Meet Ron.

| 5 min read Man wearing a baseball cap and smiling

“If all you see in life is despair and ugly but one day you see beauty, it’s going to affect...

“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.

South Central is infamous for poverty, gang violence, and riots. In fact, the name “South Central” became so synonymous with “bad news” that the city renamed it “South Los Angeles” in 2003. But despite the name change, the community’s problems persisted.
And one of those problems was food. The stuff that nourishes you, fills your belly, and powers you through a long day of work or school. But in South LA, the food was failing.
South LA is in what’s called a food desert, an urban area where it’s hard to find fresh produce at a reasonable price—or even at all. Instead? There’s junk food, fast food, and processed food, which have led to rising obesity rates.
On several occasions, Ron would drive 45 minutes just to find a grocery store with affordable healthy options. And he got fed up. So in 2010, he took his community’s health into his own hands and started a garden.
Between the sidewalks and the streets of South LA are narrow strips of grass. The city requires that property owners maintain these strips, but they didn’t say to what extent. So Ron turned his into a community garden.
“I first started gardening in elementary school,” says Ron. “I’d take seeds and put them in a jar, watch them bust open and destroy itself, and finally become a bean plant. But they didn’t tell us we could put it in the ground and actually make food.”

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.

HQ was the heartbeat of his movement, and it was under attack. Management changed, and the new property owners wanted Ron out. So one of his friends started a GoFundMe to save HQ.
In just three months, they successfully raised over $500k to buy the garden and secure its future for good.
With HQ no longer under threat, Ron now has time to turn his attention to another area of need: education.

“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.”

Now, Ron hopes to bring gardens to each of SEA’s 17 educational centers. And he started a new GoFundMe to bring his vision to life.
For every $10k raised, the Ron Finley Project will be able to build, supply, and maintain a new garden. Funds also go toward gardening tools and instruction so kids can learn skills that they will carry with them forever.
All of this is a part of Ron’s vision: “a world where gardening is gangsta, where barren land and littered lots are transformed into lush gardens, gardens into healthy food, and healthy food into revenue that turns individuals into entrepreneurs and ultimately leads to self reliance.”
But it’s not impossible. In fact, it’s practical. And every day, Ron sees its impact:
“We’re changing cultures through soil. We’re living in joy. Collectively, we can change everything.”