Ron Finley planted a garden on the 150-foot-long curbside strip outside his house in South Central Los Angeles. The produce was free for the taking, and before long, a lot of people were beginning to take notice. Before you know it, he was giving TED Talks and being pegged as a “guerrilla gardener” (though he prefers the term “gangsta gardener”). Now, he’s on a mission to help turn the city’s 26 SQUARE MILES OF CITY-OWNED VACANT LOTS into sustainable vegetable and fruit gardens and to transform his community, one tomato plant at a time. We spoke to Ron as part of our “10 Questions With…” interview series and chatted about “gangsta gardeners,” the art of defiance, and Frank Miller comics.
The Daily Banter: Your TED Talk has almost 2,000,000 views. Some people have said that TED Talks have lost their oomph because of how many there are now, but what did that TED Talk do for you and your cause?
Ron Finley: It made it go global.
I have kids in India who are calling themselves Gangster Gardners, I have kids in Baltimore emailing me telling me they’re going to build rooftop gardens, I have people recognizing me as I walk around the streets of Louisville.
That TED Talk turned a good story and idea into a real, actionable global movement.
The Daily Banter: You say that 26.5 million American live in a food desert (an urban area in which it is difficult to buy affordable or good-quality fresh food). How many of those 26.5 million do you think even realize that’s the situation they’re in?
Ron Finley: I’d say not a lot.
For most people in those conditions, that’s all they know. That’s why education is such an important part of all this, and why it has to start young. Kids need to be told where their food comes from and why it’s important to know that. They can latch onto that. If you show a kid what kale is, that kid will eat kale.
The Daily Banter: One of my favorite quotes of yours is the one that says, "Gardening is the most defiant act you can do.” Can you talk more about what you mean by that?
Ron Finley: It’s defiant because you're going against the system that says we can’t grow our own food. Being away from the garden makes us sheep; we’re forced to follow whoever feeds us. People can’t even identify food when its in the ground now. This is defiant because it says, “Don’t shove that kind of food down my throat.”
This is defying “conventional” agriculture, which is really just another way of saying food that has been commercially grown, genetically modified, and doused with harmful pesticides.
This is saying, "I’m not going to let you serve me this shit. I’m going to grow my own food."
The Daily Banter: You said that somebody complained when you planted your first curbside garden. Here in DC, we had a vigilante florist plant beautiful flowers outside one of our metro stations, which the city then spent manpower and money to dig up. Why do you think some people just don’t believe in us having nice things?
Ron Finley: I think it’s some archaic, antiquated rules and laws that are to blame, but people in charge don’t like hearing how stupid those kinds of things are. It might be the law, but it doesn’t fit; we’re not in the 1800’s anymore. I mean, there are some silly, silly laws on the book. I got the law changed so you can plant food on your parkway now in Los Angeles, but it’s absurd that I was a criminal for planting carrots while there are couches and condoms all over the street right next to my garden.
For me, it’s about conditioning. The system in place conditions us to not want anything better and it represses attempts at self-betterment. And it’s the first thing that needs to go.
The Daily Banter: You’ve said that, "Growing your own food is like printing your own money.” Do you see your movement as a tool for liberation?
Ron Finley: Oh yeah. At the time all this actually started, my business was in the dumps. I couldn’t pay $6 for an organic apple, so I started thinking about what I could do. And what I got out of gardening was learning that I could grow my food, I could know where it came from, I knew what soil it was in. It was mine, and that’s a beautiful thing.
What a lot of people don’t realize is that with things like lettuce, you can pick what you need and continue letting it grow. It’s an investment.
And while I definitely have saved a lot of money growing my now food, more importantly, it is my solace. It became a meditation for me. One hour in the garden would turn into four hours and I wouldn’t realize it. It’s almost like you’re being seduced by the soil.
The Daily Banter: You have stated that you believe in “paying it forward." How important is instilling that kind of charitable ethos into the people you work with for you?
Ron Finley: It’s funny; obviously I want to do this and I want to help people, but I also don’t want to create a situation where I’m giving people a crutch, or people expect me to help them. Sure, I’ll help you, and I’ll show you, but I’m doing my own thing. My garden is on the street because I want people to engage with it, but go back and grow your own food. Show others that it’s possible for us to do this.
I don’t want to design people’s lives for them. I want people to design their own life. A lot of people don’t know that their life is basically already designed for them, and they’re doing all these things that lead them to end up where they don’t want to be. All I want to be able to do is show them that they can change that life design. Then people see them, then those people change their lives and it goes from there.
The Daily Banter: In an interview with Ebony, you said, "When I plant my garden, it is more so for aesthetic appeal than production. I like to plant foods that are pretty, like purple Chinese mustard. I want people to be smacked upside the head by beautiful smells, like jasmine flowers,” and in your TED Talk, you remark that one “can’t imagine how amazing a sunflower is.”Besides the nutrition angle, for an area as urban and concrete as South Central, what is the value of having these aesthetically pleasing gardens start springing up?
Ron Finley: You know, people go out of their way to walk past my garden. It’s a rare place of beauty, and people really appreciate it. But it goes further than the garden.
I don’t grow food, I grow people.
People need to see beauty. They need to realize that nature is art; everything is art! When people see my garden or they smell it, you can see the immediate change in them. Homeless people come up to me and they tell me this changes how they see life and the world around them. Sure when one person vandalizes stuff or breaks a sunflower, it’s disheartening, but it’s those people coming up and talking to me, or the 30 students from Harvard that came all the way out to California to see my garden, that makes me realize why I do this.
The Daily Banter: I saw an image of you working where you’re wearing a t-shirt that says “Unfuck the world.” What do you think is the biggest obstacle preventing the world from being unfucked?
Ron Finley: The biggest obstacle is people.The biggest obstacle is complacency. I think people have turned into drones.
Getting antiquated laws and antiquated government out of the way is one of the biggest obstacles; we have corporations that look like they’re taking over the world, and they’re designing the world they want it to be not the way a lot of people think it should be or feel it should be. So the big obstacle is getting those people to share those opinions, unite, and do something about it.
The Daily Banter: It seems like the hardest part in “changing the composition of the soil” as you call it isn’t the selling of the pride and honor in gardening, but the masculinity and coolness of it. In your TED talk, you called it being a "gangsta gardener,” but how do you put that into practice?
Ron Finley: You just do it. You get a shovel and you do it. Those kids in India who are calling themselves Gangsta Gardners, they’re just doing it.
This is all about changing that paradigm and flipping that script that these people and these kids have heard their whole life. Gardening isn’t for girls and isn't a wussy thing to do. Growing your own food is sexy as hell! What could be sexier than you picking food that you grew and cooking it for a woman? That’s a panty-dropper right there.
I mean, I see these kids and they are getting high before school and drinking before school, and after I wonder how they’re even getting booze that early in the morning, I have to ask them, “What do you think you’re doing? What do you hope to accomplish with this?” It’s about getting through to them and showing them that being productive, doing something good for yourself, that’s the most amazing, most real thing you can do.
The Daily Banter: If the world is screwed past the point of no return, what was or what will be the nail in the coffin?
Ron Finley: First thing to come to mind is this article I saw on Al Jazeera America about the rising use of Agent Orange. Everyone knows the dangers of this stuff, and the fact that it’s being allowed to be used anywhere is insane to me.