Ron’s neighborhood is one of those places considered “food deserts;” to get by, people often rely on fast-food chains and convenience stores for sustenance, and those who want fresh produce must be prepared for a lengthy drive. That’s how bad the situation was until Ron stood up and did something about it, using his shovel as his weapon (not literally!).
In his 150 feet-by-10 feet space, he planted sunflowers, tomatoes, kales and other types of ingredients. When his hard work began bearing fruit, his neighbors were thrilled to see such a robust garden and were inspired to do the same. But, of course, the space is not theirs – though they must maintain it – so those who own it, the government, summoned Ron for an explanation.
Refusing to have his premature harvest pulled-out, he challenged the ordinance by gathering signatures to convince the councilmen to reconsider. It did the trick, and he was able to keep his garden; the happiest, though, were those who otherwise had nothing to eat but what their food stamps allowed.
The Gangster Gardener
Ron Finley came from a big family, and has seven siblings. He was born and raised in South Central Los Angeles, California. He explained when his passion for gardening started in the following interview:
“I mean a lot of the stuff I do goes all the way back to when I was in elementary school. I still start seeds the way I started them then. You know, in a petri dish with a wet brown paper towel. And you get to watch the sprouts from the seeds pop up. [I started the guerrilla garden because] work was slow or nonexistent and I took to the garden to beautify this piece of land. It became my solace. You get addicted.” (SOURCE: Grist)
Ron did not really think of gardening for a living; he’s an artist by profession. He designs fashion clothes, believe it or not, and is quite good at it. Some of his clients are Saks Fifth Avenue, Nordstrom’s and Neiman Marcus, and he has also designed for NBA basketball players.
Aside from his clothing career, Ron is also a visual artist. He specializes in graffiti and is friends with Retna, El Mac and Vyal Reyes, three well-known graffiti artists. Vyal Reyes, for example, is responsible for the mural in the back of Parkway Garden.
Ron is a single father of two sons, and they reside in a two-story building which used to be a swimming school headquarters. With his career going well, he could certainly provide for the boys, but was always discontented about having little to eat other than mass-produced food. There were simply no organic stores around which sold naturally-grown harvests; if he wanted tomatoes, he had to drive for 45 minutes to get them.
Like most residents of South Central Los Angeles, Ron grew up eating fast-food, and he didn’t want the same diet for his two kids. Suffice it to say that Ron is one health-conscious father. You see, he also moonlights as a physical trainer, so he certainly no longer depends on instant meals.
Ron had finally had enough of the long drives for fresh produce, so he started his own garden. Being an artist, he found a new canvas in his soil:
"I'm an artist. Gardening is my graffiti. I grow my art. Just like a graffiti artist, where they beautify walls, me, I beautiful lawns, parkways. I use the garden, the soil, like it's a piece of cloth, and the plants and the trees, that's my embellishment for that cloth. You'd be surprised what the soil could do if you let it be your canvas. You just couldn't imagine how amazing a sunflower is and how it affects people." (SOURCE: TED Talks)
It turns out that Ron is blessed with a green thumb. His plants soon grew and bore fruit until they were impossible to miss; neighbors stopped and stared at his sunflowers with utter amazement. They could not believe they were looking at real plants! Ron promptly realized that there was a food monopoly in their community; for food industries to thrive, people must have no access to their own food which they can make from scratch. Being from South Central Los Angeles, he came to understand it quite well.
So, when authorities questioned him for not paying for a 400-dollar permit or complying with the council ordinance which prohibited the planting of grass taller than three inches, Ron refused to heed. Sometimes, it’s better to be stubborn, especially if you know you’re fighting for a good cause. Ron maintains his garden to this day, and makes sure there’s plenty of space for vehicles to pass by.
The story was picked up by Steve Lopez and, by then, his organization had been conceived, inspired by Ron’s ordeal with the authorities.
Ron’s TED Talk
The 900 signatures they collected through “Change.org” settled the issue, but Ron never expected it to propel him to fame. The organization he co-founded in 2010 soon began working with people to help them set up their own gardens, initially starting with 27 volunteers.
When Ron was invited to speak at a TED event, it inspired over 400 volunteers, ready to become “ecolutionaries,” to join. It’s easy to fall for his “If you ain’t gardener, you ain’t a gangster” tagline, but it seems that he has a more profound understanding of the issue than we believe. Ron Finley is no longer affiliated with the organization he co-founded, and is busy working on “The Ron Finley Project:”
"I’m doing what we’re calling right now the Ron Finley Project, which is the whole containment cafe concept that’s attached to a garden with a training facility. It’s a facility where we train kids how to think, not what to think. I want people trained in everything from aquaponics to woodworking to fashion to art. We want to basically put [these facilities] in what I consider food prisons, which is what a lot of us live in … We’re just trying to show people how to grow their own food, how to take your health back into your own hands. A lot of industries don’t want us to be independent. They don’t really benefit from you growing your own food." (SOURCE: Grist)
Organizations and Programs Supported
- Dropdead Collexion
- Goldhirsh Foundation
Awards and Achievements
- 2010: Started his backyard garden
- 2013: Spoke at a TED event
- Co-founded an organization in 2010
- Owns a clothing company, “Dropdead Collexion”
- Received the “Natural American Heroes Award” from Natural News
- Exhibited his Black Entertainment collection, titled “Ron Finley’s Travels through Blackness: International Movie Poster Design 1920s to 1970s”
- Received Unsung Heroes award from California Community Foundation
TED (Ron Finley: Gardener)
Los Angeles Times (Steve Lopez: Growing a garden, and a community)
Los Angeles Times (In the weeds of bureaucratic insanity there sprouts a small reprieve)
HGTV Gardens (The Guerrilla Gardener Ron Finley is an "Eco-lutionary")
The New York Times (Urban Gardening: An Appleseed With Attitude)
TED Talks (A guerilla gardener in South Central LA)
Natural News (Ron Finley, guerilla gardener of South Central LA, awarded 'Natural American Heroes' award from Natural News)
RonFinley.com (Beyond gardening.)
Grist (L.A.’s Ron Finley wants to make gardening gangsta)
RonFinley.com (The Ron Finley Project)
TED Blog (A garden party with Ron Finley)
Gamechangers (GameChanger of the Month: Ron Finley)