Now reading Changing Culture Through Agriculture

Changing Culture Through Agriculture

How Ron Finley started a community garden in a food desert.


This comes from our “Los Angeles” issue, on newsstands now. For more stories like this, subscribe to the magazine.

Ron Finley and I are sitting down to lunch at a taqueria a few blocks from his South Central Los Angeles headquarters when he notices my tattoo. I have the Hebrew word for intention inked on the inside of one forearm; we start talking about religion. “Do you have a spiritual practice?” I ask.

He leans across the table and says, “Air.” “Air, huh. Not soil?” Most of the gardeners I’ve met are obsessed with the stuff. “Air,” he repeats. “Want me to show you why?”

Sure, I say. Finley gets up and walks to where I’m sitting. He’s a tall man, dark- skinned and handsome; at first, he gives the impression of quiet, deliberate intensity, though in a few hours he’ll be sitting in his backyard and laughing easily, poking squirrels out of the bougainvillea with the handle of a broomstick and picking figs from his tree for us to snack on.

Now, though, his hands wrap easily around my neck. I can feel where his fingertips touch just above my trachea. He doesn’t squeeze enough to wind me—just enough to make his point.

He returns to his seat and grins. “Tell me: Were you thinking about soil just then?” Finley slid into the food world side- ways: he planted the parkway strip in front of his house with fruits and vegetables in 2010, looking for something to distract himself from the effect the 2008 economic collapse had on his small fashion business. He didn’t expect a ticket from the cops for his efforts—or the community support that rallied around him in its wake.

A sympathetic Los Angeles Times op-ed, a successful campaign to get his citation revoked and the law changed, and a couple of TED Talks later, and Finley was being own around the world to speak at conferences and being profiled in the New York Times. Now, when he’s not traveling, he runs the Ron Finley Project, a nonprofit focused on introducing the neighborhood to the nutritional and economic possibilities of local agriculture, encouraging folks down the block and around the world to follow his DIY fuck-’em-and-just-do-it lead. This is his story. —Zan Romanoff

Funders need one line, What is it that you do? Well, fuck you and your line. That’s maybe what you do. Everybody tries to capsulize what I do. So you grow food? And I tell them, No, I change culture. That’s what I do.

Because this food is not just food. This changes people’s lives, so therefore it’s changing culture, which is what we have to do. Agriculture. And we need our culture back. How I got here is just by doing what I’ve always done. Just being steadfast and hardheaded and seeing something that’s wrong and being like, This is not right. We can fix this.

One of the catalysts [for the Ron Finley Project] was, every time you wanted to eat, it’s like, What do we have to eat? It was always a problem with food. Where were we gonna get the food we were gonna eat? Damn, other neighborhoods don’t have this fuckin’ problem. They just drive down the hill. I remember going to the store and there was this tomato, and it said may be coated with shellac. What the fuck do I need shellac on my tomato for?

My whole thing is anytime you’re manipulating nature, you’re manipulating us. They make this stuff where it lasts longer, doesn’t break down. I did a study: I took my bananas off my tree and some conventionally grown bananas, because that’s “conventional,” and I put that shit side by side and I saw what happened. My bananas began to mold and shrivel up in a matter of very little time, while these other bananas, they were still singing and dancing. So you can’t tell me that’s not fucking with our DNA. I was giving a talk recently and this kid asked me a question about how you get young people—millennials—interested in nature, and I was asking the audience, “Does anyone have a mirror? Anyone?” And they didn’t, because everyone uses their phones. What I wanted to show him was, like, Look in the mirror. You are nature. Humans are nature. It’s not something we’re over and above.

What I’m trying to show people is, fuck what books say. Plant what you like. That’s the first thing I tell people. What should I plant? If you aren’t gonna eat it, don’t plant it. If you don’t like it, don’t plant it. It’s real simple. Where should I start? At the beginning. Where’s the beginning? Wherever the fuck you start. What, you need instructions for everything?

Do what you want, it’s your painting. You should put the paint where you want it to be. The first stroke. Just do it. I treat this as art—that’s what it is to me. Gardening— look at these plants, look at the colors. Look at this! This variegated agave. C’mon. Oh, the yellow just happens to trim the green. You get to play with beauty like this, look at that. It’s like somebody painted them. That’s how I treat it. It’s art.

