"Gangster Gardener" Ron Finley Brings Activism Back to Food
Last Wednesday night at UCSC, students filed into the multi-purpose room at College Ten in anticipation of the film screening, “Can You Dig This?” with visiting gardener activist, Ron Finley.
I found an empty seat on the other side of the room, watching the crowd file in as the room became increasingly packed, so packed in fact that they had to add a few more rows of chairs towards the start of the event. I looked around and saw many familiar faces as well as many community members. I was excited to see what was to come.
The event, co-sponsored by the People of Color Sustainability Collective, the College Nine and College Ten Co-Curricular Programs Office, the American Indian Resource Center and the African American Resource and Cultural Center was deeply inspirational.
I first heard about Ron Finley through a video clip shared on social media a couple of months ago. The story of an everyday man in South Los Angeles growing gardens to defeat food deserts was too good to be true. I relished the fact that a man simply began to devote his life to something that many urban communities lacked: proper nutrition and access to food. The event began and I stilled my excitement to listen to the man I came to see.
Ron Finley got up on stage and said a few words first. He was instantly likable; he was funny, good-spirited and just how I imagined him to be like, a regular dude.
When the film began, it was hard at moments to not let my eyes swell up with tears. The images of South Los Angeles and the deep poverty that many low-income neighborhoods face was too similar to my own childhood. The plethora of liquor stores and cheap dollar shops was too pervasive, even in Northeast Los Angeles where I grew up predominantly.
The documentary, filmed mostly at the community garden started up by Ron Finley in South Los Angeles followed a couple of individuals as they trekked through their ambitions, struggles, and interactions with others. The documentary won the Jury Award at the Los Angeles Film Festival back in 2015.
For a documentary, that is an amazing feat and not one to be underestimated. Their struggles were earnest ones and came from all sorts of places. Sometimes, it would be a in-access to jobs that led some to being arrested on drug possession charges or the difficult lifestyle changes necessary to pursue one’s dreams of being a nurse. These were the moments that shined through for me; it showed how growth is sometimes rippled with obstacles.
I found it to be a humane depiction of the way our environment influences our own perception of our capabilities. This urban revolution towards food access is exactly what South Central and other parts of this country need. Through a lens of a couple of individuals, the film shows the drastic changes that gardening can do to not only empower people but as a way to educate entire communities.
The most poignant moments are the moments where the owners reap the rewards of their labor. One particular scene I was struck by was a man who stood amazed at his head of lettuce, saying how it was the first time he had seen one fully grown. What is so effective about the documentary is how the viewers watch these people grow just as they grow their gardens. Their joys became our joys; their struggles became our own.
It evoked in me a nostalgia as I thought about my own childhood. Growing up, I was lucky enough to have a good-sized backyard where my father grew some small foods: lettuce, swiss chard, cilantro, tomatoes, peppers, corn at one point, pumpkins during one year…This strange parallel to my own childhood amazement connected me to these people that I have not met before.
Looking back, I was lucky that my parents were strict about my dietary consumption. My parents never allowed me to drink soda or eat too much junk food, struggles that low-income families in the city face on a everyday basis. I remember how friends of mine had struggled to eat, sometimes having to eat peanut butter for days.
The documentary also highlights the obstacles in implementing urban gardens (whether it be landlords turning off water faucets to prohibit land use or city codes who attempt to limit curbside gardening) that reveal how food deserts are created in the first place. Subtle reminders of how institutional these problems really are but also how accessible gardens can be in terms of finding an immediate solution that will make a difference.
The FAQ that followed the documentary was just as empowering for me especially when Ron Finley told the crowd that sometimes we just gotta take it into our own hands. Do more than just talking. Good advice from our renegade gangster gardener.
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