Ron Finley. Guerrilla gardener. Leader

This elegant talk by artist and designer Ron Finley was by far the highlight of my experience at TED last week.  I find it inspiring on so many levels — here are a few:

I am inspired by the way Ron Finley went back to first principles to find a solution to the challenges he witnessed in his neighborhood, South Central.  In his hometown, the obesity rate is ten times that of more affluent areas located only miles away.  Goods and services are popping up to deal with the problems brought on by obesity, but they only really deal with the symptoms, and not the root cause.  As Finley says in this talk, “Food is the problem and the solution”.  Yes, indeed.  Having now listened to this talk three times, I can’t help but admire the way he looked deeply at the challenge, and with a designer’s mind started to build solutions to enable people to change fundamental aspects of their behaviors which lead to illness and further poverty.  Dreaming of and planting a Food Forest is nothing if not an act of inspiration.

I am inspired by the design of his talk itself.  These days it’s relatively easy to mimic the “standard” format of a TED talk: lots of compelling images and words projected up behind the speaker, all there to push the narrative forward.  But nailing a talk the way Finley does here is actually very difficult.  Notice the way his photos and screen texts correspond exactly to whatever he’s trying to communicate at that moment.  He avoids the use of inauthentic stock imagery, and the few words projected up on the screen correspond to only those select ideas he wants to have stick with you: PLANT SOME SHIT!

I am inspired by the way he is helping his neighbors to design their own lives.  Especially the children.  He talks about the importance of manufacturing your own reality, versus robotically accepting the path designed for you by others.  As I listened to Finley speak in Long Beach, my mind immediately connected to this amazing statement written by my colleague Tim Brown a few years ago.  Beyond immediate impact of helping people marooned in a food desert eat in ways that are building healthier bodies and minds, Finley is enabling those people to create intent in their lives, and act upon it.  The act of designing and bringing something wonderful to life, be it a garden, a house, or one’s own self, is nothing but the continuous expression of mindful intent.

Above all, I am inspired by Ron Finley himself and his passion for action.  As I’ve written before, my definition of leadership is very simple: it’s the act of making something happen which otherwise would not have happened.  In my book, Ron Finley’s guerrilla, renegade, let’s-not-just-talk-let’s-do-something-now approach to gardening is the triple distilled essence of leadership, and that’s pretty damn inspiring.

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