‘Gardening is gangsta’ is Ron Finley's tagline. And he can back it up: he's collaborated with brands that have a lot of hype, such as gender-neutral clothing company Everybody.World. There aren't many gardeners who are doing the same (it probably helps that Ron used to work in fashion).
Aside from his many brand collaborations and speaking gigs, through his company The Ron Finley Project, he teaches how the power of gardening can build communities and how seemingly dead land can be regenerated with creative business models.
When Ron first planted vegetables in a neglected curbside dirt patch in his home city of Los Angeles in 2010, he was cited by the police for gardening without a permit and a warrant was issued for his arrest. He fought back and won the right to garden and grow food in his neighborhood, where access to healthy food options is still very limited – plus, thanks to his fight, the law was changed.
Here, he shares how he plans to grow his project and why he believes brand collaborations can be fertile ground for change.
On the meaning of success
‘I woke up this morning – ultimately, that's how I measure my success. I don't measure myself by things. Besides that, I have people growing food all over the world – people who'd never touched soil in their lives before, from countries that I'd never even heard of. That's also success right there. Can my operation be bigger? Hell, yeah. It'd be dope if I had some big-ass donor say: “Here, do your thing, hire the people you need. You've done this on a shoestring, now let's blow the whole thing up.” But no one has stepped up to the plate like that. I've done this from the dirt.’
On finding purpose
‘We need to show people what true value is and change their DNA. I want everyone to give a fuck about something other than themselves. I want people to give a fuck about humanity. That's what all of this is about.’
On turning down money
‘If I was given $2 million – sure, I could expand. I could hire people. I'd be able to see hummingbirds all over the goddamn place. But I've got to this point like this [without funding]. I've had deals I could have done, but I refuse to compromise who I am. I make shit happen on my terms – period.’
On reconnecting with our roots
‘A lot of farming practices in the US were brought over from Africa. There used to be a lot of black farmers. But then a load of jealous-ass white folks came along and a lot of history and land has been lost. We carry this in our skin and DNA. Black people think: “I'm not a slave. I don't need to grow my own food any more. You just have to drive up to a window to buy a box of sloppy cheeseburgers. You don't need to know how to cook – you just need to know how to open your mouth. Why would I grow my own carrots and onions? All I need is this [food delivery] app.” But that's part of losing humanity. It's time to resuscitate our brains and bodies and reset humanity.’
On working with brands
‘There's a lot of shit I say “no” to. But you have to spoon the devil. I'm not having full-on sex with him, but I'll take my socks off – sometimes, maybe even my T-shirt. We have to deal with the devil to change shit – as long as you don't compromise what you're doing. I've done all sorts of talks and presentations for big corporations. But I let them know who I am and what I stand for.’
On his future plans
‘We're going to put up a three-storey building with a roof garden, training facility, commercial kitchen, cafe and gallery space. It'll be a big change, but it'll serve more people. I mean, right now, I'm sitting in an old swimming pool. This place is just a lab to show people what's possible – the same way I got the law changed with the parkway garden, so people could grow food on the street. I showed them the possibilities. A lot of the time, if people can't see it, they can't be it.’
Ron's favorite US-based urban farm projects
• The Edible Schoolyard. Founded in 1995 by chef, author and activist Alice Waters, this non-profit organization is transforming the food experience at schools, using organic gardens, kitchens and cafes to teach healthy living and strong community values.
• Harlem Grown. In 2011, Tony Hillery invited some schoolkids to turn a patch of land into a farm – and Harlem Grown was born. Its mission is to inspire the young through mentorship and hands-on education on urban farming and nutrition.
This article was first published in 100 Ways to Make a Living 2021. To become a subscriber or purchase our newest guide, head to our webshop.