South Central LA has been known for decades as the town of ghetto Gangsters. Made famous by rappers Dr. Dre and Ice Cube in the early 90s, the Los Angeles district has since become ridden with crime, liquor stores, and fast food chains. But a new type of Gangster has risen up, one that uses a shovel instead of a gun to make things happen. His name is Ron Finley, and he is known as the Gangster Gardener.
On a mission to “change culture,” Ron has created a global ecological movement, planting edible crops on everything from sidewalk parkways to neighborhood front yards. His 2013 TED Talk put him on the international stage and he is now championing healthy eating around the world.
MiLLENNiAL caught up with Ron at his South Central home garden where a large, empty swimming pool had been converted into a nursery. The ecosystem was buzzing, birds were chirping, and a hummingbird hovered around us as the sun began to set. This was not the typical image of South Central. This was a ghetto paradise, full of life, beauty and happiness.
Ron showed us to the parkway that made him famous. In it, a bountiful array of fresh fruits and vegetables lay ready to be eaten. Carrots, beets, arugula, even bananas were available in this garden that sat on the corner of Exposition Blvd. It was here that the first seed was planted.
Shifting a Paradigm
From a young age, Ron was proactive in changing what didn’t feel was right to him. In junior high, he walked past the home economics class where students were making cookies. With nothing but “hot cookies” on his mind, he soon spoke with the counselor to join the class, but was told the course was for girls only.
After making the observation that most restaurant chefs are men, Ron was able to convince the counselor to petition for a boys’ class. “Only because I wanted hot cookies did I change a paradigm,” he tells us. Ron didn’t know it then, but this early sign of his assertive nature would one day have him leading a global initiative.
He went on to study sewing, and at 15, began tailoring his own clothes. “I’ve always been a person who beats my own drum,” he says. Ron continued making clothes and eventually launched a successful fashion line in the 80s, selling his famed collection Drop Dead to retailers like Neiman Marcus, Nordstrom, Cache, and Saks Fifth Avenue among others.
These days he still designs, “it’s just not with fabric, it’s with plants.”
Becoming the Gangster Gardener
In 2003, Ron was fed up with looking at his dead grass dirt-filled parkway. “I wanted to walk outside my gate and feel the rapture of beauty with the hummingbirds and butterflies,” he says. What started out as a beautification shade project quickly turned into a bourgeoning edible garden.
Sadly, an anonymous neighbor reported Ron’s sidewalk garden to the City and he was forced to dig the plants out. Noting the stupidity of the request, Ron points out, “No one ever complained about the condoms, broken glass, mattresses, or weeds, but haters hate. That’s what they do.”
Ron complied…the first time. But in 2010, he decided to plant another garden, standing up for the community’s right to locally grown fresh produce. When the authorities arrived to remove the garden the second time, Ron decided to take it up with the city counsel and change policy.
Steve Lopez from the LA Times came to his defense writing a piece that would position Ron as a hero, and attract more local press to his cause. With Lopez involved, Ron was able to persuade the counsel to pass legislation to make it legal for residents of Los Angeles to garden their sidewalk parkways. “There is no reason why I can’t beautify my city. Think of what that does to the people’s psyche to see ugly stuff all day long. That motivated me.”
Changing the Status Quo
Projecting a message of personal responsibility, Ron is changing the vernacular of what gangster means. “It’s so negative, the connotations associated,” he says. He’s referring to the alcohol, drugs, violence, crime, and misogynistic behavior that represent the “gangster” mentality and image. “To me, it has messed up a lot of people’s lives. It should be called confinement because that’s where it gets these kids.”
And this mentality translates into pop culture especially among urban communities. “When you turn on the radio, you don’t hear any positive rap music…Nothing about education. Nothing about getting a job or empowerment or building your family.” He continues, “Everybody is pushing alcohol. We are creating generations of alcoholics. To me that stuff isn’t gangster.”
In order to change society, Ron insists you have to change what culture finds cool. He explains his counter, “This soil is gangster. This shovel is the weapon I’m using to change people’s lives, to change the world. Being educated is gangster.”
And he is not alone in celebrating this concept. Ron tells us a man from India sent a photo of his two children ages 11 and 12 holding a tray of plants with a caption that indicated they call themselves Gangster Gardeners and they are recruiting others in the neighborhood to join their gang.
“What I love about what I’m doing is that it is activating people.” Ron even has two gardens named after him in the UK. “To hear you inspire people so much, it touches your soul, but also it’s heavy.”
Choosing What Matters
Ron recently spoke at a Black Lives Matter rally where he addressed the audience with this question: “Do Black lives matter to Black people?” Having grown up in South Central, Ron knows first hand the plagues of the black community.
He explains in his speech: “Let’s not put the cops and everything in the mix. Let’s put the gang violence, and the food, and how people are raising their kids into the mix. Do we matter? Hell yes, we matter. We matter to the prison industrial complex, we matter to the medical industrial complex, and we definitely matter to the military industrial complex, but we first have to matter to us.”
Communities begin to shift their demands when the right knowledge and tools are presented. “We have to realize that if you’re life is important to you, you have to act like it is important to you. And a lot of that starts with education and food and the education of food.”
Part of the solution is to look at gardening as the ability to grow valuable commodities. “It is such bullsh*t that money doesn’t grow on trees. Billions of dollars grow on trees everyday. The tree itself is even worth money.” We’ve all been taught that money doesn’t grow on trees, but as Ron suggests, “that apple is worth money, those tangerines are worth money, the leaves on a tree are even worth money because they turn into premium South Central compost,” he winks then laughs.
The Evolution of Community
Every neighborhood has an opportunity to take back their health and sustain their wellbeing. One of the solutions Ron proposes is through neighborhood farming. He encourages each home in the neighborhood to grow one or two specific vegetables and then share the crop among the community.
“I’m trying to change people’s perspective that they are walking on a resource. Now get creative with it.” Other ways growers can capitalize on their crops is by selling them at a farmer’s market or to those in their neighborhood. “Trees produce even when you aren’t caring for them. So why not turn it into product and then into revenue.”
To those who think money is evil, Ron’s says, “try to change something without money and then try to change it with money and see which one goes further.” Money itself is not evil; it’s the intent behind the use of it that corrupts its value. “Be rich so you can build your utopia.”
Embarking on building his own utopia, Ron is living to witness the changes in front of his eyes. “I am not doing this for 2050, I’m doing this for right now because I want to see it and be apart of it.”
Acting on his word every day, Ron continues to inspire millions of people across the world to reclaim their right to nutritious food. He says every life lesson can be found in the garden.
To learn more about Ron Finley, visit … and follow his journey on Facebook.