LA-based artist, designer, and gangsta gardener, Ron Finley, is taking his art to the streets to inspire people around the world to reconnect with their food and each other. Ron spoke to us about growing up in South Central, his early work as a fashion designer, how gardening has transformed his life and lives of people around the world, and why he’s living for his legacy now to preserve the planet for future generations.
You grew up in South Central. How was creativity part of your early childhood? Creativity has played a major part in my life. In school, I had art class and loved to work with my hands. I’m dyslexic, so I learn when I touch stuff. I used to do a lot of things with wood shop and I was a printer, so creativity is everything to me. It’s how I look at life. It’s been paramount to what I’ve done.
You started out as a fashion designer. Tell me how you got into that. When I grew up, it was hard to find clothes that fit. I wanted to dress like the guys in the movies, the superfly stuff. I had a pair of pants made once, but I couldn’t afford to do that all the time. I figured I could make clothes myself, so I took classes at LA Trade-Technical College. I was the youngest person there by many years, and no one took me seriously. That’s how I got involved in the fashion industry.
All through school, I made my own clothes. Then I started making clothes for people in the neighborhood and that branched off into my clothing line, DROPDEAD Collexion, which I sold to Neiman’s, Nordstrom, Saks Fifth Avenue, and a lot of boutiques around the country. It was high-end, well-made clothing constructed here in LA. That’s what I did for years. Fashion was my life, from dressing NBA players to football players to actors and actresses.
My business took a bad hit in 2008 during the depression that they called a recession. That threw me into doing personal training and other stuff—collecting cans and anything I could do to get some money. That’s when I started gardening on my parkway, that strip of dirt between the sidewalk and curb. I had planted trees and flowers on my parkway years before and been served a warrant for my arrest. I was damn near arrested for planting on my parkway because cities are made for cars. They’re not made for people. Period. All of that is unnatural. Seven years later, I planted there again. I called it my street art because it’s my canvas. To me, gardening is an art form. If it’s on the street, you want your stamp on it.
I like this idea you talk about of manufacturing your own reality, which you’re helping communities do through The Ron Finley Project. Tell me about the work you’re doing. What The Ron Finley Project is doing is inspiring people to change their lives with food. Food is 5% of it, but first and foremost it’s about changing people’s perspectives. Most people don’t have a hand in their food. How the hell does that organic food you buy from the store last longer than something you grow in your garden? We need to figure out what’s going on in our food.
It’s not just about food. It’s about changing culture. Right now, the culture is really fucked up. Some of it is happenstance, but if you look at racism and poverty, a lot of it is by design. People say there’s no money, but how is there no money when we have all these fast food restaurants and liquor stores and 24-hour drugstores in our neighborhood? How do we have so many dialysis centers here? The problem is not being treated.
My work is also about changing the African American culture to not think that touching the soil is akin to slavery. My message is that if you don’t touch the soil, you are a slave. Why? Because there are people who have the misconception that they grew this food—no, the soil grew the food and you harvested it. Imagine if you owned the soil. It’s not slavery. It’s freedom. I show people that they still have shackles on them if they believe that touching soil equals slavery.
“You can’t get no more gangsta than Mother Nature. We are a part of nature. We are organic matter, and we forget. If we can give kids the message that this is a part of breathing and a part of life, then giving back to the planet becomes magical.”
You talk about gardening being therapeutic, especially in the inner city. You call it an act of defiance—it’s gangsta. How does growing our own food change us and our relationship to food? Gardening transforms you because you begin to understand the alchemy of the planet. You understand that a leaf falls in a particular season for a reason. It’s by design. That leaf is not debris or trash. It’s a resource. That leaf can turn into premium South Central compost. Money grows on trees—you can sell that compost. Everything that Mother Nature does is a resource.
I get calls, letters, and emails that make me want to cry: “You gave me my father back because I showed him your videos and now he’s back to gardening like he did 15 years ago before he was despondent and sat on the porch all day.” I get letters from kids, too. I’ve seen kids hold up a carrot and say, “Look what I made!” You let a kid take a tiny seed that you can barely see and put it in the ground and care for it, and if it’s something like a carrot, onion, or beet, it’ll literally pop out of the ground to say, “I’m ready.” You can’t get no more magical than that.
And there’s such a sense of pride that comes with that. It’s incredible. I want to ask about the TED Talk you gave in 2013. How did that change—or not change—your life? Giving that talk changed my life immensely. I wasn’t a speaker or orator. My first time onstage was at TED’s Worldwide Talent Search in Canada. I got a standing ovation, but oh my god. I was gonna sneak away and leave. (laughing) But that’s what got me to the main stage at TED.
What happened was TED found a video of me online and contacted me. They scared the shit out of me cause they said, “Hi, Ron, we’ve been watching you.” They invited me to Vancouver, Canada, to tell my story at the talent search. I thought it was a joke. I was the last person to be invited to the last city, and I was the last person on stage. Then I was one of 33 people out of 400 who went to big TED in Long Beach, CA.
So you’d rather do the work and not be on the stage? Basically, yeah. Just leave me alone. I like operating in stealth mode. I don’t want you to see me building the building. I want you to see it after it’s done and wonder, where the fuck did that come from?
But TED has changed my life immensely. Now I speak all over the world and have inspired people all over the world to garden. I was just at the MAD Conference with René Redzepi from the restaurant, Noma. Before that I was in Sweden with a gardening company from the 1880s because they screened my movie, Can You Dig This, which was produced by John Legend. So many people were there and some took a train for 5 hours to come see the movie. I think that shows how badly we need to get back to basics.
When I was a little girl, we lived in the country in Michigan and we gardened. My parents used to send me out to the garden to pick vegetables for dinner. Our conversation is reminding me of that. I think there’s this desire to return to a more simpler time, like that was for me. See, you’re not that old and you did this. I’m sure back then it was probably a chore, but now you see the lessons that are ingrained in you.
