When asked about what he hopes people take away from his work, Ron Finley has a quick counter.
“I don’t do hope — I do opportunity,” he said. “I tell people, ‘I’ll take a cup of opportunity over boatload of hope every day.’”
Finley, also known as the “Gangsta Gardener,” will have an opportunity this week to show USC how an activity like gardening can build community and change people’s lives.
“A lot of people think it’s about food, but it’s about freedom,” Finley said. “It’s about humanity and putting that humanity back in to civilization — and one way do that is through food.”
As part of a larger Earth Week celebration at USC, Finley will be speaking in Bovard Auditorium at 6 p.m. Wednesday. Finley’s talk is part of a larger event that day focusing on the work done by USC’s Arts and Climate Collective.
Rebuilding communities through urban gardening
For more than a decade, Finley has been showing people how to rebuild communities through gardening, which started with his own garden in his South L.A. neighborhood. After planting some vegetables in the neglected dirt lots nearby, the city of Los Angeles cited him for gardening without a permit — and his quest to fight food inequality through gardening began.
“What really inspired me to do this was injustice,” Finley said. “What inspired me to do this was cancer, malnutrition, GMOs and people walking around like zombies without even knowing it.”
More than 23 million people across the United States live in food deserts — locations where access to healthy food is limited or nonexistent. Cities with large Black and Latino populations — Atlanta, Chicago, Detroit, New Orleans, New York City — are often hit hardest by food scarcity.
“What I want to do is talk about equity,” he said. “Let’s turn the tide and let people share in some of the things that they built.”
‘Gangster Gardener’: flipping the script
As far as his chosen moniker, Finley says he wanted to “flip the script” on what it meant to be “gangster.”
“I got kids in India calling themselves ‘gangster gardeners’ and recruiting other ‘gangsters’ in their neighborhood,” Finley said with a laugh. “They get it — it ain’t about being a thug, or drugs or violence.”
Finley hesitated to dive into detail on what he’ll be talking about in Bovard Auditorium, but he said that the takeaway should be for people to be more in tune with what is happening to our planet, and to be inspired to, in his words, “plant some shit.”
“The word ‘community’ is ‘commune’ and ‘unity’ — that’s the word, and that’s what we build,” Finley said. “Let the soil seduce you.”