In Conversation With…
“You got carrots out the ground and karats on your fingers, the apocalypse goes down, which one has the greatest value?”
A renegade, an artist, an activist, a revolutionary. I have been called a ‘Gangsta Gardener,’ but to define me by food is a limited paradigm. I change culture; that is what I do. I was born and raised in LA so I know the complexities of an underserved community.
A leaf falls from the tree to the ground and what does it do? It is reclaimed to the earth; it becomes soil. The human body passes/dies and what happens? It is reclaimed to the earth and becomes soil. So, when I say ‘culture’ look around you because everything is a resource and we must change our relationship to it.
When I did my first garden here—off Crenshaw and Exposition—it was about creating beauty and being assaulted by beautiful smells in a sparse urban setting. I designed clothes before that so gardening was essentially another medium for me to create. The neighbors thought I was crazy, planting flowers, fruits, and vegetables in the hood. Now that is crazy! We have been trained to think wrong, to equate living in the inner-city or underserved communities with not expecting better and best. That is constricted thinking. You are supposed to have full lawns of green grass, 14ft golden sunflowers, butterflies, and fruit trees in your neighborhood. Think about it. If all you are looking at is ugly, how does that affect your outlook on who you are and the life you lead?
Be unbound. That is what I have done in this neighborhood despite it being considered abnormal, which it is not. Nature’s beauty should be the normal for everyone, but guess what? It is not. Why? Because they know how it is going to make you feel everyday and how it is going to make you approach life from an impoverished dependent mindset. That’s my whole thing to LA County is if you aren’t putting healthy gardens and food in these inner-city stores then don’t fuck with me about trying to grow my own and inspire others to do so.
To me there is no fucking box because if that box is the keeper of your thoughts and vision then everything that you are seeking to do in your life has already been confined.
The FINLEY P.O.V
Culture starts in our neighborhoods. So, why are there so many churches, fast food places, and liquor stores, but there are no healthy food options, no gardens? Why? It’s all by design. We can’t value self until we value life. So, I am about growing people, not growing food, but first and foremost we have to change people’s perception and concept of what is important, what is truly important.
What is the most important element to sustain life? Air is the most important thing to your life, yet nobody ever says it ever, and [they] damn sure don’t understand it. Food, as the most important element, is like seeing the forest and not the trees. You can go for days without food or water but you are not doing without air for even a few minutes. So why don’t we represent the single source of life (i.e., oxygen) and develop all of the elements to optimize it? Mother Nature is the most gangster entity there is after Helen of Pompey. Money + Cars + Celebrity. That’s not the real shit. Air + Food + Soil. That’s the value, the real value.
Cities are not designed for people. Cities are designed for commerce -to move goods, just look at the old Detroit. If cities were made for people then they would include more nature. Black, brown and red communities can get liquor all day on every other street corner but ask the corporate raider or politician why it’s so hard to get a Whole Foods or healthier options and they will say something about property value and it being an underserved community. Churches, located on the blocks without the liquor store, have $100,000 commercial grade kitchens that are only used one day per week. Now imagine if one of those churches opened their kitchen the other six days as a culinary training facility or a kitchen for small businesses to work out of?
If these communities are so broke and destitute then why are multibillion dollar corporations with only something to sell of no healthy alternative thriving and continuing to open new locations in those areas? When change does come in the form of gentrification -same street, same houses- then the only difference is the complexion. Pushed out are the Black, Brown and Red. Why didn’t corporations and politicians invest before?
We are all artists, whether we want to admit or not. We must inspire one another above our current conditions. That is what I like about Detroit. Now there is an opportunity to see things built the way they should have been; for people, for living, and not for industry and commerce only. We must be the ones who are the innovators.
The MANTRA (Voice in My Head)
Design the life you want to live and not the one that has been designed for you. That is what this is all about. If I wake up in the morning, then I get another shot to change some shit. That is why I often say, “change some shit.” If you don’t have skin in the game, then it will never have the value it’s supposed to have. It’s like investing in a business, so when I am working with someone to build or redesign a garden they are in the driver’s seat, not me.
Every day is different. I never wanted to create a life of sameness for myself.
5:30AM Wake up tomorrow …. And see what is there and what I can do.
6:00AM Workout for an hour (calisthenics, yoga, or light weights) and then have breakfast. Always seasonal and utilizing something growing in my garden whether it is fruits, vegetables, and/or herbs.
8:00AM Check emails. Work in the garden before my assistant comes in.
12:00PM Whether I am in town or not the day is full on. Italy at Slow Foods, Denver, Colorado speaking at foundations, Sweden’s Eat Food Conference visiting local gardens, or a school in South Central like LOCKE High School where I am putting in a garden. These are full day commitments.
6:00PM+ If I am on the road, then there is always a formal dinner on the back of a speaking engagement. If not, then my day winds down when the sun sets giving me an opportunity to get lost in another kind of culture: art, music, and movies. I collect black movie posters from the1920s to the 1970s.
The MEDITATION (when you think Legacy + Heritage)
My biggest legacy are my sons: Azzedine, Delfin, and Koshin. They are beasts. They are artists! Their narrative impresses me. I listen to them in their interviews and I am like, “who the fuck are you? Yes!” That shit makes me proud. I am happy to be their dad.
Specific to my lane of ‘changing some shit,’ I will never be able to measure the impact of what my work does and that is wild. I got kids in India calling themselves ‘Gangsta Gardeners’ because they have seen me. They are growing food and pushing it forward.
Last year I was at Slow Food International in the Piedmont region of Italy. This Brazilian guy comes up to me and shows me this vacant inner-city lot that they have transformed into a garden with food and flowers. He says that it is because of me. That he, in Brazil, upon seeing my TED Talk (2013) was inspired and now look at what that one seed has done. I know that I don’t really get to see the things I have changed or influenced in real-time, but I know that they are changing and that feels good.
Super Fly (1972) by Curtis Mayfield
Nothing tangible. I want kids to start a movement that forces the elders to provide them with a healthier life alternative. Start a campaign ‘What is in Your Cafeteria?” Shame them into compliance.
I want to see things changed for the better. I don’t know how I got on this path, but when I think back to junior high school I remember wanting to take a cooking class. I went to the Guidance Counselor and she said you can’t, cooking is for girls. I said, “aren’t most chefs men?” I didn’t realize until I was grown that I changed the paradigm. She changed the course admissions process. I was lucky in a sense to have this exchange with a woman who really heard me. It taught me how easily things can be changed if effort is applied. So, let’s change public schools.
Super Fly (1972) by Curtis Mayfield
5 THINGS I CAN'T LIVE WITHOUT
Food: FELIX in Venice Beach (Italian), or some great Thai food