Ron Finley grew up in South Central Los Angeles during an era that glorified gang life.
He was raised by a ‘hustler’ father and factory worker mother at a time when Bloods and Crips were beginning to establish a reputation of violence in his neighborhood – the area where he still lives today.
Ron was first able to find solace in the world of tailoring. Three days a week after he attended high school, he would go to trade school, and later went on to create his own fashion brand that was sold in high-end department stores across the nation.
His mission now is to create an outlet for kids in South Central in an area that is devoid of many of the things they need – healthy food, outdoor activity, and opportunities for advancement.
Ron’s hope is that by redefining what it means to be ‘gangster,’ he can inspire the future generation of South Central Los Angeles to give back to the planet, and cultivate their own sense of worth. He does so by installing community gardens throughout the city in parkways and empty lots – a move that has inspired thousands around the world.
‘Let’s make gangster a positive thing,’ he told DailyMail.com. ‘Let’s be gangster for Mother Nature. Let’s get gangster for this planet.
‘I tell them – being self-sustaining is gangster. Having knowledge is gangster. Taking care of yourself, taking care of your community, let’s make that gangster.’
Ron’s journey into community gardening began with a revelation in a supermarket in the early 2000s.
At the time, he was making 45-minute round trips out of the South Central area to buy the healthier, organic food he wanted. He realized: ‘Why the heck do I have to do this?’
‘There are hundreds and hundreds of thousands of people in these neighborhoods. Millions,’ he continued. ‘Why do we have to drive out of our neighborhood if we want anything except for alcohol and cigarettes?’
He decided to transform his parkway, a 150 foot by 10-foot strip of grass in front of his home, into a mini garden.
Though it was the desire to grow his own food that motivated the decision, he ultimately decided to plant mostly flowers that could make his space more aesthetically pleasing, instead of the grass and trash of its current state.
‘I don’t need no grass – I want to see beauty out here,’ he said. ‘I want to see flowers and butterflies and lizards and dragonflies and s*** like that. I just wanted to come out and smell beauty and look at beauty.
‘It’s terrible because you’re in these environments, and you don’t realize that’s what they are. They’re by design. People think this is the way it has to be – because the design has always been like this everywhere. But no – this design is not serving us.’
He continued: ‘The first installation was for beauty. I planted banana trees for shade, I planted agapanthus, I planted flowers – jasmine and lavender. I wanted to walk out and smell this beauty.’
This seemingly harmless action, however, was met with a blow-back from the city government. An arrest warrant was issued for him, he says, after a complaint was filed and local authorities realized he wasn’t complying with an ordinance that limited what was allowed to be planted in parkways.
The city told Ron that he needed to revert his garden to its previous state, a prospect he laughed incredulously at.
‘I’m like oh – so you want me to find the condoms and the cigarettes and the toilets and ovens and mattresses out there?’ he said.
‘You’re cool with that? You’re not cool with these beautiful flowers and these shade trees?’
The city, however, wouldn’t back down, Ron claims. He was forced to uproot the beauty he created, which wasn’t an easy feat.
‘I felt – not emasculated – but I felt just broken. I just felt sad. It’s hard to chop down a beautiful tree just to chop it down for no reason other than a clown telling you ‘that can’t be here – this beautiful sh*t – take it back to ugly cause this neighborhood doesn’t deserve that.’
At the time, Ron was working in the fashion industry, designing clothes for athletes with his clothes being featured in music videos, movies, and television shows.
When the economy was hit hard in 2008 (which Ron calls ‘the depression’) – his business plummeted. To make ends meet, he ended up doing a number of odd jobs, such as personal training, handyman work, and even collecting bottles and cans for recycling.
He then founded a group that set about establishing community gardens across the city – in homeless shelters, empty lots, and other parkways. In the group, he prided himself on his mentality that gardening needed to be ‘sexy’ – it had to be art – to gain traction.
He began to build in the abandoned pool behind his home – planting trees, fruits and vegetables that would later become the thriving urban jungle for which he is best known. Before long he had fresh pomegranates, lemons, peppers, squash and carrots: a menagerie of practical organic foods the neighborhood desperately needed, and were open for the taking.
The garden’s aim is simply to promote healthy life – and is evidenced by the full, bright leaves teeming with insects and flowers buzzing with bees.
