A Soil Soldier: Ron Finley on Cultivating Coronavirus Life Skills and Erasing Food Prisons

Los Angeles-based fashion designer and gardener Ron Finley "Gangster Gardener" talks about erasing food prisons and developing life skills.

ron finley gardening with attitude masterclass complex interview

Ron Finley at his South Central garden as the "Gangster Gardener" prepares to conduct his first MasterClass.

ron finley gardening with attitude masterclass complex interview

Ron Finley is a self-taught maverick of epic proportions. Deemed the "Gangsta Gardener," the South Central Los Angeles native has gone from being a neighborhood Johnny Appleseed to a nationally recognized horticultural savant, teaching his trade to millions via his first MasterClass lesson. "There's never been a more important time for Finley's MasterClass," said David Rogier, co-founder and CEO of the online education platform. "He uses gardening as a tool to transform people and communities—he is literally planting a food revolution."

A much-needed revolution.

As the coronavirus pandemic has impacted grocery stores, increased food insecurity, caused a nationwide meat shortage, and affected farmers and migrant workers in the agriculture space, Finley's efforts should be considered as doing God's work—work that has started in his own community. "We need to affect everybody from the granny and grandpop to the infants. We need to get them all involved [in gardening] and get back to our cultures," Finley says. "I want to change this culture of poisoning our communities with the [fast] food and the lack of service [that] has continued as these corporations continue to prosper."

Unafraid and unapologetic when it comes to stirring things up, as reflected by his nickname, this gardener with an attitude famously took on city hall for his right to fight food prison—and won. Today, with his recently launched MasterClass still on everybody's timelines, the founder of the Ron Finley Project (a non-profit that teaches communities how to turn unused spaces into fruitful community gardens) leverages his "gardening is gangsta" philosophy to inspire urban communities to bring both beauty and economic opportunities to their neighborhood.

Complex got a chance to speak with Finley about how important it is to take your health into your own hands, why "drive-thrus are killing more people than drive-bys," and his perfect soundtrack for getting into that gardening groove.

What were your first successful forays into gardening like? From that, what did you learn about the process that you applied to your MasterClass?
First of all, what I’ve applied to my MasterClass is my own lifelong learning period, so I am putting everything into it. I believe that we are gardens ourselves and our brains are the soil. What we eat, what we watch, what we see, what we’re feeding ourselves from the earth are all entwined—just like you would see with a garden.

The very first thing that I remember about my own process was being in elementary school and taking that Petri dish, getting a wet paper towel, and placing seeds into the brown paper towel container. I’d watch those seeds grow on the other side of a glass. That was one of my fondest memories, and I still start seeds off like that sometimes, but what that was also a half-assed lesson. They showed us how all this magic was in this little seed, but they didn’t tell us about the process. They didn’t say, “Put this in the ground and you’re going to get hundreds and hundreds of more seeds.”

Imagine just going through life with these half-assed lessons. If that was you, you would want to get to the other side of it. So that wish that I had for a place, a garden, inside a school where we could watch these seeds grow has come true with this MasterClass. 

Can you give a glimpse into what the neighborhoods were like while you were getting your Johnny Appleseed on?
The neighborhoods were like most throughout the United States: Black, brown, red. It’s by design, [and food prisons] were a blight. You had no possible chance of getting healthy. With these communities being barren of anything healthy, you have to realize that health is your environment—all of it. From the water, from what you get to see every day, every last bit of it is a nutrient, and when you go to these places that have dilapidated buildings and dirty streets, you know that you’re not getting the best nourishment possible.

Some of the responsibility is on us. As I like to say, “Nobody is driving from Beverly Hills to throw their trash out their window onto your street.” But there are also no supermarkets that have healthy options in them, so what are they really encountering? We can still have clean places of beauty, but with the diabetes centers centrally located in our community, how can we show there is a healthier way to eat? If I drank, I could get a 40-ounce. of beer faster than I could get an organic apple because there were liquor stores everywhere.

Were the local gangs supportive of your endeavor? How did your work breakthrough to make an impact on the community?
If you’re in South Central, you’re gonna come into contact with the gang culture at some point. The violence is going down now, but these corporations place all of this deadly food around us and are a threat themselves. Why aren’t they getting arrested for mass murder? That’s what’s happening, and they know that this food causes major, major health disparities. 

We have to take our health into our own hands. I met this guy at an event and he had just got out of prison. “Man, I studied you, studied everything you did,” he told me. “I went in as a kid and realized once I got into prison, the stuff the big homies were telling me was self-serving for them. It made me cry. He learned the hard way that it wasn't a game meant for him. He told me that I didn’t even know how many people on the inside I was affecting this work I am doing. When his parole came up, he said that he wanted to be released back into his neighborhood so he could help “fix the shit” that he fucked up.

So if what I am doing is changing people who have been locked up, who were in gangs, to be better people—that makes me so fucking proud. I can’t even tell you!

How was it trying to drive home the message of “apple over alcohol” or “drive-thrus are killing more people than drive-bys” to people in your community?
It’s been hard, but you have to realize that people have been conditioned to value certain things their whole life. They’ve pledged allegiance to this something, and you’re not successful until you get it. If you get it, then there’s another level, and if you continue, then there’s another level. So when the hell are you actually successful? You’ll never be truly successful if you follow the system they’ve trained us to be on—but you’ll end up still on the hamster wheel. Regarding Black people growing food, it has been hard because of that legacy called slavery. And then, with our brown brothers and sisters, it is the legacy of the migrant farm worker. No one wants to be associated with that kind of history, so that is the hardest part of my job—having to convince people that this is true freedom.

