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  • Arts & Culture
  • Issue 37

Ron Finley

In an excerpt from our forthcoming book, The Kinfolk Garden, Stephanie d’Arc Taylor meets Ron Finley. By sowing seeds in the barren public spaces of South Central Los Angeles, Finley reaped an unexpected reward: a new-found calling as a community activist. With each project that takes root, his motivation only grows. Words by Stephanie d’Arc Taylor. Photography by Justin Chung.

Many who garden find their work restorative. Rarer are gardeners whose efforts have sparked political awakenings. Ron Finley grew up in the blighted South Central region of Los Angeles and went on to become a successful fashion designer and personal trainer.1 But it was an act of gardening that crystallized his political consciousness.

In his 2012 ten-minute TED Talk (which has now surpassed 3.5 million views), Finley recounts the story of his political awakening in a series of pithy, and often delightfully unprintable, turns of phrase. South Central, he says, is what’s known as a food desert—a term often used to describe inner-city areas where the only food options are fast-food chains and dollar stores. Disheartened by his community’s limited access to fresh fruits and vegetables and the resulting sky-high rates of obesity, hypertension and other diet-related health problems, Finley transformed his parkway—West Coast terminology for the planted portion of a sidewalk—into a garden with vegetables and banana trees.2

As a result, the city of Los Angeles issued a citation, then a warrant for Finley’s arrest, on the grounds that he was working public land without a permit. The public outcry that ensued successfully changed the law in Los Angeles that had prevented people from gardening on parkways. It also propelled Finley into a pioneering new career: community gardening activist.

“Gardening is the most therapeutic and defiant act you can do, especially in the inner city,” Finley says on the phone from his new permanent project space in Los Angeles. “I’ve witnessed my garden become a tool for education, a tool for the transformation of my neighborhood.”

Finley is adamant that home gardening has the opportunity to transform more than just his block in South LA. An increase in individuals’ self-sufficiency can also positively disrupt the social and political systems that perpetuate self-defeating cycles in low-income communities.

“Just think about even one percent of us starting to grow our own food,” Finley says. “Think how much money that would take out of the system, from healthcare to grocery stores. People growing their own food is dangerous [to the status quo].” Finley’s number one tip to novice gardeners is indicative of his straight-talk approach: “Plant what you like to eat. Don’t plant no shit you don’t like.”

But growing food to eat isn’t Finley’s only motivation to keep on mulching. “I’m not always planting for production. I also plant for beauty, for engagement. My garden is basically a big ass social experiment.3 I’m an urban sociologist asking the question, ‘How do people engage with something they’re not used to seeing in the urban environment?’”

Finley’s ‘Russian Mammoth’ sunflowers, in particular, have caused quite the stir in the neighborhood. The plants can stand ten feet tall, supporting flowers over a foot in diameter. “Kids stop and ask, ‘Yo, is that real?’ People have never seen anything like this. It’s that kind of engagement I want.”

This story is an exclusive excerpt from our forthcoming book, The Kinfolk Garden. Pre-order at Kinfolk.com now, or shop in stores worldwide from October 27.

NOTES

1. As a teenager, Finley took classes at a technical college in LA and made his own outfits. He soon started making clothes for friends, and the project eventually snowballed into a line—Dropdead Collexion.

2. Finley’s 70-by-40-foot produce garden came into its own during lockdown. In April, he told The Guardian that he had been living off produce and only left his property once (to buy fish) during the period of isolation.

3. Finley’s most recent venture brings his message to a larger, albeit less diverse, audience: He now has a gardening series on the subscription-based MasterClass website, whose other experts include Serena Williams and Natalie Portman.

NOTES

1. As a teenager, Finley took classes at a technical college in LA and made his own outfits. He soon started making clothes for friends, and the project eventually snowballed into a line—Dropdead Collexion.

2. Finley’s 70-by-40-foot produce garden came into its own during lockdown. In April, he told The Guardian that he had been living off produce and only left his property once (to buy fish) during the period of isolation.

3. Finley’s most recent venture brings his message to a larger, albeit less diverse, audience: He now has a gardening series on the subscription-based MasterClass website, whose other experts include Serena Williams and Natalie Portman.

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This story is from Kinfolk Issue Thirty-Seven

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