Sneak Peek inside the mind of Ron Finley, Gangsta Gardener
Ron Finley (also known as the Gangster Gardener) is somewhat of a local celebrity in South Central L.A. Maybe you’re familiar with his 2013 Ted Talk on urban gardening where he describes the food desert situation in LA. Ron was raised in South Central like myself, so he's very familiar with the lack of accessible healthy food options in the community. Having to travel close to an hour to find a carrot that wasn’t filled with pesticides, Ron decided to do something about it. That's when he began growing vegetables in front of his own home on the sidewalk in LA. Because the city of Los Angeles owns the parkways, he was cited for violating city codes. This was the beginning of a spirited revolution. Ron wrangled several other green activists and petitioned to not only keep his garden, but to change the city laws. In the seven years that followed, Ron’s garden has grown exponentially (he has an entire pool filled with plants) and so has his recognition. How's that for gangsta?
Sequoia Carr : What sparked your love for gardening?
Ron Finley : Who said I love this sh*t?
SC Well, do you?
RF What is the single most important thing in your life?
SC *adamantly* Happiness.
RF No. Not even close.
RF No. What is the single most important thing that people don't value.
SC *thinking *
RC Air. Air is the single most important thing to your life. Not food, not happiness, not money, not any of the other things that we've been trained to value. You can live without food, you can live without water for days, but you can't go a single day minute without air.
SC What has been your biggest challenge thus far?
RC People. Finding conscious people, people that actually give a f**k.
SC In terms of finding a team of people?
RC All of that. People that live in a food prison and don't even know it. People have been my biggest resource, but they've also been the bain of my existence. The haters, the corporations, the people that don't want to see this happen.
SC Right. Well, educating people about growing their own food affects their [corporations] revenue.
RF Most of this is self-imposed. People are enslaved and they don't even know it. And I'm not just talking about black people. I’m talking about the human race. We're being controlled by corporations. They don't give a f*ck about us. Everything that happens in this country is about commerce. Period.
SC Out of the places that you've spoken, where do you get the most pushback from? Is it the black and brown community?
RF I wouldn't call it pushback...
SC What would you call it? Apathy? Disinterest?
RF It's people trusting the powers that be. People don't want to get involved. 'I ain't diggin in no dirt, I ain't no damn slave'.
SC Oh, I completely understand. The reactions I would get when I told people that I'd be volunteering on farms-for free. [they’d say] ‘Isn't that...slavery?'
RF It's called knowledge. It’s called culture. It’s called knowing how to fend for ourselves and to not be dependent—that's one of the most important things.
SC You said something that really resonated with me in your Ted Talk. You said ‘growing your own food is like printing your own money’. Because you're right, there's a sense of freedom that comes along with that.
RF Yeah, but I also saw a post that had 200 plus responses like ‘this guys an idiot’ or ‘that's illegal’ A friend of mine asked me why I read this stuff, but I have to. I have to listen to the opposing views too. I have to read all sides.
SC Is it discouraging?
RF Discourage me? I'm black. If I would've been discouraged, I would've been discouraged a long time ago. I'm black. Life is hard. We have to adapt and be ready for any and everything. We have to be ready for opportunities when they arise, we have to be ready for that. And a lot of people are not trained to be ready for that. A lot of times you don't even see them when they're there—but you have to respond. That's kinda’ what happened with my Ted Talk.
SC And how DID that happen?
RF I wasn't looking for that, it wasn't even on my radar.
SC How did you get into speaking engagements?
RF People wanted me to tell my story. TED found me. I did this thing called ‘the world wide search’—first and last time they ever did that. They went around the world looking for people to speak.
SC And this was your first ever—the beginning of your speaking career? Was this your first speaking engagement? Were you nervous?
RF I was scared shitless. *laughs* I thought ‘I could just leave now, and not embarrass my family’
SC Haha. But you didn't.
RF People have come up to me and told me that my Talk doesn't seem like the typical talk, and I'm glad that I didn't follow a specific set of rules or bylines.
SC It's authentic.
RF ...and people feel that.
SC What are your future plans for this place?
RF I have a project that I'm working on, a shovel project. It's called Urban Weaponry. Weapons of mass creation. You want to change something? Let’s get a shovel and plant some trees. Let's make this place more humanistic. Because right now, we're ants working for the corporations. These cities are designed for commerce, and not people. This project is one of the first fundraiser kickoffs. I want to build multi-story buildings here, a fruitful commercial kitchen where people can come and make food to sell, a garden on the roof, workshops where people are working with wood, metal, and repurposing some of the things we call trash. Basically, a freedom institution. Because that's what gardens represents to me. Freedom from a really oppressive regime, one that people of color have been experiencing since we've been here. But now people of all backgrounds are seeing the slavery.
SC So what do you need to make this happen?
RF Funding, mutual support.
SC What are some options for people on a budget who are trying to eat healthy?
RF The bottom line is that people need to get together and and start collectively grow food.
SC What about people who don't have access to land? What about people in small spaces? People who live in the projects?
RF Get a shoebox, get a crate, get some pallets that say HT, which means heat treated not chemically treated—and build something. You could have multiple spaces, you don't need one big space. And even if you live in the projects, you have some form of a yard. Get your neighbors together on each side and grow something where you share the food. You see how many tomatoes I have right now? I can't eat all this sh*t. You have to share it. The mentality that has screwed us up is that there's not a lot of food, but that's not true. Mother Nature provides all of it. All of our needs are already met. All man’s needs, but not man's greed.
Ron pulls out his phone to show me a video of a child gleefully exploring his garden
RF The other day a couple of kids from the neighborhood stopped by, and I heard one of them say ‘my jungle!’ I went out to speak with the woman they were with—who happened to be their granny—and she said she brings them here all the time. She said every time her grandson passes by he yells , ‘my jungle!!’ That made my day, because thats what I do it for.
Ron may be tough, but he has a big heart. The food Ron grows on his parkway is available to anyone in the community to enjoy. He wants people to get inspired about growing their own food—taking control of their lives. He’s not only gangsta, he’s also generous.