His innovation landed him in Vancouver to conduct a Ted Talk – after which his ideas about community gardening spread worldwide. In 2013, he was invited back for a second Ted Talk, which has been viewed nearly 3 million times.
‘Just like 26.5 million Americans, I live in a food desert,’ he said. ‘South Central Los Angeles – the home of the drive-thru and the drive-by.
‘Funny thing is – the drive-thrus are killing more people than the drive-by.
‘How would you feel if you had no access to healthy food? If every time you walk out your door you see the ill effects that the present food system has on your neighborhood?’
According to January 2017 statistics, southern Los Angeles County clocks in at the highest obesity rate in the Los Angeles area, with 34.1 per cent of adults classified as obese, and 33.4 per cent are overweight.
Diabetes is a pervasive issue, with 12.3 per cent of residents being diagnosed.
A number of cardiovascular diseases such as coronary heart disease, hypertension, high blood cholesterol, and stroke deaths are also common.
Ron says that the number of dialysis centers popping up in the area are evidence of this – and seeing his neighborhood’s residents buying and selling electric wheelchairs ‘like used cars’.
Ron’s solution is to plant the seeds of change with the city’s young people, and help to redefine their relationships with soil. He does so through his self-titled initiative, The Ron Finley Project, which hosts a number of free community events throughout the year to get local children and families involved with gardening.
Many of the children he works with, he says, are African American and Latino. The vast majority of the population in South Central Los Angeles fits the demographic, with 68.2 percent Latino, 27.4 percent African American, 2.4 per cent white and 1.7 per cent Asian.
With African American and Latino cultures, Ron says, there is a history of resentment for the soil passed down through the generations.
‘We have a legacy of slavery, the Latinos have the legacy of migrant farmers that is still going on today. So you find a young kid – they’re not trying to touch soil. Soil to them is the enemy. We have to bring them back and let them know – this is where the gold is.’
What he hopes to impart on these children is the ‘alchemy’ of gardening, and fulfill their sense of wonderment and empowerment at their ability to grow plants, and themselves.
‘They don’t have an opportunity,’ he told DailyMail.com. ‘People talk this ‘hope’ s*** – ain’t no hope if they don’t have opportunities by design.’
Though Ron has been contacted by followers from all over the world who have created their own gardens after hearing his inspiring message, it’s the small moments in South Central that keep him going.
‘It’s just waking up and having a kid put a tiny seed in the ground and all of the sudden it’s a carrot. And they pull it out and say “look what I made!” with a proud look on their face,’ he said.
‘That’s one of the biggest things I do. Discovering the alchemy, discovering the magic, discovering that happiness in where you come from and where you’re going to. Discovering that compost happens every day. Showing people what they have in common with a leaf that’s on the ground or on a tree. We all have something in common, all of us turn into carbon when it’s all said and done.
‘It shows them the relationship to everything – the connection to everything. When I show them if you heal your Mother, you heal yourself. We are part of the ecosystem. People think we’re killer whales or something, we’re the top of the food chain or something. And we’re not.’
While Ron has been doing his part to better the community from within, a marked change is taking place on the external side of the city.
As gentrification has taken hold in South Central, as it has across the nation, the appearance of the area is beginning to change – and not just in its buildings and businesses.
‘White people are moving in. If you want to call that an improvement. I choose not to,’ Ron said.
‘That’s some systematic s*** that’s happening all over the country. There becomes infrastructure that becomes more safety, more transportation, choices, more cafes. The only thing that happened was the complexion of the neighborhood changed.
‘The houses are the same, streets are the same, shops are the same. Where’d the money come from for all the people to start these shops, developers putting in new condos and new buildings… people know they’re going to need somewhere to eat. There were people who needed to eat before that s*** happened. Why is it here now? Why does it take a change in complexion for you to realize there are people living here?’
As the city shifts around him, Ron prefers to focus on his own goals and values. Promoting the sustainability of Los Angeles one step at a time, making others think outside the box about their food choices, and taking back their health.
‘It’s about freedom,’ Ron says.
‘It’s about ending the slavery that we all are in. I don’t care what care what color you are. Big agri is a slave. One of the main staples in our lives – we don’t have any control over. So that’s what I did,’ he continues.
In regard to what people can do from home to take on Ron’s mission, his message was simple.
He said: ‘You are the person you’ve been waiting for. Just get your a** up and do it.’