Eco Hero: Gangsta Gardener Ron Finley

Ron Finley

When LA-based urban gardener and activist Ron Finley speaks with an audience, he often asks the following question: “What is the most simple, most important thing in anyone’s life?” Finley says typical answers are “my children” or “my career,” but he rarely, if ever, gets the response he is looking for. “The answer is oxygen,” he declares over Zoom, from his lush garden populated with a diversity of vegetables, potted herbs, succulents, and palms, inside a drained Olympic-sized pool painted with murals in South Los Angeles. “Clean air. We can’t live without it and we all deserve it.”

"What is the most simple, most important thing in anyone’s life? Clean air. We can’t live without it and we all deserve it.”

Finley has been speaking out and making this point for years. In this current moment, after a white police officer in Minneapolis choked George Floyd with his knee while he repeatedly cried, “I can’t breathe” (echoing Eric Garner in 2014), the statement has become a rallying cry for social justice. Fighting for a breath of air has officially taken on more than one meaning.

Ron Finley, Eco Hero

Change often starts with the planting of a seed. For Finley, this was literally the case. In a crusade to bring healthy food and oxygen to a corner of South LA in 2010, the former fashion designer planted a vegetable garden on a 10 x 150-foot-long barren strip, parallel to his property, between the curb and the sidewalk on Exposition Boulevard.

"Planting gardens aren’t just positive for the environment… It creates social justice, it helps build people’s minds and it shows people how to be free.”

By spring of the following year, he and his neighbors were harvesting tomatoes, chard, melons, squash and more. Instead of rewarding this productive enterprise, the City of LA, who officially owned that strip of land, cited Finley for “obstruction” and ordered him to clear “all overgrown vegetation.” In response, Finley fought for the garden. He contacted his local councilman, Herb Wesson, collected hundreds of signatures, and won. It’s thanks to Finley and the first initiative that he co-founded, LA Green Grounds, that it is now legal to plant every median strip in the city of Los Angeles with flowers and vegetables.

Before and After Eco Garden

In 2012, he launched the Ron Finley Project, a nonprofit that transforms urban food deserts into interconnected community edible gardens. A year later he spoke at the TED Conference where he gave a talk that has been viewed by almost four million people.

That one TED talk inspired hundreds of speaking engagements around the world for Finley. Grinning widely, he tells me that groups of young teenagers in India and “grannies” in England now call themselves “Gangsta Gardeners.” Finley coined the term himself but is rightly irritated when people think he is being literal, stating, “I’m flipping the script of what a gangster is.” His gardening Masterclass course launched this spring during lockdown brought him even more attention. Suddenly everyone wants to learn how to grow their own food.

“To change a community,” Finley often says, “you have to change the soil.” Today, that statement is more relevant than ever. It’s clear to many Americans that our traditional structures and systems, from health care to law enforcement and environmental regulations, are broken and need to be fixed or reinvented. From a young age, Finley had to navigate a system that did not work for him, both because of his skin color and because he was dyslexic. However, thanks to several teachers who paid attention and helped him problem solve, Finley discovered that he could advocate for himself. One of his most important life lessons was understanding that, “instead of looking at what something is you have to find the possibility of what it can be.” He dislikes the word “hope” and explains, “that word to me means believing in Santa Claus and that M&M’s will come to life.” Instead, Finley believes in searching out opportunities wherever one looks, whether that means turning a barren city lot into a fertile garden or a pile of trash into art.

“Instead of looking at what something is you have to find the possibility of what it can be.”

Ron Finley, Eco Hero

For Finley, gardening is a metaphor for a more humane, more sustainable way of life. “Growing food is a life skill,” he says, adding that it is also a political act. “What’s more simple than getting a seed and putting it in the ground? There are so many lessons in that one action. In fact, I believe that schools should be planted in gardens and the garden itself could be the teacher.” Finley’s logic is that if enough people follow and sow healthy seeds in the ground, healthy infrastructures and resilient communities will grow. “Planting gardens aren’t just positive for the environment,” he contends. “It creates social justice, it helps build people’s minds and it shows people how to be free.”

About the Author

Gisela Williams writes about culture, design and sustainability for Departures, New York Times T Magazine and London's Financial Times How to Spend It, among others. She is working on a podcast series tentatively called Utopia Found about experimental communities and regenerative projects around the globe, from a bamboo universe on the island of Bali, to a village of artists and designers hidden in a forest in Finland. Having lived in Europe for almost two decades, she is now living in north Georgia with her family and exploring the American South.