Full disclaimer: This advantaged White boy don’t know nothing about living in South Central Los Angeles.
That said, I’m going to put you onto something “gangsta.” Ron Finley -- South Central LA resident and two-million-hit Ted-Talk-alumnus -- calls it “renegade gardening.” He says, “if you ain’t gardening, you ain’t gangsta.” This is a way to deal with being one of 26 million Americans who live in “food deserts” (residential areas lacking affordable fresh food).
See the film “Can You Dig This?” to learn about Finley, who calls himself a “reluctant activist.” He planted a garden in the strip next to his curb because he could grow himself some food and because it added beauty and a neighborly vibe to his home ground. The government cited him for this illegal action. With some news coverage, this well-spoken man helped get the ordinance changed.
The film weaves-in residents who aren’t as intellectual as Finley, but who are no less part of the message. Through the Compton Community Garden, a young man and young woman have a chance to reseed their lives away from gangs and drugs. A little girl, who her daddy calls a hustler, sells (lemonade-stand-style) veggies she grew. Men in a halfway house, after decades in prison, plant green therapy and comradery.
See “Can You Dig This.” It sure ain’t the whole answer but as Finley says, “To change the community, you have to change the composition of the soil” and “We are the soil.”
Editor’s Note: The following is distilled from a conversation with Delila Vellot, director of the film, “Can You Dig This?”
Chuck Jaffee: How did you get connected with the people in “Can You Dig This?”
Delila Vellot: Research. Time in the field. On the phone with people making a difference in urban gardening. Personal stories and journeys shine through.
CJ: Spicey and Kenya have had quite a tough road. How do you see their chances of really getting to a better place?
DV: The environment of the garden is a respite, an oasis. The possibility of a better life is access to a place like that.
CJ: Quimonie is a trip. What do you make of her chances in life?
DV: She’s a little spitfire. She’s gonna get what she wants from this opportunity. She stood out.
CJ: Ron Finley says if you ain't gardening , you ain't gangsta. What kind of reality and hope did you come away with filming in such a tough neighborhood?
DV: It seems insurmountable, but the simplicity of planting a seed … there’s so much power in it. Maybe it isn’t so hard taking it back on a local level.
CJ: Do you consider yourself an activist first or a filmmaker first?
DV: I’m an artist first. It’s an existential problem. Art can feel very selfish. Aristotle wrote [in “Poetics”] that art’s purpose is to reflect reality.
CJ: Big systemic problems; small tactical solutions: what are your thoughts on what it means to build bridges between the two.
DV: I’m exploring that now, living moment by moment, reaching to make myself better. We’re going to fall down but keep trying to effect the positive. We can all find one another.
[Delia Vellot is working on her next documentary about homelessness.]