley believes that gardening makes it happen. "Kids that grow kale eat kale," he says. "Kids that grow tomatoes eat tomatoes."
His next plan is to bring shipping containers to the abandoned lots in South Central and turn them into cafes. The cafes will be attached to the gardens and serve as community hubs and places to teach cooking lessons.
Though the city has become a little more lax in its laws, this renegade gardener still considers gardening to be dangerous, revolutionary work. Monsanto, GMOs, chemicals whose names you can’t pronounce, Cheetos, "Big Ag," seed patents—these are the villains Finley says we are up against. They’re "feeding the medical industrial complex" and killing us slowly by giving us diseases like diabetes and cancer, while fostering unnecessary relationships of dependence.
"Growing your own food is like printing your own money," Finley says, adding that this is something the food companies don’t want us to realize.
Finley does not identify as an environmentalist. "People ask me 'how did you get into the green initiative?'" he says. "I didn’t. I got into the life, the people, the health initiative."
YES! speaks with Ron Finley
Because of his renegade status, I thought Finley was going to have a "too cool for school" attitude, but he treated his audience like they were the most awesome people around. He admits he doesn’t have all the answers—he says he is simply preaching and practicing the gardening gospel that came to him.
After his Seattle talk, Finley conversed with his fans for two hours, greeting each of us with a giant bear hug. Then I asked him some questions.
Katrina Rabeler: Why is gardening "gangsta"?
Ron Finley: Gardening is gangsta because it empowers, it changes, it uplifts, it creates life, it creates community, it builds. And to me, that's gangsta. Breaking down and polluting and trashing and negativity—to me, that's not gangsta. That's why I say we've got to flip the script on what gangsta is.
"Nothing is straight in nature. So when I plant, I want it to be a palette like a tapestry."
Rabeler: How do you make something that kid’s grandmothers probably do seem cool?
Finley: Because it is. To me, the grannies are gangsta. [Chef and school lunch reformer] Alice Waters is one of the ultimate gangstas to me. Anytime you have that kind of effect and you're changing people like that and you're getting recognized and you're literally changing lives and creating life, that's gangsta.
Rabeler: You’re also a fashion designer. How does that skill translate into gardening?
Finley: The garden is just another canvas. I don't put in gardens the way people usually put them in—in rows. Nothing is straight in nature. So when I plant, I want it to be a palette like a tapestry. Color pops. I want people to see different heights, different colors, stuff that supposedly doesn't go together. Especially if it's on the street, I want people to take notice of it.
Even when I give instructions to people, there're like, "Well, where should this go?" And I'm like, "I don't know. Where should it go?" And then people release. It's just like when you take a paintbrush to a canvas. There's no system. You just start.
Rabeler: You talked a lot about kids in your talk. Are you reaching out to families too?
Finley: Totally. When we put in gardens we usually do it for families. Because I want everyone affected by it. You can't do the one without doing the other. You can't change a child whose parents are not into gardening. The kid brings this home and the parent is going to go "We don't do dirt. Get that out of here. You can't bring that in the house. That's nature. Nature doesn't belong in the house."
So that's when I talk about the cultural shift. We have to get the mammas and the papas and the children to realize that there’s a change. Because if you're growing but your parents don’t get it, they’re going to say, "We don't do that! We're not slaves." And that's the mentality of a lot of people: that we don't do it—we don't do that anymore. It's below them. "We eat at McDonalds. We don't grow our own food."
Rabeler: What do you say to those parents who, when their kids come home excited about gardening, they say, "We’re above that?"
"I want to see people who know that they can design their own life the way they want it to be."
Finley: You try to get them in the dirt. You try to get them in the soil. You try to get them to taste the food and to see the difference and to change their wicked ways. We have to change culture. And that's big and it's hard and it's long. Because you've got this stuff that's ingrained in people. And they've become their environment. They've become the music. They've become the street. They've become the concrete. That's their DNA now. So that's the biggest shift that we have to do. We have to break this culture. And it takes years to do that. It takes years.
Rabeler: Your collection of film posters is in the Museum of African American Art in Los Angeles. It’s titled Travels Through Blackness: The Ron Finley Collection of International Movie Posters, 1920s to 1970s. Is gardening also a medium by which you can "travel through blackness?"
Finley: Totally. Because a lot of the stuff we, Africans, brought here. Watermelon is from Africa. We brought rice over here. Everybody thinks it's an Asian thing. Africans brought a ton of the agriculture over here. And that's why slave owners used them for agriculture. They brought it. The women would store seeds in their skirts and they brought all kinds of stuff here.
Rabeler: You mentioned in your talk that there can be a competitive attitude to gardening. What does it take for us to go from that attitude to a collaborative one?
Finley: It's not far at all. And that's what it should be and that's what you should be encouraging. If I put a garden in your place, you have to help on the next garden. It's a pay it forward kind of thing. That's what it's all about. If we all do that, everybody's going to have a garden. If we all pitch in. It's almost like a barn-raising with the Quakers. Now everybody's got a barn. Because everybody pitched in.
Rabeler: What's your biggest wish for your project?
Finley: World domination. That we have healthy, sustainable food sources all over the world. That people understand that you can do this yourself. There are entities that don't care about our health. They don't care about us. They've shown that millions and millions of times. So we have to do it. It's the only way it's going to happen.
I want to see people empowering themselves with sustainable food, sustainable lives, and being able to live free—where they don't have to be supported or expect somebody else to support them. I want to see empowerment and people who know that they have it and know that they can change their life—know that they can change their manufactured reality and design their own life the way they want it to be. And that's what gardens represent to me.