2013 Unsung Hero Ron Finley: Empowering L.A. Residents to Grow Their Own Food

October 23, 2013

Editors Note: Ron Finley of the Ron Finley Project is one of five recipients of the 2013 Unsung Heroes of Los Angeles Awards. Ron, a fashion designer and green activist, helps  build vegetable gardens in South LA to help empower residents to grow their own healthy and organic food in their community.   We were so moved by his personal journey that we asked him to share it with us. 

By Ron Finley

For some, the connection between dyslexia, designing clothes and green activism may seem unrelated but for me, it’s the most natural connection in the world. It got me to where I am today.

I’ve always been the kind of person that when I want to do something, I just figured out a way to do it.  I didn’t let the fact that I was dyslexic stop me from doing what I wanted to do, even though I went through school thinking something was wrong with me because I couldn’t read like the others. Then I realized, there were a lot of things I could do that others couldn’t. The way I think is sideways, and that there might be a better route to take than the one that the crowd is following.

I became the first boy to take the home economics class at Horace Mann Junior High in South LA only because I asked to participate.  I started working in fashion because I could not find a pair of pants that fit me the right way.  There was always something inside me that facilitated that kind of thinking.

The idea of planting a vegetable garden was born out of the same way.  If the healthy food wasn’t easy for me to get, then I was going to create it for myself. I live in South Central, Los Angeles and grew up near Normandie and Florence.  My neighborhood has miles and miles of processed fast food joints and no options for fresh foods. That’s why I set out to build a garden in the vacant dirt lot in front of my house.

Selfishly, I just wanted to eat healthy food and was tired of driving a long distance to find it. I also wanted to beautify my area, and to have people to be hit in the face by the beautiful smells of jasmine, sage and lavender. You can take a dismal looking dirt lot, filled with shopping carts and trash, and change it for the better.  I wanted to design my own world so I used a garden as my canvas.

A year or two after my garden was planted, the city gave me a citation because it’s against the law to plant edibles on a parkway. I pulled out the garden, but then seven years later, in 2010, I decided to plant it for a second time.  I was cited again, but this time, I decided to fight back.  I thought to myself, the city doesn’t come and clean up the dumped couches or mow the dead weeds and grass. They don’t clean it up, I do, so it didn’t make sense to me that I couldn’t plant a garden.

Thankfully, I had support from many people in the community who signed a petition and we were able to save the garden.

I plant everything from bananas, watermelon, arugula, apricots, oranges, tangerines, Chinese mustard, tomatoes, sugar cane and more, all in a 150 x 10 feet space.  I like to plant like nature and I plant for beauty. We’re all artists inside and this garden is just another way we can express ourselves.

No one could have measured where this has gone.  I have met people from all over the world, from Hawaii, Florida and Northern California, to India and New Zealand and more. They all say they are inspired to build their own urban garden now. It’s become a movement and it’s tremendously rewarding but scary at the same time. When you’re in the middle of doing it, it doesn’t seem unbelievable. You just do it. You just get it done.

I just want to create opportunities for people and give them this floor plan on how to start their own project.  I want to empower my community to paint their own canvas and use these gardens as their inspiration.  The garden is a metaphor for life as everything you can relate to in life, happens in a garden.  When you grow plants you grow people. All they need is some good soil, proper sunlight, water and the Gardner’s shadow.

My belief is that you grow up and you’re going through life, it’s a manufactured reality.  But you can change it to what you want it to be, because life can be your own paint brush. It’s ok to pick another lane or pick another train and that’s what I see is missing in our system.  I have painted my own canvas as an entrepreneur, an artist and now an activist.  I want to empower people to remember, it’s your canvas. Go paint your own way of life.

Ron Finley is the director of the Ron Finley Project.

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