GOOD Citizens Communities

In the Culture Wars, Gardening Is This Man’s Weapon of Choice

by Ron Finley

March 30, 2016

This spring, we’re celebrating innovators who are tackling pressing global issues. We call them the GOOD 100. In the spirit of solidarity, we’re also rolling out insights and personal stories from a select list of influential global citizens working in alliance with the world at large. We’ll be highlighting GOOD Citizens once a week.

When I was a kid, we had these things called neighborhoods, and even though it was hard for outsiders to tell which block belonged to what neighborhood, we knew. Within these several blocks that we called our hood, there was a group of friends made up of kids on our block who went to the same school with us and who we played with until the streetlights came on. 

We would challenge the kids from other neighborhoods in sports, making go-carts, whatever. There was a sense of friendship and camaraderie amongst us, and generally, everybody’s parents knew each other too. Often, you would be invited to stay for lunch or dinner, and if you misbehaved, your parents would know about it before you got home.

It’s interesting how within the boundaries of these communities, it was as if there were no boundaries. We were in a somewhat poor neighborhood, but the funny thing about that is, we didn’t even realize that we were poor. We still managed to have fun. But now, it seems like what was once a healthy competitiveness or good-natured rivalry has evolved into gang violence.

No single factor led to this invisible shift, which is rooted in everything from the fragmentation of the black American family to the infiltration of the Black Panthers by the FBI’s Counter Intelligence Program, with countless other causes inbetween. But just because it’s a complicated situation doesn’t mean things have to be this way. I want so badly for people—my fellow neighbors—to realize that they have the ability to change how they live, and bring back the kind of community where people work together and throw block parties, where everybody knows each other and nobody’s afraid to say hello.

Sadly, that neighborly spirit has largely been lost. But I think it can be revived. I'm trying to do my part, at least, by showing people that food is a major part of every culture in the world; a crucial part of how we form our personal, familial, and cultural identities. And despite the popularity of cable cooking shows and recipe videos online, growing and preparing food is a lost art these days. Maybe we’ve lost interest because of the convenience and affordability of big box supermarkets and fast food in certain neighborhoods.

But when mass-market, cheaply produced food becomes the norm, our health isn’t the only thing that gets damaged; we also become detached from our culture and heritage, our food-based traditions, and each other. Many of the people who live in my neighborhood and others like it aren’t really aware of what’s going on with their food because they haven’t been exposed to any kind of alternative. Healthy food is expensive and isn’t readily available to all communities. 

It wasn’t until after I realized that I’d been driving out of my neighborhood to purchase my food for years that a lightbulb went off for me. I asked myself, “Why do I have to drive 45 minutes for fruits and vegetables that aren’t full of pesticides?” Not long after, I planted a simple garden on what had been an eyesore in my neighborhood—a curbside dirt strip—that anyone could visit and nurture as necessary. Today, that garden is more about the people than the food. 

So many of us are giving up our rights, our lives, and our culture to corporations that only look at us as profits. Our communities and our health are under siege. Food just so happens to be my weapon of choice in the battle to reclaim what is ours. My garden has taught me that people want to engage with each other and feel safe. Sadly, I have also learned that a lot of people are content with the way things are and they don’t believe that things can change. We are striving to show people that change is imminent. For us to survive, we have to take into account what corporations—and us by association—are doing to our streets, cities, states, country, and our planet.

We don’t just belong to our neighborhoods, our cities, our families, our friends. As humans, we are citizens of a larger whole. A great collective of all that was, all that is, and all that has yet to come. Gardening teaches this. It’s also a means to share culture and timeless traditions in a setting that crosses all boundaries. No matter where you are in the world, gardens are universal. This familiar environment is the ultimate stage for a conversation about our simpatico culture.

The garden is a place where the sharing of cultures exemplifies what a true global community can be. I don’t give a shit where you are, you still need to eat. My goal is to build safe, healthy, vibrant communities through gardening. I know that we have the ability to bring back the communities of my childhood.

As citizens, I think we all have a responsibility to better our surroundings in our communities. If you see something wrong, you fix it. I don’t really see it as someone else’s job. So grab your friends and your neighbors, grab a shovel, and go PLANT SOME SHIT!

Nicknamed the “Gangsta Gardener,” Ron Finley planted organic vegetables on the grass next to the sidewalk in front of his South Los Angeles home and a revolution was started. Ron’s belief that gardens build communities has blossomed into a quest to change how we eat and the founding of the Ron Finley Project, an organization focused on changing culture from the ground up.

Illustration by Daniel Zender

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In the Culture Wars, Gardening Is This Man’s Weapon of Choice