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Renowned “Gangsta Gardener” Ron Finley Visits UWF

Michael Spooneybarger/ CREO
The Gangsta Gardener Ron Finley leads a walk through the community garden at the University of West Florida Tuesday March 27, 2017 in Pensacola, Florida.

Ron Finley started a food revolution when he planted vegetables on a curbside dirt strip outside his home in South Central Los Angeles.

His initiative was not only geared to stop the inequality he saw, in which some enclaves had easy access to fresh, organic fruits and vegetables, while others lived in what he terms “food prisons” - having to drive miles upon miles to get the same produce. It was also to help build communities.  The design of his gardens are just as important as the food he plants in them.

“That’s why I put this on the street, for people to be engaged, to be inspired,” Finley, nicknamed the “Gangsta Gardener” told an audience at the University of West Florida. “I don’t grow food. I grow people.”

Finley, not only a renowned gardener but also a community leader, kicked off his week-long visit to UWF on Monday by participating in an interdisciplinary faculty panel called “Rhetoric, Food Access, and Public Health” that was hosted by the College of Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities and the Kugelman Honors Program.

That evening, he also toured the UWF Student Community Garden with the faculty, students and volunteers who help make the garden possible.

The interdisciplinary faculty panel also included Dr. Kelly Carr, an assistant professor in the Department of Communication, Dr. Meredith Marten, an assistant professor in the Division of Anthropology and Archaeology, Dr. Athena du Pre, a distinguished university professor in the Department of Communication and Dr. Jocelyn Evans, associate dean of the College of Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities.

During both the panel discussion and the garden tour, Finley said it was important to emphasize to young people to have reverence for soil and to recognize the importance of it.

“Mother Nature produces no waste,” Finley said. “Everything Mother Nature produces is a resource.”

Carr credited Finley for being able to “flip the script” by giving a positive connotation to the term “gangsta” and using his gardens to help a community reclaim its space.

“I want the gang war to be who’s got the biggest tomatoes,” Finley joked.

Evans noted that studies show evidence that an absence of people congregating together can lead to a lack of surveillance and social disorder in some areas. She said that Finley’s gardens help address those issues.

“I think Ron is using food as a tool to address a lack of community engagement, a lack of people together. He sees food as a means to an end filling a gap left by social disorder,” Evans said.

During the tour of the Community Garden, Dr. Greg Tomso, associate director of the Kugelman Honors Program and the faculty coordinator of the garden, said that about 300 students each year volunteer there.

“We’re in a 10-year plan to develop this space into a community garden,” We’re about two years into it so we have a little bit to show you, and there’s a lot that you need to imagine.”

“We really hope that this will become part of UWF’s identity,” Tomso added.

While touring the garden Finley was impressed with a rainwater catch system for irrigation, in which pots will be placed on top of metal stands that were created by a local artist.

“The work is beautiful on these,” Finley said. “Whoever did the metal work, it’s gorgeous. It’s so neat and clean. This is a great idea. You should put art in everything. Beauty attracts beauty.”

Finley said the gardens he creates are not about production, but about beauty.

“I want mine to be an art piece. I want different colors, I want different palettes, smells, different heights,” Finley said. 

Richard Conn works as a staff writer for the Center for Research and Economic Opportunity at the University of West Florida.