South LA

South L.A.’s ‘Gangsta Gardener’ speaks at USC

Environmental activist Ron Finley gave a presentation as part of USC’s Earth Week Celebration.

"A photo of Ron Finley posing in a garden with a rake. Beside him, a message reads: 'Asgmt Earth USC.' The bottom of the image shows the title of the organization that helped host Finley's presentation, 'USC Arts & Climate Collective.'"

Ron Finley, a self-proclaimed “rebel with a green thumb,” empowered students to be “gangsta gardeners” Wednesday as he headlined USC’s Earth Week Celebration in Bovard Auditorium.

“Gardening is the gateway drug to humanity, to your campus,” Finley said. “That’s why we all need to know how to grow our own food. We all need to know how to cultivate food… It’s a life skill.”

Wednesday’s Earth Week Celebration kicked off with a resource fair outside Bovard where environmental-specific community and campus organizations gathered. The fair also included food tastings, giveaways and a student art showcase from USC’s Arts & Climate Collective (ACC).

The speaker portion of the event took place inside of Bovard, where President Carol Folt welcomed guests with a speech.

Folt, who noted she was alive for the inaugural Earth Day in 1970, made it clear that the environmental problems present 52 years ago persist to this day.

“The issues that were behind Earth Day, the activism that spurred Earth Day, and the global perspective needed to make progress are not really different,” Folt said. “It’s just even more urgent right now.”

After a presentation from the students and staff in USC’s ACC, Finley took the stage to discuss how marginalized communities, specifically in his South L.A. neighborhood, experience neglect regarding issues of health. According to Finley, in order to enact this change, the responsibility falls on the backs of everyday citizens.

“Food is the cornerstone of civilization,” Finley said. “When they try to destroy civilization, one of the first things they do is kill the food, kill the seeds, you have no culture. We need to start saving our seeds, saving ourselves and saving the country.”

One of the leading speakers during Wednesday’s panel was Irene Franco Rubio, a grassroots organizer based in Arizona and a member of USC’s ACC. Rubio reinforced Finley’s point on the importance of taking more action to support the environment, which she compared to her experience with political organizing.

“Seeing how issues are interconnected and the intersectionality of things, that’s kind of how we need to do environmental justice organizing,” Rubio said.

In 2010, Finley saw the dirt patches close to the sidewalks near his West Adams home as an opportunity. With a chance to beautify and give back to his community, he started a garden full of fresh fruits and vegetables, but was struck down by the City of Los Angeles for gardening without a permit.

After fighting back and creating a petition with environmental activists, Finley gained back the right to continue producing his gardens.

“I want you guys to realize that this is not about food, not even close. This is about freedom,” he said. “Freedom from these oppressive dictatorships that we’re living in and the fact that I would get arrested for beautifying my neighborhood and feeding people on the street.”

These acts of service have made Finley known in the community as the “Gangsta Gardener.” But Finley’s definition of “gangsta” is also planting new initiatives. According to his website, being a “gangsta” means “projecting strength on one’s own terms as hip, cool, innovative, revolutionary, resolute, vital, or cutting edge.”

Despite his moniker as the “Gangsta Gardener,” Finley said the real criminals are the people and social structures preventing marginalized communities from cultivating healthy foods.

“The ‘gangsta’ thing – it ain’t coming because I was some gangsta and in some gang…,” Finley said. " It’s because we’re dealing with some gangstas. They just wear suits and ties.”

Finley believes the current system is designed to serve privileged, white elites who, despite having near-instant access to luxury goods like “avocado toast,” hold a vested interest in maintaining the conditions that continue to starve local neighborhoods.

“All the land is enough food for us all,” Finley said. “There’s no food shortages. But, there’s going to be. Why? Because we allow them to take over our food systems.”

Looking forward, however, Finley hopes his passion for gardening continues to sprout around L.A. and better future generations.

“That’s what we all need to do,” Finley said. “Plant a seed and grow our future.”