I’ll take a cup of opportunity over a boatload of hope every fucking day.
“Gardening is gangster,” says Ron Finley, as I admire the mini-jungle he’s grown alongside his house. “Planting seeds is the most real thing there is.”
He levels his eyes at me and I nod in agreement. I’m not sure I know precisely what he means, but man, I like the sound of it. I’ve only been chatting with Finley for 20 seconds and he’s already offered up a handful of winning lines. Before my car was off, he gave me an impassioned explanation of the incredible lifecycle of dirt. Even in a town like Los Angeles — where soundbites are the stock in trade — he stands out.
You might have heard of Ron Finley. In 2013, he presented a TED talk in which he detailed the story of planting a garden in a barren strip running beside his property — that little ribbon of land between the sidewalk and the street — to the dismay of city officials. He spoke about shifting the paradigm in South Central, a “food desert” where dialysis clinics anchor mini-malls but fresh produce is damn near impossible to find. The talk took off. To date, it’s been seen roughly 2.6 million times on the TED site and 600,000 times on YouTube. The speech didn’t just open doors for Finley, it made him a global name in renegade gardening. He became friends with Alice Waters, he went on TV with Russell Brand, and the New York Times wrote a glowing profile.
In the three years since, Finley’s continued to stake his claim as an innovative thinker with bold ideas and a strong voice. Just don’t call him “out of the box.”
“Someone came to me and said, ‘we want you to come lecture to our critical thinking class,’ ” he tells me. “Critical thinking? I just call it thinking. They call me out of the box, I say, ‘There is no box.’ Who created a box? You’re already putting yourself in a environment that’s got you all confined.” He slows down dramatically. “My sh*t is not confined.”
Boom. That’s real talk for you.
Finley is similarly emphatic when discussing gardening — which he sees as a key to good health, but also to a better world. To understand the man’s work is to view him as one part gardener, one part community organizer, and one part motivational speaker. Point being: he’s not just trying to change wasted space into gardens (a worthy cause all on its own), he’s trying to change the way people think.
“This is not about food; damn near at all,” he continues. “It’s about people. I tell people I don’t grow food, I grow people. Hopefully they’ll grow food. Seeing where this stuff come from, seeing that watermelons don’t grow on trees, seeing that lettuce doesn’t come from the store — it changes people’s perspective. You ask a kid, ‘Where do you get lettuce?’ And they say ‘From the store.’ He smiles and gathers himself. “‘Nah, I get that sh*t from my front yard.’ ”
Let it never be said that Finley is a man without a plan. As we chat, and he shows me his garden — its plants, its compost, its beauty — he also shares ideas for how he could change the world. He’s got a John Legend-produced movie currently screening, he wants to collaborate with Roy Choi and the crew over at Locol in Watts to bring healthy fast food to the masses, and he and Alice Waters have projects in the works. Point being, the man doesn’t just have a voice, he has a vision.
“My goal is to create opportunity, period. People tell me, ‘You’re giving people hope.’ F*ck hope. They’ve been selling us hope for how long now? What can you do with it? I’ll take a cup of opportunity over a boat load of hope every f*cking day.”
A conversation with Finley ebbs and flows. Sometimes he’ll dive into politics, other times he’ll unpack the joys of composting. He seems to be truly in love with his plants. Kale is sexy. Sunflowers have a lot to teach us.
“Watch how this seed travels,” he says, taking a pause between impassioned speeches. He’s holding an artichoke seed, which, like a dandelion seed, is meant to float with the wind. “Nature is still the best engineer we’ve got.”
Suddenly the “Gangsta Gardener” — who is built like a tight end, curses freely, and can, at times, come off a little gruff — seems almost childlike. He’s full of wonder as he blows seed after seed into the air and watches them travel.
After a moment, he turns to me, amazed by the natural world, eager to share it, and concludes a previous thought. “Give people opportunity to change their lives. That’s what this is about, changing lives and changing perspectives. And through that, we can change culture.”
There’s no doubt about it: Ron Finley is a master of planting seeds — and we’re all lucky to reap the benefits.