“I ain’t choose to rhyme, rhymin’ chose me, so I hit the track runnin’ like a nosebleed.” I didn’t choose this shit. I didn’t plan to be this Ron Finley. I didn’t know this was an option. I didn’t know that this shit would happen. It was almost like, Who’s gonna storm the castle? Everybody step up! And then everybody stepped back, and I was still there going, Yeah, yeah… yeah?

You have these communities where, generally black or brown, there’s no healthy food. And you can’t tell me that shit isn’t by design, because it’s across the nation. We do have a dialysis center. I drive by and I see wheelchairs on the street. That says to me, somebody died in that chair and it has a new battery—it’s a new space for someone else to die in.

But you’re gonna lose your limbs before you die. It’s not gonna kill you real fast. We want you standing around to buy some of this medication and keep these companies active. But I go to Pasadena, I go to Beverly Hills, I don’t see no fuckin’ dialysis centers. Why is that? It’s a whole industry created for us.

It’s about that kind of shit, it’s about education. It’s about the prison-industrial complex. It’s about the “just us” system. How can 13 percent of the population do all of this crime and how come 65, 70 percent of the people locked up in prison [are people of color]? It makes no sense, and not enough people, not enough citizens, are looking at that dumbass shit.

That’s what the Ron Finley Project is about. It’s not just about food. It’s not just about growing food, it’s about growing people, and hopefully they’ll grow food. This shit is about people who don’t even realize that they have a voice, don’t even realize that they’re enslaved. So funders, when they come and they say, Well, that’s too broad! Fuck you! The world is too small. Gimme a break, what do you mean it’s too broad? My ideas are too broad because you’ve got a little-ass fuckin’ mind? But I get that a lot. People want just one line.

I rep South Central, that’s where I’m from. But that said, if you can’t eat where you live, you go somewhere where you can eat, and right now it’s like, I’m getting so much more respect in Europe than I can say that I’m getting here. That’s the most frustrating part about doing this; you have people around you that can make shit happen, but they want to see this certain word on a piece of paper—Well, you didn’t have “sustainability access,” or some stupid shit somebody coined last week, so we didn’t fund your project. That shit is frustrating. I know how people look at me. They don’t know who I truly am. They think I’m some guy from the hood.

We have kids that are just slaughtered. It’s like Silence of the Lambs or some shit. They’re just using them to fill prisons, they’re using them for the military, they’re using them to ll these voids in these machines that are too big to fail, and they’re sticking them in there just like they’re nothing. Why shouldn’t they be able to show their brilliance and shine? Some of these kids don’t even know, they don’t dream, they’re like, For what?

So that is what the Ron Finley Project is about in one line.

Who the hell wants this for their life? You gotta be a sick puppy to want this for your life. I had no idea. I’m joyous and I’m honored by what’s happened, but it can get very isolating. It’s solitude. It’s almost like you’re in this shit by yourself. And then dealing with raising funds and people—it’s almost like sometimes I feel like people are waiting for me to fail. And it’s like, Oh shit, he’s still here.

I don’t know, it’s just something I’ve always told my sons: operate from happy. And if you can’t be happy, don’t do it. If shit ain’t making you happy, then don’t do it. It’s real simple to me. I understand how hard it is for some people to get to happy—happy can be hard as fuck to get to. I understand. But I also don’t understand how we have people living in the street. We have kids and families living in the street in this country that can find billions for war at the drop of a hat, but it can’t pay a schoolteacher in a public school a proper salary. All of that is in here.

People ask, What’s your five-year plan? I’m like, To wake up tomorrow. They’re like, I mean... I’m like, I know what you mean. That’s mine. I don’t care what yours is. If I don’t wake up in the morning, who gives a fuck about my five-year plan? That’s my five-year plan: to wake up tomorrow, and then I’ll do the continuation of what I didn’t do, or the new part of what I’m gonna do. The shit is simple to me. Shit doesn’t have to be as fucked up as it is. It can be equitable. It can be fair. Somebody should not have to live on their fucking knees for you to be able to stand up and breathe.