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Nature Is A Human Right: Resistance Is Fertile

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Nature Is A Human Right: Resistance Is Fertile

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As part of our Sea Change topic into food and farming systems we are delighted to share, Resistance is Fertile, an extract from Nature is a Human Right edited by Ellen Miles.

This chapter features Ron Finley in conversation with Tayshan Hayden-Smith exploring elitism, racism and why everyone should have the right to grow their own food.

Francesca Brooking

Wed 15 Jun 2022

In 2010, Los Angeles fashion designer Ron Finley set out to fix two problems in his South-Central neighborhood: the lack of fresh food (he had to drive 45 minutes to get an organic tomato) and the neglected soil verges along the streets.

After planting fresh herbs, fruit, and vegetables on his parkway, Ron was written up for “gardening without a permit” by the city’s authorities.

He fought back, and won. He’s now known as the “Gangsta Gardener” and teaches communities how to transform food deserts into food sanctuaries.

Trees surrounding a building

Ron is known as the "Gangsta Gardener"

Football (soccer) player Tayshan Hayden-Smith was born and raised in North Kensington’s Lancaster West council estate.

As a teenager, his coach nicknamed him the “English Neymar,” but becoming a dad at 17, losing his mother, and the tragic Grenfell disaster of 2017, led him toward another, unexpected goal: empowering communities through gardening.

After bringing residents together to co-create a peace garden, on their own terms, Tayshan has a new nickname: the Grenfell Guerrilla Gardener.

He now runs a nonprofit, Grow2Know, helping young Londoners learn, grow, and heal through gardening.

In 2021, the two green-thumbed rebels met over video call to discuss how gardening can provide power and freedom to the communities that society is failing.

Salad growing in a planter
“We should be round the table, influencing and dictating what these spaces look like”

RON: Why do I have to be first ... because I’m Black? I’m kidding!

Look, I do gangsta gardening, because gardening is gangsta. I want to change what people consider as being badass as being dope.

To change the whole vernacular of what a gangsta is—a gangsta protects, a gangsta provides, a gangsta understands the intrinsic contents of the soil and what soil represents to everybody around the world.

And we’re going against some true gangsters—politicians and corporations—who really don’t want this to happen, because it’s taking money out of their pockets.

That’s why this is gangsta. Because it’s dangerous.

Plants and graffiti - an urban gardening scene

Ron wants to change what people consider to be badass

TAYSHAN: I started off, similarly to you, Ron, going against what the “powers that be” would want and taking back our spaces without permission, because why do we need to ask permission if it’s already land that’s meant for us?

Now that I’ve explored a few things, had a few conversations, I’m really passionate about placemaking, putting community at the forefront of urban design decisions.

The typical “consultation” from the local authority is them putting out something really shabby, really half-hearted, and going, “Oh, no one really was interested, so we’re going to go ahead anyways.”

Things are being imposed on us because of agendas that are beyond our control. We should be round the table, influencing and dictating what these spaces look like.

That’s how we revolutionize the way that we engage with our spaces, because at the moment it’s like being done to us rather than done with us.

London skyline with plants and people in the foreground
“I’m really passionate about placemaking, putting community at the forefront of urban design decisions.”

RON: Yeah. It’s real simple: if you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu. We’ve been on the menu for far too long.

We’ve got to get to the point where people have a hand in what they’re being served, rather than, “You people need this.” I asked a group of mayors, “Why are underserved communities underserved?”

They tried, “Oh, you know, that’s a long answer and it’s hard ...” and I said, actually, it’s not hard and it’s not long and it’s not complicated.

Underserved communities are underserved because you don’t fucking serve them.

TAYSHAN: One hundred per cent. And to add to that, the language they use is completely alien as well. And that’s not by accident.

These things are not by accident. Experiencing Grenfell opened my eyes to politics, but you go into these meetings, into these spaces, and they speak in a language that makes no sense to someone who has grown up in an environment like me.

We’ve got to normalize these conversations and, like you say, make it cool, make it interesting. It already is interesting, but it’s just about conveying it in the language of the people who actually need these spaces more than anyone else.

Even the word “horticulture” is off-putting for me, because it doesn’t sound like anything to do with what I’m doing.

Herbs growing in a planter in the sun

It's time to change the narrative around gardening

RON: Right! It’s about shifting the narrative.

You know, I’ve been to a few [community gardens] in the UK and here, and there’s this idea that it’s for old people, “Ladies that lunch,” or grannies in their gardens. We have to put the value back into the soil.

For young people, the latest iPhone, or the new Jordans, or whatever the hell it may be, are valued over life.

Here, some of those things can get you killed if you have them, because we got people valuing that dumb shit instead of valuing air and the earth and each other.