It’s amazing because I do find that a lot of young kids realize this is life-changing. That’s one of the things I talk about because in a place like South Central people look at rappers and wanna be gangsta. I say, “No, this shit right here is gangsta, because life comes out of this soil.” You can’t get no more gangsta than Mother Nature. We are a part of nature. We are organic matter, and we forget. If we can give kids the message that this is a part of breathing and a part of life, then giving back to the planet becomes magical.
I want kids to know that if they want to be cool, this is cool. The fact that I have 10-year-olds in India calling themselves gangsta gardeners is incredible. Their father sends me pictures of them propagating and tells me they’re recruiting other gangstas. That means my job is done. I get to see that, and it’s beautiful.
Throughout your life, you’ve been drawn to making things with your hands, whether that’s clothing or gardening. Right now, do you feel creatively satisfied? Do you feel like you’re doing the work you’re meant to do? No, because I want it to be bigger. I want kids to have their brilliance show. I don’t want to give nobody no fucking hope. I want people to have opportunity. That’s what people need. I want people to be exposed to gardening and I want to wake them up, like, dude, you’re a zombie. You think cause you have a job and a car and a cell phone, you’re good, but you’re still a zombie. You’re being controlled and manipulated.
Am I fulfilled? Hell no. Do I have to stop sometimes and honor what I’ve contributed to the planet? Hell yeah I do. I have to stop and say, “Look at where you are.” With some force and some money and the right team, imagine what I could do. If I can do this with nothing, imagine what I could do if I had what I needed to make this grow. We could change the rotation of this fucking planet.
Yeah, I wanna ask about that. You’re activating communities around food. It starts with the food, but it’s all about the people who come together around that food. Are there ways that people can help contribute or get involved in your cause? Yeah, the biggest way to help us continue our advocacy and the gangsta shit that we do is to donate. But my whole message to people who want to help is, “You don’t need me. You need you.” If you’re calling me, you already know the problem. You need the sun, some compost, a seed, and some water. It’s that simple.
I tell people, “I’ll help you, but I’m not the help. Don’t get that shit twisted.” Know what I’m saying? People expect you to do the work. Or they expect little elves dancing in the garden at night doing the work. (laughing) You need to do this. If someone else does it for you, what are you learning? You’re still a slave cause you’re still depending on someone to do something for you. It’s like the drive-thru—people are slaves to these systems.
Stop depending on somebody. It’s your art piece. What do you want people to see? How do you want to inspire them? Where do you start? At the beginning. There’s no book. There are no rules. Does someone have to tell you the first color to put on your canvas or what brush to use? No, that’s up to you. That’s how we should be able to design our lives.
When you’re doing any kind of creative project and you’re starting with a blank page, a white canvas, or an empty plot of land, it’s intimidating. The hardest part is starting. But you can start anywhere. You can start at the middle of the story or the end of the story. That’s the beauty of being creative. What do you do with that page? You get the ink on that page, you get the plant in that soil. Getting people back to that kind of thinking, getting people back to their instincts and knowing when something feels right or wrong is important.
There’s something about working with your hands, like with gardening, that makes you more in tune with the world. And I think you start to listen to yourself more. We’ve learned to not trust ourselves. We look outside of ourselves for instruction. There are apps for that, see? There’s an app for intuition. I need to develop that app and I can just go buy an island somewhere. (laughing) So much of technology is dumbing us down because we literally don’t have to think about anything. There is a disconnect that is so bad, and guess who it serves? It doesn’t serve us, but it serves somebody because we’re dependent.
Yeah. So, I have this plant that I propagated over the weekend. I don’t know if it’s gonna work, but I tried. I’ve never been confident in growing things, but for the first time in my life, I’m not killing my plants. That gives me a sense of pride. Isn’t that amazing? I hear that so often. It sounds dorky and hokey as shit, but to see people cry over gardening—there’s a girl in the movie I mentioned earlier who cries when she harvests her first cucumber. She’s this hardcore gangsta. Imagine if you experience that at an early age and it’s reinforced throughout your life. It changes you and how you look at everything in life.
It gives you this sense of possibility. You start to think bigger. That’s exactly it. That’s what the girl says in the movie Can You Dig This: “If a hardcore girl like me can do this, then I can do this with the rest of my life.” She says, “No, I’m a gardner, and gardening is hella tight.” (laughing)
I really like this phrase you said in one of your videos: “Beauty doesn’t cost money.” You’re building this beautiful legacy. I don’t know if you think about that, but you’re inspiring so many people to change the way they think about food and their connection to nature. Have you reflected on this legacy you’re leaving? If you put people in an ugly environment, what are you gonna get out of it? Ugly. Beauty in, beauty out. Beauty doesn’t cost any more than ugly. It’s simple. There are stats and research on that. We put a box of flowers on a corner and it changes the whole block. All of a sudden, there’s less trash and litter. It’s amazing.
My legacy, though, I don’t know. People ask me, “You have no idea how many people you’ve affected, do you?” I say, “No, and I don’t know if I wanna know.” But I think my legacy is happening right now. It’s here. I get to actually see what I’m doing in real time. I don’t have to wait. I’m not doing this shit for 2050. I’m doing this shit for right now. I want to live in a healthy, nutritious, creative, inspiring environment myself. If we don’t do it now, there is no fucking 2050. I get to see my legacy. I get to see kids engaged in the act of preserving this planet. To me, that’s big.
“I get to actually see what I’m doing in real time…I’m not doing this shit for 2050. I’m doing this shit for right now. I want to live in a healthy, nutritious, creative, inspiring environment myself. If we don’t do it now, there is no fucking 2050.”