If you start growing your own food, you take control of that part of your life, which opens you to design other parts—and that’s freedom. We need to get out there and show the people—both kids and the adults—about the magic of soil. You place this tiny seed in it, and all of a sudden, you have a tree. That is what all of this [Gangsta Gardening] is about.

Talk about the concept of “Gangsta Gardening,” and how that gave way to the Ron Finley Project.
I wanted to flip the script on what “gangster” meant to people. Growing up, we just used it as an expression. It was just some dope shit, and it didn’t have a negative connotation to it, so I kept “Gangsta Gardening” in that same vein, just not on that whole misogynistic and negative shit. I understood the concept of “guerillas” and saw how that could apply to what I was doing secretly with planting. But to change the meaning behind it and own it, that’s where the concept of the “Gangsta Gardener” came from. 

City hall tried to make laws to deem growing vegetables illegal. You couldn’t plant them in your parkway, your plants or crops had to be a certain height, and it was all considered illegal. When I did my first garden, it was basically for beauty. I wanted to come outside and smell my lavender, jasmine, and shit. I wanted to see beautiful flowers because seeing beauty affects your health. That’s why I planted this garden—it’s that simple. Beauty in, beauty out. If you want to write a law making beauty illegal, hell, you can tear it up and write another one that fits the people and the times, but a lot of these laws don’t fit either one.

You recently completed your first MasterClass, Ron. Congratulations. How do you see this effort inspiring others to make positive changes in their community despite being quarantined at home?
Working with MasterClass was a joy, first of all! I worked with a lot of good people, but to work with a group that wants to put out some good, brilliant shit made me want to make that happen. What this class will do is amplify it even more to people all across the planet—and you can see the effects now [with the coronavirus pandemic]. You can’t eat no fucking diamonds. You can’t eat money or those Jordans. You can’t trust the food in the [grocery] store. Everyone is seeing what’s important as Mother Nature has our fucking attention now! 

Our values are going to shift because we’re realizing that our values were into the wrong things. I think this will get us closer to our true selves, back to nature, and realize that we need to be one with nature. We decompose just like a leaf does. This MasterClass came at the right time because, while no one was listening at the beginning, this pandemic has everyone’s attention, and we need to go from man’s need for greed to man’s need for seed. We need to get back to life and realizing now is the time to pay attention. Now is the time you have to be in your yard and get this knowledge that you should’ve gotten in grade school. These are the real-life skills that we’re talking about—cooking, sewing, gardening—not just P.E.

With that said, what are some other ways that people can take their health into their own hands while locked in their homes?
Bottom line: Be self-sustaining. Just having the luxury to grow your own food, as we’ve seen it for our people in the past, is not something that is beneath us. If you realize how truly important that is, then skills that were considered “menial,” like cooking, sewing, farming, gardening, are more important going to Mickie-D’s. You don't even need a garden to garden. You can use your fire escape or your dresser drawer. From growing green onions inside your bedroom to bok choy, it may feel like gardening is overwhelming until you step into it and realize it’s just not that hard.

Education is what we need now, and that’s why I wanted to do this MasterClass. Hopefully I get the opportunity to do another one, because there is still work that needs to be done. You’ll see people step over a dandelion and then go to the grocery store and buy one. There’s nutritious, healthy, vibrant food growing all around us that is free. 

Why, then, in your opinion, has food inequality been more of a platform issue for those running for president?
[At the time] Cory Booker would quote me in a lot of his talks. He would be on the debate stage talking about gardening. Tom Steyer and I did a planting together. I think people don’t find this topic important because there’s supposedly enough food, but I think that this should’ve been more so in the forefront. We’re seeing how the pandemic is now affecting the farmers and how shipping meat and vegetables to these grocery stores are hard to do, so I think that this conversation has always been important.

Gentrification changes the complexity of the community, that’s a fact. So, these areas are no longer just Black, brown, or red, and it is insidious. I wrote in a post recently that gentrification is not progress—it’s some bullshit. It’s the death of a specific culture basically because all of a sudden our communities become acronyms from what they were before. I am working with Destination Crenshaw, one of the biggest African American projects in America, and I get that question asked all the time: “Are we doing this for the white people that are moving in?” To be clear, no! I am doing this for me and for those who look like me. We deserve some good shit. We deserve to say “avocado toast” and have it magically appear in our hands, too!

We need to change our collective mindset. If you want to stop gentrification, stop selling your fucking house! Real simple. Where are you moving, anyway, with that little bit of money you got? Do you value culture? Your history? Your legacy? These things have to change in order to uproot that gentrification question, but regarding eradicating food prisons in our community, the answer is no. Gentrification has hindered our efforts because now the food that comes into our neighborhoods is price-prohibitive.

Last question, Ron. What would be your perfect soundtrack for getting into that gardening groove?
Sean McCabe, “Everything’s Alright,” the extended version. I’m a true house head, so Keni Burke’s “Keep Rising to the Top” would be on there. Kenny Dope and Raheem DeVaughn’s “Final Call,” the extended version with Rhymefest. Anderson .Paak’s “The Season / Carry Me,” and also DJ Cavem, who is an eco-friendly, hip-hop rapper whose latest album, The Produce Section, stays in rotation.

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