So yeah, how do we make gardening just as sexy as McDonald’s? That’s what we need.

All of this negative stuff—the tobacco companies, the alcohol companies—how do we take their marketing and apply it to this? Because their marketing works! We know that shit works.

So how do we put another product in front of it?

Beatroot leaves growing in a planter

Gardens should tell a story about how they impact people

TAYSHAN: I mean, for me, I stumbled into gardening as a young, naive man, with no prior experience.

As a city boy, the only reason I’d ever been outdoors and in gardens, so to speak, was playing football [soccer] in the park.

When I started with the Grenfell garden—I was 19 at the time and trying to look cool, you know, trying to be trendy—I felt a bit embarrassed and ashamed; I felt uncomfortable because I don’t really come across as your typical gardener.

It’s inspired me to change the way we see gardeners.

In the horticultural scene in the UK at the moment, there’s a big focus on the aesthetics, the look of something.

The flower shows are the pinnacle of that. They’ve got a section called the “community [garden],” but it’s not the main thing. Why are the community spaces not the main focus of the horticultural show?

For me, a garden tells a story of how it impacts people, rather than one person saying, “Oh, this is what a garden should look like.” How did it change people? How did it empower people?

The most inspiring thing to me is seeing when, like, 30 kids have built a garden—it might not look amazing, but it’s impacted and inspired those children in so many ways.

Geen tomatoes growing on a plant

Growing food is growing money

RON: And if we bring it to kids at a very early age, they’re going to look at everything different.

They’re going to look at what truly has value, they’re going to look at money different, because they’re going to realize the soil is a resource.

You know, it’s not just dirt—life comes out of this. It’s going to teach them that, “Oh, I put this one bean in and now I have 100? What about if I put 50 of those back in the ground, how many will I get?”

From one tiny seed, you can get a tree that’s going to give you fruit for 300 years. You want to talk about rate of return? That’s power. Growing food is growing money.

These are the kinds of things that we need to be teaching in school. If that was taught in schools, it would just change everything, man.

We would have a reverence for all the resources around us. But what happened in school—and I always tell this story—we had this petri dish with a wet paper towel and we put a seed in it, and we watched it grow on the side of the glass.

We watched the seed totally destroy itself to create new life, sprout leaves, and start becoming a whole plant. And it’s like, damn! But then we were told, “OK, next project.” It was like, whoa, wait, where’s the sexy part?

You leaving out the sexy part in this? Why don’t you tell us to get that plant and put it in the ground, so we can have a thousand more of these beans?

Imagine just going through your whole life without those lessons. And that’s what they did to us. We didn’t have nowhere to put that seed.

We didn’t have a garden. It was nothing but asphalt and fences and concrete.

And it’s like you said, that shit’s by design, it’s got to be, it’s not happenstance.

Gardens, growing things, the environment, nature—I think that’s the solution to so many different problems

TAYSHAN: Definitely. It’s mad because some of the most entrepreneurial people that I know are the ones that are trapped in, the ones that are gangstas, the ones that are on the roads.

They’ll make so much money out of, you know, obviously, whatever they’re doing.

But actually, if you just shift that conversation slightly to plants and soil and food, they’ve already got the intuition to turn that into something that they could make a massive amount of profit on.

It’s there, but it’s just about the narrative change in that conversation—going, “Actually, you could do this, and not only are you empowering yourself, but you’re taking power from the powers that be.”

RON: And you don’t got to worry about going to prison doing it.

Herbs and basil growing in plant pots

Growing food is powerful

TAYSHAN: Exactly. Although, that’s debatable ...

Can I tell you the maddest story? I was on the phone the other day with the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS), talking about the Chelsea Flower Show garden that we’re looking to do in May, which is all about the Mangrove Nine, and raising awareness of their story and the police brutality that they faced, right.

And, lo and behold, guess who comes up to my car, on foot, bangs on the window? A policeman. A policeman bangs on my window and says, “Routine traffic stop, can you pull aside?” Half an hour later, I’m still there.

They’ve completely stripped my car out, taken everything out of my pockets and told me that I look like I’m on something.

Meanwhile, the RHS are still wondering what the hell is going on.

It was mad because ... this story about the Mangrove Nine, I don’t know if you’re familiar with it? The Mangrove Restaurant was a Caribbean restaurant in Notting Hill where, when the Windrush generation migrated from the Caribbean to the UK after World War II, they would go.

And the police would attack them.

The Mangrove Nine were a group that stood up to the justice system and proved that the police institution was systemically racist at the time.

So I’m talking to the RHS about racial inequality, a garden that we’re building around racial inequality and—

RON: And you get stopped.

Plants and tomatoes growing in a greenhouse

Gardening can be the solution to many different problems

TAYSHAN: I get stopped. Right up the road from the restaurant, where the door was kicked in 100 times.

