“If all you see in life is despair and ugly but one day you see beauty, it’s going to affect you. That’s what these gardens have done for my community.”
Ron Finley grew up in South Central, a Los Angeles neighborhood known to most of the news-watching world as a center of gang violence. But Ron knew that wasn’t the full picture. The problems with South Central weren’t just in the streets but in the grocery stores, too. So Ron rolled up his sleeves, grabbed his shovel, and started a revolution.
At home, Ron’s family had a real garden. They grew flowers like tall, fragrant snapdragons and even some food like peanuts.“It taught me the magic that is soil,” he says.
So when the time came, Ron shared that magic with his community.
With the help of friends and neighbors, he revitalized unused land throughout South LA.
Families helped out and collected food to take home. Kids grabbed fruit on the way to school. Street corners transformed overnight… and then the city stepped in.
They gave Ron a citation for altering public lands and ordered him to remove the gardens—the new source of hope for his community. He refused. The citation turned into a fine and eventually, a warrant for his arrest. When word spread, Ron became known as the Gangsta Gardener.
Not one to give up, Ron started a petition, took the fight to City Hall, and got the law changed. But the obstacles didn’t stop there.
By 2017, Ron had leased and developed a piece of land into a thriving “food forest” that he called HQ.
“Growing up, I was dyslexic. I didn’t learn the way I was being taught,” says Ron. “I realized school wasn’t for me. It was like being indoctrinated but not getting knowledge. I missed out.”
So now as a successful businessman and activist, Ron wants to support the schools that help kids like him. And that starts with SEA charter schools.
“For a lot of these kids, it’s their last shot. They’re poor foster kids and kids kicked out of their last schools. They needed someone to spot them at an early age and say, ‘No, this kid needs this.’ And that’s what SEA does,” says Ron.
His organization The Ron Finley Project built a garden in one of SEA’s schools, and it’s already making a difference: “We’re in a city, so a lot of times people haven’t been exposed to plants. If you ask a child where food comes from, they raise their hand and say, ‘A store’…The kids at SEA walk into school and head back to check on their garden first thing. These gardens are changing lives.”
“We’re changing cultures through soil. We’re living in joy. Collectively, we can change everything.”