Words by Stephen Satterfield
Photography by Elton Anderson
Ron Finley is an anomaly. To say that he defies convention, is a slight. His website describes him as a designer, gardener and collector, but in recent years, it is the middle descriptor that has raised his profile beyond his native Los Angeles into global food activist. Like many other dynamic personalities, his story and likeness was catapulted into the international consciousness through a viral TED Talk about being a guerilla gardener in South Central LA. Since that formative talk just over three years ago, there have been more than 3.5 million people who’ve borne witness to the gospel of Mr. Finley through that video alone. It’s understandable; in ten minutes he speaks with the clarity and power of a practiced politician. The video begins with a simple declaration, “I live in South Central.” Reminiscent of Barack Obama’s 2004 speech at the Democratic National Convention, within seconds of listening to the man speak, you knew you’d never forget his name.
For just one moment, think about the last time you saw a black man from an inner-city American neighborhood on stage. You may think, “Easy. The BET awards were just last week.” Okay, well, consider the last time you saw such a figure on stage, not to receive an award for athletic or musical achievements. It’s a bit more difficult. There just isn’t that much content of black men presiding over white audiences with powerpoint lectures – especially not ones that end up on millions of screens all over the world.
Why belabor race? Well, to appropriately tell Ron’s story, the story of growing up in South Central during the 60’s, becoming a designer and eventually a radical community gardener, it is impossible not to evoke race in the discussion. As millions of African Americans moved to urban areas and away from the U.S. South during World War II, cities such as Detroit, Chicago, Oakland and Los Angeles ushered a new generation of black communities in each of the respective cities that can still be seen as felt today.
It was in Watts, CA, a two mile district in South Los Angeles, that Ron Finley grew up in the midst of one of the defining revolutions in Los Angeles and in fact modern American history. It is now an all too familiar formula – a seemingly mundane arrest becomes a tipping point for a disenfranchised community and culminates with days of raging fires and upheaval. These LA riots marked the beginning of a precipitous decline for the neighborhood that lasted throughout the 90’s until yet another regrettable riot that followed the same formula came to define the decade. Ron Finley was there for both, and before we got into a discussion about anything else, we started there. It was these events after all, that tore apart the community and led to the formation of a “food desert”, which as it sounds, is a community desolate of fresh fruit, vegetables or markets and is instead populated with fast food chains and liquor stores.
As a child you don’t know you’re not getting the things you need. Once I realized this, my whole life became about changing culture
In his teenage years, around the age of 15 or 16, Ron decided he wanted to become a master tailor. He says laughingly, “I had a big booty and clothes felt nasty on me. I had to make my Super Fly clothes, because I couldn’t afford them.” That independent and industrious spirit set the tone for the way in which Ron handled his limitations. The anecdote of a young Ron Finley epitomizes his eventual foray into urban guerrilla gardening. He is not one to stand around while waiting on the rest of us to do something. He enrolled in night school at Los Angeles Trade Technical School and was soon designing clothes for himself and friends. By the time he was a high school senior he’d won a scholarship to study tailoring at Trade Tech and eventually launched his own clothing line in the 80’s.
“As a child you don’t know you’re not getting the things you need. Once I realized this, my whole life became about changing culture”, he says. So change the culture he did. Beginning in his own neighborhood. In the same way he was able to empower himself by learning the craft of sewing clothes, he found the same empowerment through growing food – a notion that came to him just over a decade ago as he lamented the sickness and obesity that plague so many impoverished neighborhoods. “Food is both the problem and solution,” Ron explains.
Growing your own food is printing your own money.
With that he started planting food throughout the vacant streets and lots of South Central. Where there was once unkempt brown patches and littered lots, Ron planted sunflowers, melons and kale. “For me it was about beauty and smell and color therapy. I didn’t want to see any more trash, used condoms and cigarettes. I wanted to assault people with beauty so I planted beauty.” So began this modern iteration of the effusively creative and dynamic man. The self-proclaimed Gangster Gardener, (because “Growing your own food is printing your own money.” What could be more gangster than that?) who has transformed large swaths of dilapidated patches into places where his neighbors could access fresh food. He’s inspired people all over the world to do this same, effectively creating his own food revolution.
As a father of three (28, 25, 21 year olds) he won’t exactly say his age, but some quick calculations and context clues from the article can help piece it together. It’s pretty remarkable too, as his energy, diction and fashion all suggest a man half of his age. His hair is black and his beard slightly salted and peppered. The gardening has apparently kept him youthful – it’s not a result of his own hair care regimen. He’s too busy making stuff to make himself up. He is a minimalist to be sure. As a man with a propensity for working with his hands, it turns out he is not using those motor skills for his hair. As for his children, it turns out that growing up, that was the role of their mother – she was the barber of the house. The rest of us can take solace in that. After all, we’re not sure our collective self-esteem could endure the renaissance man, artist, tailor, gardener, and barber.
If you would like to support Ron’s work or learn more about him, you can visit his site: www.ronfinley.com