In 2011, Ron Finley planted a garden at his home in South Central Los Angeles. But unlike most gardeners, this civic-minded Angeleno eschewed the privacy of a backyard for the very public stretch of land that runs between the sidewalk and the street curb, known as a parkway. The garden’s visible location was an act of defiance, the fresh vegetables standing in opposition to the otherwise liquor-store and fast-food-centric food system that feeds the surrounding neighborhood. And without a fence to hide behind, passersby could pick some of the harvest for themselves.
But the parkway proved to be perhaps too public—as in, it’s land owned by the city. And there are rules about what can and can’t be grown there. Vegetables, apparently, aren’t allowed, and Finley was given a citation saying he needed to remove the garden—a citation that would turn to into a warrant.
Finley didn’t remove his garden, and he wasn’t arrested for not doing so. Rather, he’s become a prominent voice for bringing food justice to low-income, minority neighborhoods like his own. He talked about his efforts to bring more gardens in neighborhoods like South Central—and to rebrand gardening as, among other things, “gangster”—at the TED Conference in Long Beach, Calif., earlier this month.
“South Central Los Angeles: Home of the drive-through and the drive by,” Finley jokes, darkly, in his talk. “Funny thing is, the drive-through is killing more people than the drive by. People are dying of curable disease in South Central Los Angeles.”
Unlike the lofty ideas of many TED talks, Finley is firmly rooted in tangible action and reaction. He isn’t proposing some unrealized concept he wants the TED-Aspen-Davos Axis to get behind—he’s already doing something and he wants more people to get on board. “If kids grow kale, kids eat kale,” he declares. “If they grow tomatoes, they eat tomatoes. If they’re not shown how food affects the mind and body, they blindly eat whatever’s put in front of them.”
Interested in scaling up Finley’s approach to food justice? Or taking it citywide or nationwide or global? Perhaps you have an idea for some disruptive technology that can help expand the reach of his project. Well, Finley has some advice for you, because he doesn’t want to just talk and have meetings and sit in cushy chairs: “If you want to meet with me, come to the garden. With your shovel. So we can plant some shit!”