How Urban Gardening Can Save Black Communities

A new documentary shows how planting the seeds of social change begins with knowing where your food comes from.

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Nov 30 2015, 9:00pm

All stills from 'Can You Dig This.'

Before the urban farming boom—even before Michelle Obama popularized the phenomena of "food deserts"—there was Ron Finley—a man who calls himself a "gangster gardener," and who started urban gardening on the strip of dirt outside his home in South Los Angeles. In 2013, it was Finley who convinced the LA City Council, after years of debate, to allow fruit and vegetable plots on public parkways.

Los Angeles-based filmmaker Delila Vallot heard about Finley's efforts, and decided to dig past the rhetoric to see if urban gardening was delivering on the hype. Her journey through the gardens of LA's neediest neighborhoods culminates this week in a new documentary, Can You Dig This, which will be available on VOD Tuesday. The documentary, which features Finley, follows four residents of South LA: two 20-somethings who join the Compton Community Garden, a halfway house resident who learns to garden, and an eight-year-old girl who turns her garden into a money-making venture. As each of the subjects struggle to overcome personal hurdles and systemic challenges in their communities, the film focuses on the small-scale victories they get from urban gardening.

On MUNCHIES: This Rooftop Garden Is Feeding Atlanta's Homeless

I spoke with Vallot and Finley about their vision for the film, the importance of having a hand in food production, and how gardening can be a seed for social transformation.

VICE: Delila, what inspired you to make this project?
Delila Vallot: I wanted to explore more about Ron, and his very cool diatribe about changing lives through planting seeds. I wanted to find out first-hand if that was real or not. Through the process of shooting him, I realized that while there were some people who knew him through this TED talk and all the buzz, there are a lot of people who might be encountering him for the first time. So what I wanted to do was see a day in the life of Ron, to have him talk to us as if you were going to someone's house that you really look up to, that you want to have an intimate conversation with. That was my idea as far as shooting Ron, and I wanted to have representatives of his ideas in the movie—actual test cases, if you will, who are examples of his message.

So how did you find those test cases? The film depicts four subjects at vulnerable points in their life, dealing with very difficult challenges.
Vallot: I did a lot of research. It took me at least six months to get to where people trusted me enough to start to open up for me to realize that they would be characters. I did spend a lot of time with gardeners in gardens, and a lot of time on the phone doing research.

One of the key things I learned while shooting the doc was that if I didn't open up about real stuff about my life, they had no reason to either. People don't necessarily want to be on camera, even though we think that they do. They didn't necessarily care—they have their lives to lead. It was about forging real friendships with people, and capturing those friendships.

"Billions and billions of dollars grow on trees every day. We need to have people realize that this apple you just grew is currency." — Ron Finley

By the end of the film, Quimonie—a young girl in the projects—isn't just helping her family eat better; she's helping pay the bills. Do you see the future of urban gardening as becoming a model for local businesses?
Ron Finley: No doubt. That's exactly where it's going. You're showing someone life skills, you're showing them how to take care of themselves, and you're showing them how you can grow resources. We've been taught all our lives that money doesn't go on trees—but it does. Billions and billions of dollars grow on trees every day. We need to have people realize that this apple you just grew is currency. It's not about being frivolous and getting your hands dirty—it's about changing people's lives and employing people. This is a way you can be self-sustaining. That's what to me this is about.

What are some of the obstacles in trying to scale up gardens into businesses?
Finley: The biggest obstacle has been people. [Our] culture is not built for you to be sustainable, to be an entrepreneur. As far as I'm concerned, this culture's built for slavery. That's for everybody—I don't care what color you are. If you don't have a hand in your food, you're a slave. It's something that's so important to you, yet you're getting someone else to do it for you.

My thing is to change the culture so people realize how important this is, and to get people to have reverence for the soil, what comes out of it, and what goes into it. People don't want to get it because the current system serves them. Some people are happy with the status quo, some people are happy with being politically correct; I'm not. Being politically correct is what got us into this shit. It's time for people to be renegades; it's time for people to say, 'I'm tired of this, dude.' We gotta change this. I know a ten-year-old who is 300 pounds. It's not cool. It has to change.

Los Angeles has 26 square miles of vacant lots. Is there any kind of initiative to open that land for public use?
Finley: I would love to be able to do that, but this is LA, where land is a premium. Nobody's just trying to give it up. Hopefully some opportunities are developing, where we have the ear of some politicians that say they want to make it happen, and use this land to put people to work and change their lives. But something's gonna happen—if we have to take it, something's gonna happen.

Vallot: Is it the bureaucracy that's in the way?

Finley: Oh, totally. The bureaucracy injures everything. But the fact that we're all having this conversation says a lot. People are waking up and being inspired to know they can change their lives.

"You feed them this bullshit food every day, and then expect them to excel. How? They're not getting the nourishment for their bodies or their brains to develop." — Ron Finley

Many of the challenges the film's subjects are dealing with—from unemployment to being prejudicially targeted by law enforcement—intersect with concerns raised by Black Lives Matter activists across the country. Do you see urban gardening as a way that black communities can organize to remedy some of those problems?
Vallot: You'll notice in the film I really tried to leave everything with an inspirational message, because I feel like when we talk about things that are wrong and negative, that creates a recording in our brains and we keep going to a place where we're victims. So the idea was to leave it with all the positive things that gardeners can do, and bring up the fact that there aren't enough gardens in black neighborhoods, and that it does create community and all of its positive benefits. That will create more positivity, and that's a form of activism—passive activism—and that's what I stand behind. Well, Ron feels that it's not passive activism.

Finley: Why I do what I do is everything you just mentioned: the fucked up school systems, the bad food that they're feeding these kids, the lack of opportunity. African Americans are 13.2 percent of the US population. How the fuck are we 70 to 80 percent of the people who're in prison? That means I'm a crime machine, dude! I'm robbing this person, I just broke into this house, and I'm assaulting someone and stealing their car if those numbers make any fucking sense whatsoever. They don't! People are waking up and seeing that, man. These kids don't even know that they're being set up, from birth. You feed them this bullshit food every day, and then expect them to excel. How? They're not getting the nourishment for their bodies or their brains to develop. How are they supposed to compete with kids in Japan, or Spokane, Washington? They can't. You're telling me that they don't know this? You're telling me this isn't by design?

Vallot: We're talking about breaking the cycle. And it does sound overly simplistic, but by surrounding ourselves with a lot of healthy greens, beautifying our neighborhoods, and doing something that is actually feasible—planting a seed in the ground—I saw people's lives changing. When I went into the garden on Long Beach Boulevard, which is filled with prostitution, drug dealing, and all that stuff, I saw that that garden was an oasis, and you really do feel safer there. It's something that really does create change.

Can You Dig This premieres on VOD December 1.

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