It’s hard to miss Ron Finley‘s community garden in South Central Los Angeles. Across the street from Dorsey High, launch pad for some of pro sports’ greatest athletes, and the Farmdale stop of the Expo Line, the loud train line that bisects his otherwise quiet neighborhood like a scar, Finley’s leafy gangsta gardener compound sticks out like a green thumb.
And now, after a protracted ownership battle, the land is finally his.
For years, Finley has been on a mission to evangelize hyper-locally grown food, especially by gardening the empty lots lining the under-resourced streets of South Central. His rousing, hilarious TED Talk on guerilla gardening helped him attract attention with foodies and social justice advocates alike, thanks partly to sobering insights like, “Growing your own food is like printing your own money.”
Then, last year, Finley learned that his community garden, reportedly worth $380,000, was going to be seized by high-profile developers, Strategic Acquisitions. So he launched a crowdfunding campaign and reached out to a number of influencers in the food and entertainment industries. Bette Midler, Nell Newman, John Foraker, president of Annie’s, and nearly 3,000 others ponied up the $550,000 that Strategic Acquisitions demanded in lieu of taking possession and shutting the garden down.
It’s a major victory for Finley, the Gangsta Garden, and community members—and one that not every urban farm can claim, as evidenced by the fate of the South Central Farm, which just over 10 years ago was bulldozed despite community protests.
Finley believes saving urban farms like his is worth it, especially considering how healthy food can save people in his community money in the long run, he recently explained, as we sat in the shade of his sprawling garden, densely populated with potted plants and trees. Touching soil is a necessary pathway back to caring for the planet we’ve taken too long for granted, Finley noted during a refreshingly honest conversation about institutional racism, environmental justice, and unsustainable industry.
Touching soil, touching people, and—as Finley emphasized—breathing.
Have you noticed a change in how people think about feeding the hungry?
Yes, but the hungry should be feeding themselves. Let’s start there, because the other way is slavery. We’re still dependent, and we don’t have to be. Give us the freedom to feed ourselves. Give us the tools. I don’t need you to feed me, because what you are feeding me is detrimental to my health. My take is self-sustainability, but in the neighborhood.
I want to show people how they can design the life they want to live, not the life that’s been designed for them, especially if they live in an inner city, or if they’re black, brown or red. Their lives have already been created for them. We know where they’re going to end up, because of the education they’re not getting and the food that they’re eating. Everything is stacked against them, especially their environments. That is what I’m about. Waking people up and letting them know where we come from, and where we are going to back to—and that’s the soil.
Do you see attitudes transforming outside of your city as well?
Totally. I was in Italy for a Slow Food conference, and a guy from Rio came up to me and said, “Can I show you something? This is because of you.” He took out his phone and showed me a lot in front of a gigantic apartment building that they took over and turned into a farm. He also told me that now they have permission to take over the one next door. I get to hear that quite often. That’s what keeps me doing this.
I was at the University of Pensacola as an artist-in-residence, working with school kids on their gardens. I was in one of the lowest-performing schools in the district, which looked like a prison, but the kids were so brilliant. One fifth-grade girl said that people couldn’t get any healthy food in her neighborhood, because they were being profiled.
There’s a difference between educating someone and giving them knowledge. It’s called civilization, but we were civilized before anyone got here. Look at the domestication of Native Americans, aborigines in Australia, or what happened in Latin America. Their cultures were taken from them. The educational process has resulted in the loss of our true senses. Now we believe that the environment which is created for us is the only one in which we can live. This is how it looks, and it can’t be redesigned. Everything is built for commerce, not for people.
Speaking of commerce, what do you think about the companies that pitched in to help save the your garden?
One of the first who stepped up to the plate was Bette Midler. Everywhere she goes—from Laurel Canyon to New York to Hawaii—she’s in her galoshes in the water, cleaning up right next to you. That’s how Bette gets down. She’s a warrior.
And then there is Nell Newman, Paul Newman’s daughter and founder of Newman’s Own Organic, who basically said, “I’m not letting it happen.” Nell came on and was personally determined, and that was from jump street. And then Godzilla with a cape came in—John Foraker from Annie’s. It was heart-warming, because he was apologetic that he didn’t step in sooner, and I was like, “Are you kidding me? Do you know how many people we reached out to, only to hear crickets?”
I swear to you, it was almost like people were waiting for us to fail. That’s how I felt. You see people [in other industries] getting millions just because they had a bomb presentation, and they still go under. Here, I don’t have any of that. I’m on the ground making change. So yeah, the industry came out for us in a big way, which I didn’t expect to happen.
I mean, even Patagonia, Califia, and Dr. Bronner’s reached out. Foraker wrote a letter that said, “Don’t feel that you have to do anything else, ever. We got together for what you’ve already done.” It took me awhile to absorb it, and I just started crying. Because I’m not supposed to be here talking to you. I am very much a product of my environment, but I also am not.
You’re a product of Earth’s environment, not the artificial one created for you.
Right, where I’m supposed to get on a freeway and drive an hour to work. All of these fucking rules have been set up, but follow the checks. Who gets the money? Is this benefitting you? Are you happy in that car, driving to work, to a box they sit you in, pushing buttons? Why are we miserable? Why don’t we treat each other with respect?
Did you get any political support?
No. I thought I had a good relationship with my councilman, but we couldn’t even get them to write a letter. We reached out to the mayor. Crickets. And they know who I am, so it’s a disappointment. But it’s not going to stop what I do, and I think it’s another lesson: If we want to change something, we have to change it. We elected these people, but if they’re not going to help us, then they need to get the out of the way.
I mean, we got the law changed, and that’s big. Now you can grow food on the street. But it’s not that big if no one really knows about it, or if no one knows how to do it. Has [the city] held workshops? Have we put money into helping people learn these skills, to make their communities healthier?
Now that this chapter has closed, what’s next?
Breathing. Waking up in the morning. That’s my five-year plan. [Laughs]
I’m doing what I want to do. I get to see the change that I want to be a part of, in real-time. I get to see the seeds that I planted grow, and to watch the people grow too. I get to see positive things happen around the world. It’s amazing to think that a random black guy who planted a carrot in South Central can show up at a Slow Food conference in Italy and ask, “What is the true cost of our food, of those who harvest our food?”
When I started the garden, I had no idea I was creating an ecosystem. All of a sudden, there were birds and butterflies everywhere. So I’m in a good place. There are a lot of people who doubted I would be where I am. But I woke up in the morning, so I’m already winning.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Top photo courtesy of Ron Finley; inline photos courtesy of Sandra Fu.