It motivates me about what I want my kids to grow up in. I don’t want them to feel how I feel. I don’t want them to be afraid.

Going back to our roots, going back to the foundation of life—gardens, growing things, the environment, nature—I think that’s the solution to so many different problems.

And I don’t think we need to go to anyone asking for permission to change these things.

We just need to change them without relying on those systems, because they’ve let us down for how many years? Why is it going to change now?

RON: It works perfectly; it’s a well-oiled machine. I mean, and think, you’re talking to the biggest organization probably in the world, as far as flowers go, and you get stopped by the cops.

Man in overalls tending to a garden of salad - nature is a human right

Gardening provides a space for conversation and change

TAYSHAN: Whether I’m speaking about a garden or not, I’m still getting stopped, you know. And so for me, the problem doesn’t go away.

I don’t think we need to go to anyone groveling desperately, saying, “Please, please, please, let’s do this.”

RON: “Can I have more porridge, please, sir? Please?” No, get the hell out of here!

TAYSHAN: We need to build from the ground up. We need to speak to people to our left and to our right.

And actually, that in itself invokes a lot of change already.

It changes perceptions; we’re stronger together. Gardening and gardens are spaces that enable those conversations to happen.

Not only that, but there’s so much education you gain. I guess now there’s loads of community gardening initiatives.

There’s still a lack of resources for those community gardening initiatives, but it’s like everyone’s trying to jump on it. I don’t know how it is in the US, but in the UK—

RON: Yeah, it’s the same. All of a sudden, it’s, “Ooh, this is new, and it’s fun!” This ain’t no damn fad—it ain’t a fucking fad—that’s what people got to realize.

We’re talking about people’s lives here.

For someone to be able to eat, for someone to be healthy, for someone not to have to worry about their next meal, to be self-sustaining—that’s like right here in the bottom level of our needs.

What’s highbrow is this shit is by design.

The fact that people are sick, or poor, or homeless—somebody is benefiting from that.

You think they can’t fix that shit? You can send somebody to Mars, but you can’t get people off the street? Stop!

Herbs growing out of planters
“There’s a real conversation to be had about gardening being a necessity to survive rather than a luxury”

TAYSHAN: Exactly. There’s a real conversation to be had about gardening and horticulture being a necessity to survive rather than a luxury.

As a father of two young children, those are the lessons that I’m ensuring that my kids are fully aware of.

RON: The empowerment that gives these kids, that they can take certain things into their own hands; it’s going to make you look at life itself differently.

What we’re trained to do is be on a hamster wheel. It’s like, you think you’re successful? No, you’re on a hamster wheel, dude. Get off that wheel and see what happens to you. I’m not doing none of that shit.

I’m not hustling or grinding—I’m breathing and enjoying this beautiful space.

What I found is, a lot of times when you’re in these communities, they don’t appreciate beauty because it’s not around them.

They don’t get to see it. That’s for other people. So you get accustomed to things being, you know, ugly, gray, it becomes your normal—to see ugly shit.

Just like if you’re around violence all the time.

A pumpkin surrounded by its big leaves growing on the ground

Gardening should be about how to survive rather than a luxury

TAYSHAN: So true. It’s all about access, isn’t it? If you don’t have access to these things, then how will you even know that they exist?

If you have no access to this information, then how are you going to use it and allow it to inspire you?

A lot of my boys live in tower blocks [apartment blocks]. If you live on the 15th floor of a tower block [apartment block], and all your parents are worried about is how to put your next meal on the table, then how are you going to know about these things?

Why are you going to be interested?

I was so blessed to have my mum.

Through, you know, adverse circumstances—my mum was very ill for half my life—that’s what inspired her to take a holistic view on the way that we lived, and bring nature into that.

On reflection, because my mum’s no longer with us, I kind of carry her in my legacy of gardens. My passion for gardening and horticulture, or whatever you want to call it—I call it nature—stems from my mum.

Unless you have that influence, unless you have someone in your life that’s going to say, “Actually, this is what you can do. This is interesting.

These are lessons that you can learn from this,” then you won’t know. We need more people that are not scared to say, look, I like flowers, I like growing shit.

Sign saying community garden on it

Tayshan's passion for gardening stems from his mum

RON: Hell yes! Yes, without question.

It’s hard to bring people in because, with us Black folks here in the States, we had, um, what was that shit called? Oh, yeah. Slavery. We had that.

And so Black people ain’t trying to touch no soil. Why? Because it’s seen as akin to slavery. And I’m like, no, no, buddy, that shit is akin to freedom.

So that’s a job that we have to do with people of color, period. They have a disdain for soil because of the trauma that was involved in the soil.

