Ron Finley: The Guerilla Gardener

Ron Finely tosses a nectarine he grew in his West Adams backyard. His pool is filled with pots of succulents, vegetables, fruit trees, and herbs.

Ron Finley, a self-proclaimed Gangsta Gardener, carries his message high and mighty. Finley, a former fashion designer and now an activist fighting against food deserts in his home area, is using regenerative architecture (gardening) to increase access to healthy foods in his South-Central Los Angeles community.

As Finley grew up in South-Central over the years, he witnessed a lot of changes that were happening in his neighborhood, including the increase of crime, gentrification, and food deserts, naming a few at least. See, South-Central Los Angeles is a predominantly Black and Latino neighborhood known for liquor stores, vacant lots, drive-throughs, and drive-bys. Seeing this recurring system that is ‘designed’ for them, as Finley puts it in his famous TED talk in 2013 “I see kids of color and they’re just on this track that is designed for them that leads them to nowhere. So, with gardening, I see an opportunity where we can train these kids to take over their communities, to have a sustainable life.” For the past 10 years, Finley has taught and created an environment where BIPOC in South-Central can have access to nourishing foods.

So, let’s take this back to the beginning of the story…

Finley has been marking his brand as “gangsta” since 2010, when he began to plant food on the parkways outside his home. “I got tired of driving 45 minutes round trip to get an apple that wasn’t impregnated with pesticides. So I planted a food forest in front of my house,” he says. By doing so, he got in trouble for violating the Los Angeles city code. In return, many big and mainstream news publications got wind of his situation. Steve Lopez, of the LA Times and Green Grounds (a movement to help turn South LA yards into edible gardens), started a petition on to voice his fight.

Through a challenging and rigorous action of fighting the city, he finally won permission to keep his garden. The City Council eventually voted to waive the law in the case of community gardens. He got the opportunity to continue his fight for change and grow new parkway gardens around South LA, but this was only the beginning of many projects to come.

Finley went on to host workshops and other events to help communities develop their own gardens in vacant lots, empty spaces, and even shopping carts. His enjoyment and artistic sense for gardening was prominent in his mission, saying “See, I am an artist. Gardening is my graffiti, I grow my art. Just like a graffiti artist, where they beautify walls, me, I beautify lawns, parkways. I use the garden, the soil, like it’s a piece of cloth. And the plants and the trees, that’s my abolishment for that cloth.” By likening his work to graffiti, he champions Mother Nature as the greatest artist out there.

Why gardening, though?
In an interview with Jeanette Marantos “For MasterClass’ Ron Finley, growing a garden is a revolution,” He illustrates that gardening was an ideal movement for him, especially as a Black man. Facing oppression everyday as a daily routine was hard for him as “My biggest challenge is being a Black man walking out the door every single day,” he said. “It’s all micro, being in an elevator and watching people clutch their purses, standing on the corner to cross at the light and seeing people lock their doors… I’m the Black guy, the rep for all the people of color, and I’m getting real sick of that stuff, just imagine how it wears.” Thus, gardening was a way he took comfort in protesting his designed environment. Having a garden stuffed full of beautiful plants and vegetables just so happened to be a byproduct of that.

Another big aspect in how gardening was used as a form of protest was to flip the script on what a gangsta is. Gangsta in Finley’s vision was to take away that mentality, being violent, misogynistic behavior, intoxication, and so forth. Marketing that term ‘gangsta’ changed his vision and made it into a regular. Famous for his words “Get gangsta with your shovel, okay? And let that be your weapon of choice.” Giving hiatus to his South LA community.

Finley, as a regular in one of many activists fighting for his community, continues to create plans and goals. He’s about changing the world and the way we see ourselves. “Taking back our health” was a keynote, holding mayors, government officials, and even ourselves accountable is always the first step. As his work intersects with race and class, he encourages people to fight back “undo the taint of slavery and grueling farm work… Black people and Latinos from working in the soil because they equate it with oppression and degradation.”

He preaches about a world where neighborhoods grow food to share with each other, lush vacant lots filled with edible plants, and stops taking nature for granted. Transforming schools so that they teach students how to plant food and eliminate people’s dependence on corporations for food.

This is Ron Finley, and if you would like to follow up his story you can always look up his socials or click on this link to take you to his main page of the Ron Finley Project.