Health TED Conferences

South Central’s renegade gardener: Ron Finley at TED2013

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Photos: James Duncan Davidson

Photos: James Duncan Davidson

Ron Finley describes himself as a “renegade gardener,” and he’s here to tell us all about his home, in South Central, or South Los Angeles, as city planners attempted to rebrand the area. Whatever you call it, the truth is that the area comprises liquor stores, fast food and vacant lots, and it epitomizes the stark reality that 26.5 million Americans live in a food desert. Truth is, “the drive-thrus are killing more people than the drive-bys,” says Finley. “People are dying from curable diseases in South Central Los Angeles. The obesity rate in my neighborhood is five times what it is in Beverly Hills, eight miles away.”

Tired of seeing wheelchairs “bought and sold like used cars,” tired of seeing “drop-in dialysis centers popping up like Starbucks,” and tired of “driving a 45-minute round trip to get an apple that was not impregnated with pesticide,” he could only come to one conclusion: “This has to stop.”

So he started working with the organization L.A. Green Grounds to install a vegetable garden on the 150 ft x 10 ft patch of ground in front of his house, that strip between the sidewalk and the street that the city owns but the resident has to keep up … and was promptly issued with a citation to remove the garden. Then he was served with a warrant for arrest. “Come on, really? A warrant for growing food on a strip of land you could give a f– … care less about? I said cool. Bring it.” Finley, it is clear, is not one to be cowed. The city backed off, a councilman endorsed what he was doing, and the city of Los Angeles is now set to change its ordinance. And why not? “There are 26 square miles of vacant lots in the city,” Finley says. “That’s 20 Central Parks; that’s enough space for 724,838,400 tomato plants. Why in the hell would they not okay this?”

TED2013_0051284_D31_3508“Growing your own food is like printing your own money,” he says, to applause. Then he tells us why this really matters to him. “I raised my sons in South Central. I have a legacy here. I refuse to be a part of this reality that was manufactured by other people; I manufactured my own reality,” he says. “I am an artist. Gardening is my graffiti. A graffiti artist beautifies walls; I beautify parkways and yards. I treat the garden as a piece of cloth and the plants and the trees are the embellishment of that cloth. You’d be surprised what soil can do if you let it be your canvas.”

“Gardening is the most therapeutic and defiant act you can do, especially in the inner city,” he continues. “Plus, you get strawberries.”

One night, he looked outside to see a mother and daughter in his garden at 10:30. “They looked so ashamed,” says Finley. “It made me feel ashamed to see people this close to me who were hungry. This reinforced why I do this. People ask me, ‘Aren’t you afraid people are going to steal your food?’ Hell, no! That’s why it’s on the street! That’s the whole idea! I want them to take it and take back their health.”

To date, Green Grounds has planted 20 gardens; 50 volunteers have come to their “dig ins.” The benefits are clear, says Finley: “If kids grow kale, they eat kale. If they grow tomatoes, they eat tomatoes. But if they’re not shown how food affects the mind and the body, they blindly eat whatever’s put in front of them.” He wants to help the young people he sees, guide the disenfranchised away from a track leading nowhere. As far as he’s concerned, gardening provides an opportunity to take over those communities, to have a sustainable life.

He wants to plant a whole block of gardens, he tells us. “I want to take shipping containers and turn them into healthy cafés,” he says. And for anyone concerned about the business model. “I’m not talking about no free shit. Free is not sustainable. The funny thing about sustainability: you have to sustain it.” The audience loves this. “What I’m talking about is putting people to work, getting kids off the street, about the pride and the honor of growing your own food. We’ve got to make this sexy,” he proclaims. “Let’s all become renegades, gangsta gardeners. We have to flip the script on what a gangsta is. If you ain’t a gardener, you ain’t gangsta. Let that be your weapon of choice!”

Finley knows he has the audience’s attention. He’s not done yet.

“If you want to meet with me, don’t call me if you want to sit around in cushy chairs and have meetings where you talk about doing some shit,” he concludes. “If you want to meet with me, come to the garden with your shovel so we can plant some shit. Peace.” A standing ovation.


Ron Finley’s talk is now available for viewing. Watch it here»