So we got to say, no, no, no, no, no—that’s where the gold comes from, that’s where life comes from, that’s where life goes ... back to the soil.

Imagine, if you own the soil, all that you could have. Imagine yourself owning the soil. And that’s hard.

Person holding radishes in an urban garden

Soil is akin to freedom

TAYSHAN: Even for myself personally, I had to ask some real deep questions about myself, about my masculinity, my area, my environment—everything that I’d been taught previously.

When I stood in that garden for the first time and I had my hands in the soil, I had to ask myself, how did I get to this? How did I get here?

What’s really funny is that a lot of my footballer [soccer player] friends (who, you know, live lives where it’s all very materialistic and will never publicly want to be seen to ask me about what I’m doing), are slyly like, “Yo Taysh ... what’s that gardening stuff about?” You know, like ... “How do I grow tomatoes?”

It’s never in front of everyone—it’s almost like we’re doing a little deal on the side.

That’s a first step, but what I want to get to eventually is everyone screaming and shouting about it because, like you said, gardening is sexy. It’s just about the angle that you approach it.

With the pinnacle of horticulture being the flower shows, that’s not really something for me to aspire to. That’s not something for my mates to aspire to.

It’s very elitist and exclusive. And it’s kind of all in, all out. At the moment, a lot of people I know are all out, and there’s not much in between or there’s not access to much in between, if that makes sense.

RON: It makes total sense. I was invited to Chelsea once, but then I was disinvited for some reason.

TAYSHAN: Yeah, I wonder why ... you might start just growing stuff there.

You might sprinkle a few seeds here and species there. I mean, that’s what needs to be done, though. It needs to be flipped on its head completely.

A man tending to plants in a planter

Gardening is elitist and exclusive

RON: All of a sudden, they “didn’t have the budget.” Some bullshit, I don’t know. Look—there’s a dragonfly and a hummingbird literally right next to each other. Can you see that?

It was like they were communicating with each other for a second—you see it?

TAYSHAN: Ooh yeah, yeah, wow. I see it.

RON: I mean this ... kids don’t get to see that. Shit, I’ve never seen that! I’ve never seen a hummingbird and a dragonfly interacting, you know.

TAYSHAN: That’s beautiful; it is beautiful. That is the best office that anyone could ask for really.

RON: It’s really interesting how, if you design these spaces for nature, you’re designing a space for so many things to thrive.

I tell people, “We are nature,” so you’re designing the spaces for us, too. It’s going to help the community, it’s going to help humanity, but it’s also going to help build this planet.

I don’t have plans to go, “OK, let’s go trash another planet!” When you get there, you know you have to maintain that planet too, right? So ... why not just fix this? Again, people are making money from it.

Corporations are making money from it.

People should have a right to live and they should be given the tools so they can live.

If people can support themselves, and take the power away from those corporations, we save the planet and we save ourselves, too. But then, how do we get people involved?

That’s one of the hardest things, because we’ve been detached from it for most of our lives.

Gardens saved my life, and saved people I know

TAYSHAN: It’s difficult. It’s like, that same family we’re talking about, that lives on the 15th floor of an estate, how are they going to acquire land to grow? How are they going to acquire the resources? How are they going to find time?

How are they going to keep their job while doing these things?

We really do need to rock the boat a bit, because people aren’t going to like it.

They aren’t going to engage, they’re going to try and refute it. But actually, at the end of the day, gardens can save lives.

I feel like I’m not meant to be here; I’m not meant to be talking about gardens. But gardens saved my life, and saved people I know.

And all of a sudden, the way that I see things is completely different.

I used to just walk through life, down my street, where I live, and not take in what exactly was happening.

This journey has allowed me to realize that nothing is by accident, nothing is by coincidence. There were several people, several layers of decision-making that led to me living in the council house, why my space looks like this, why there’s no trees there, why I’m not able to grow food on my street.

There’s several barriers and limits that I wasn’t meant to see. I’m not even meant to see that that’s a barrier. I’m meant to just go along with it.

It’s all about making people wake up to these things—that’s when the conversation can happen. It’s just about getting involved.

It’s not all or nothing—there’s so much in between that we can explore. And, yeah, plant some shit.

Pile of carrots, courgettes and vegetables

Take your life and health into your own hands

RON: Go plant some shit, for real. Take your health and your life into your own hands and realize that growing food is a life skill. Gardening is your pathway to freedom.

TAYSHAN: It’s a universal language.

RON: And compost. Compost, compost, compost.

TAYSHAN: Let’s plan our Chelsea Flower Show takeover.

RON: No doubt. Let’s make it happen.

TAYSHAN: Nice one brother. Be safe.

From Nature is a Human Right: Why We're Fighting for Green in a Grey World edited by Ellen Miles, Dorling Kindersley Books, £14.99.

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