Living History: Meet Gangster Gardener and Activist Ron Finley

Ron Finley is a man making a difference in South Central, Los Angeles by gardening in his community and promoting healthy eating. His quest to promote community gardening started in 2010 and has garnered him worldwide attention. Here are a few facts about him.

Ron Finley is a man making a difference in South Central, Los Angeles by gardening in his community and promoting healthy eating.  His quest to promote community gardening started in 2010 and has garnered him worldwide attention.  Here are a few facts about him:

1. He fought City Hall… and won.

Finley’s quest began because he couldn’t buy anything healthy in his neighborhood.  He grew up in South Central, L.A. as one of eight children, and knew that there were no health food stores or grocery stores with fresh produce anywhere near his home.  He had to drive 45 minutes away to reach a Whole Foods.  So he decided he would plant vegetables in a strip of dirt by his curb.  After a few months he had succulent carrots, bananas, tangerines and mustard greens.  He also had the attention of city officials who gave him a citation for gardening without a permit. The city owned the “median,” which was the neglected dirt strip that was the approximately 150 x 10 foot area Finley started planting his garden.  Finley worked with other local leaders to file a petition in opposition to the city’s actions.  This garnered media attention, a local filmmaker made a short video about his fight, and the city rescinded the citation and allowed the gardening to continue.


2. He believes gardening is gangster.

Finley believes that community building through planting your own food, sharing it with your neighbors, and improving your surrounding area is an authentic way to be “gangster.” In 2010, he started teaching his neighbors how to plant gardens in their own medians in front of their homes.  Now, he teaches people from all over the world how to plant and make their own vibrant vegetation spaces.  His goal is to redefine what it means to be a “gangster” so it includes being informed about nutrition and gardening.

“I’m an artist. Gardening is my graffiti. I grow my art. Just like a graffiti artist, where they beautify walls, me, I beautify lawns, parkways. I use the garden, the soil, like it’s a piece of cloth, and the plants and the trees, that’s my embellishment for that cloth. You’d be surprised what the soil could do if you let it be your canvas. You just couldn’t imagine how amazing a sunflower is and how it affects people.”

3. He helped start a non-profit dedicated to community gardening.

In 2010, Finley, Florence Nishida, and Vanessa Voblis started an organization called Los Angeles Green Grounds that is dedicated to bringing volunteers together with residents of South Central to change their front lawns into vibrant gardens.  To accomplish this, residents host a “dig in” where the community and volunteers come together to shovel, plant, water, and build gardens.  The organization works closely with residents through growing seasons and continually educates folks about sustainability practices.

Finley eventually  moved on from LA Green Grounds to start the Ron Finley Project where he uses his home garden as an example of how to create a growing  and healthy vegetation space by using vacant lots, parkways, and other “throw away” items like old shopping carts.  His goal is to change the face of urban communities into vibrant food forests  where residents eat what they plant and become healthier by eating natural food instead of the processed food that surrounds their communities.

“I live in a food desert, South Central Los Angeles, home of the drive-thru and the drive-by. Funny thing is, the drive-thrus are killing more people than the drive-bys.”

4. His TED talk has nearly 3 million views.

In February 2013, Finley gave an 11 minute TED talk on his life changing work that was impassioned, funny, and extremely well received.  His TED talk generated massive attention for his cause.  He appeared on several talk shows, including Russell Brand’s late night show, and received collaboration offers from notable corporations.  Despite this attention, Finley stays focused on pointing out that a community-driven gardening program is a way to dramatically reduce obesity among adults and children, gang violence and poverty.

5. He believes lack of access to healthy food in low-income communities is intentional.

Finley believes low income communities are drastically underserved in having access to quality, natural food.  He calls urban communities food prisons because the residents have to escape them to find any healthy food.  Local convenience stores are stocked with unhealthy processed food, and you can find many more dialyses centers than grocery stores with fresh produce in them.  He points out that fast food is often the only food available within urban communities.

By teaching sustainable community gardening, Finley believes you empower community members to fight back.  Through growing their own food, these communities have locally grown produce they can consume for personal use or sell for economic gain.  Children will get exercise by gardening and the quality of their diets increase from eating food that they have grown.  Finley relates the struggle to change the health outcomes for our community to the struggles of the Black Lives Matter Movement.  He feels that urban communities are under siege from food companies, and the way to fight back is by growing your own food.  Finley believes gangster gardening is a way to free our communities.

Information attained from:

Ron Finley Project,

Kristin Wartman, “Why Food Belongs in Our Discussions of Race”, Civil Eats,, published on September 3, 2015

David Hochman, “Urban Gardening: An Appleseed With Attitude”, New York Times,, published online on May 3, 2013

Los Angeles Green Grounds,

Andy Simmons, “Meet the Gangsta Gardener”, Reader’s Digest,

TED, Ron Finley: A guerilla gardener in South Central LA,, filmed February 2013


About The Author

Rick McCray is a maRAMrried father of three amazing sons. He is also a proud graduate of Duke University where he holds a BA in History and African/African American History, and Howard University School of Law. He is also a regular commentator on the In The Black podcast.  Rick is passionate about our history and helping to educate our community concerning the great contributions of people of color to the world. You can find Rick on Twitter @RealRickMcCray.

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