story by Brett Hutchins, photos by Steven Gray
With that all-encompassing prompt, self-proclaimed Gangsta Gardener Ron Finley let Pensacola in on a little secret: he’s about a whole lot more than fruits and vegetables.
In town to present a lecture as part of the University of West Florida’s Downtown Lecture Series, the renown urban horticulturalist kept busy during his recent visit making the relentless rounds to local classrooms, charities and gardens. Sharing knowledge and insights at each stop off.
“Y’all know what this is, right?” Finley asked, holding up some plants during a visit to Innisfree Hotels’ From the Ground Up Community Garden near downtown.
A group of students from Dixon School of the Arts looked on. They understandably started naming vegetables, but that’s not what Finley was looking for.
“This right here is money,” he told them. “It don’t get more gangster than that.”
A fashion designer by trade, Finley was, like so many others, forced to reconsider a whole lot of things when The Great Recession hit. It was around that time that he asked the question that changed his life – why not plant our own food?
So, he did just that. In front of his house in Compton, Finley planted a seed and watched it grow. And grow. And grow.
The success of Finley’s garden eventually drew attention from the powers that be in the city if Los Angeles, who raised issue about it being on the publicly-owned strip of dirt between the sidewalk and curb. Legal battles ensued, but Finley was victorious by being vocal about the sheer absurdity of a local government stopping a citizen from feeding people.
The LA Times ran a story, and Finley was asked to present at a national TED Talk. That now-famous speech, viewed millions of times online, instantly turned him into a hot commodity on the sustainability speaking circuit.
That TED speech, incidentally, also played a role in Innisfree’s decision to fund the community garden.
“Man, somebody get that on tape. I need to be getting paid,” Finley joked, upon learning his speech was an inspiration for the garden.
In addition to his UWF lecture, Finley’s visit to Pensacola also included a question-and-answer session at the Museum of Commerce. But, it was his visit to the community garden that provided the euphoric venue for the gardener to dispense his particular brand of zen-like advice to the next generation of Pensacola’s gardeners and urban farmers.
Speaking with the students in the garden, Finley contrasted the worth of certain commodities, like gems and food. Why are diamonds so valuable, he asked them.
“It’s because they tell you they are,” he said. “Don’t let them do that. Define what you value yourself.”
As the students scattered, one humming to herself in meditation, Finley spoke with the adults present, explaining exactly why he’s doing what he’s doing.
“This ain’t about plants,” the gardener told them. “It’s about people. It’s about bringing communities together and challenging the systems that governments and corporations have in place.”
— Brett Hutchins is a local writer, and also serves as Director of Digital Marketing for Innisfree Hotels and Director of Music for From the Ground Up Community Garden. He penned this article while sipping tea in Thailand as a monkey watched over his shoulder.