Have you ever heard of the “Gangsta Gardener”? I’m guessing it’s likely, given that his 2013 TED Talk has been viewed over 4 million times. (You can increase that number by watching for yourself below.) When Ron Finley converted the strip of land between his house and the street into a vegetable garden, the city of Los Angeles put out a warrant for his arrest. Urban gardening on city-owned land was not legal. But Finley and his friends at LA Green Grounds were not deterred. These gardens were not being grown for fun, they represented something more.

South LA is a food desert and a community where “the drive-thrus are killing more people than the drive-bys.” Finley saw his garden as a tool for education, an instrument for community transformation, and a way for people to take back their health. He saw gardening as therapeutic and defiant. A means to a more sustainable way of life.

Finley was not arrested. His food justice movement attracted the attention of the greater community and the media. A petition was signed and the city agreed that urban gardening and the transformation of vacant lots and sidewalk terraces into something meaningful was valid and needed. The “Gangsta Gardener” now operates the Ron Finley Project with a goal of creating “a world where people know nutrition and where it comes from, teaching communities how to transform food deserts into food sanctuaries.”

Gardening as Resistance

This idea of using gardening as an act of defiance and a means to resilience is not new nor relegated to the streets of South LA. UW Madison professor and sociologist, Monica White recently released her take on this idea in her book, “Freedom Farmers: Agricultural Resistance and the Black Freedom Movement.”

Her research uncovers how Black farmers used agricultural and farming practices as a means of building resilience and forging resistance to “racially, socially, and politically repressive conditions, using land as a strategy to move toward freedom.”

She posits that three main strategies were historically used. And describes them as such:

  • commons as praxis – acts that prioritize the well-being of the community and “contest dominant practices of ownership, consumerism, and individualism”
  • prefigurative politics – ways of redressing power inequities through alternative political systems
  • economic autonomy – ways of reversing exploitation and building economic systems outside of traditional resource exchange mechanisms

You can pick up your own copy of the book here to read in depth how White describes Black resistance farming practices, including the importance of “slave gardens” and the development of various farmers’ cooperatives, alliances, and associations throughout the years. Like Finley, White sees farming and gardening as an act of defiance, resilience, and a pathway to community health.

Using food as an organizing strategy…showed the power of the people and the ways that collective social responsibility could provide what a community needs to be healthy, whole, and liberated.

But even the study of everyday forms of resistance misses activities that are not disruptive but rather constructive, in the sense that the aggrieved actively build alternatives to existing political and economic relationships. The acts of building knowledge, skills, community, and economic independence have a radical potential that the term does not encompass. We might then ask: Is it possible to conceptualize these ways of building self-sufficiency and self-reliance as resistance in their own right?

Urban Gardening

While the Victory Gardens of WWI and WWII eras were not promoted explicitly to Black gardeners or communities, they too were touted as a form of resilience. Families were encouraged to create urban farms or garden plots to supplement war-time rations and bolster food security.

The idea of Victory Gardens continues today in our local communities – this time with an emphasis not on war-time endurance but to build “communities that grow their own food, to create a community-led, socially just, environmentally sustainable, nutritious food system for all” as the folks at Milwaukee’s Victory Garden Initiative put it.

This sounds strikingly similar to the work our friends at Rooted are doing. Their Troy Farm project, the oldest urban farm in Madison, not only grows and sells produce, but also teaches small-scale, organic growing practices and “explores the role of urban farms in local food systems and community organizing.”

Want to learn more? Check out these other nearby initiatives with a similar mission:

More on the “Gangsta Gardener”

To learn more about Ron Finley and his work, check out these articles and his cant-miss TED Talk:



In Case You Missed It…

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