Wednesday, April 25, 2007

All for Green, and Green for All: An Interview with Van Jones

When I went to see Van Jones speak for the first time at the Green Festival in November 2002 about, "Green Jobs, Not Packed Jails," people in the States were just starting to lift their heads up from a year of fear and despair after September 11th. Hearing Van speak was probably one of the first moments I felt hope again for our future, and energized to make the world a better place. I have heard him speak several times since, and each time, my hope is renewed.

Consequently, it is a special treat for me to share with you the transcript of my interview with him for the Big Vision Podcast.

Van Jones is the co-founder and President of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights. He has won many honors, including the 1998 Reebok International Human Rights Award, the International Ashoka Fellowship, selection as a World Economic Forum Young Global Leader, and the Rockefeller Foundation Next Generation Leadership Fellowship.

To start off, I asked Van to talk about the Ella Baker Center's Reclaim the Future program and how Oakland could become a model green city.
Van Jones: One of the biggest things happening in the country right now is this sudden passion and concern about global warming and the climate crisis; that and the war are really two of the biggest issues. One of the things that we realize is that when you try to talk to people of color, low-income people, marginalized folks about global warming, it is not high on the agenda. "Somebody else has got to save the polar bears, I've got to save myself," is sort of the basic attitude. It is actually really understandable. People, when you have a lot of crisis in your life, hearing about an even bigger crisis is just depressing. If you have a lot of opportunity, and then you hear about the crisis, well then maybe you get motivated to say, "We've got to do something."

So, our formula for engaging people is, if you are affluent and you have a lot of opportunity, you are a good person to hear about this big global warming crisis; but if you already have a bunch of crises, you are a good person to hear about the opportunities within a green economy. A post-carbon, clean energy, renewable economy will be an economy that has more jobs, because renewable technologies and sustainable ways of doing things are simply more labor-intensive. You only need five guys in lab coats to run a whole nuclear power plant, but if you are going with solar pad power, or if you are going with biofuels or whatever, it is just a lot more work, a lot more jobs.

So, that's our kind of big-picture understanding of what is going on. We have this big shift to a clean energy, post-carbon, renewable economy. Our question is, will this green wave lift all boats? How do we make sure? Do we build a green economy that is strong enough to lift people out of poverty, a green economy that has green pathways out of poverty for people who want to become green-collar workers and green entrepreneurs and owners and marketers? How do you do that?

So, for us, that is kind of like our bigger picture. We say, one way to do that is to kind of focus on Oakland, and make sure that there are people who are being trained, who are peered, to be a part of this new green economy right here in Oakland. So, we have been working very hard with the City Council, and with community colleges and local labor unions and others to come up with a proposal that will start in September as an actual program called "The Green Jobs Corps."

What the Green Jobs Corps will be, it will begin training urban youth, Oakland's youth, in the jobs of the future. We don't want our young people to be in the back of the line for the last century's pollution-based economy. We want our young people to be in the front of the line for the new clean and green jobs. But if you are a young person, how do you learn how to fix a hybrid car? How do you learn how to put up solar panels? How do you learn how to double-pane glass so that buildings leak less energy?

Well, the reality is, if you know how to double-pane that glass, you are on your way to becoming a glazier--that's a union job. People who put up solar panels, you can be in the United Electrical Workers Union. You've got to be almost an electrical engineer to do that the right way. That's a green pathway out of poverty.

So, we want for Laney College and the Peralta Community College system to be aligned with the job opportunities of the future, so the Green Jobs Corps represents that commitment on the part of the local community colleges. It also represents some pretty smart thinking on the part of our City Council.

The big energy companies ripped off California a few years ago. Oakland, among other places, sued, got a four-point-something million dollar settlement. We are going to use some of that money to train some of the young people in energy conservation, in renewable fuels. So we have got a funding source that is secure and we have also got the City Council, they haven't taken a vote yet, but all the members seem to be very supportive.

So, our view is that this Green Jobs Corps is the first step towards making Oakland a global green city that has our young people actively engaged in greening the economy, rebooting and retrofitting Oakland. When a country has to get off of its basic energy source--oil--and come up with something completely new, that is a huge opportunity. It's not just an opportunity for people who are concerned about clean air and global warming, it is just a big opportunity, period.

It's like if you are in a relationship with somebody and you break up with them, that's a good time to start going to the gym and quit smoking. I mean, if you make one big change you might as well change everything. So, it's like, we're breaking up with oil, let's break up with some racism and some poverty, and just all the other stuff that we don't want. Let's just keep going, expand the coalition that is fighting global warming to include the people who need a new opportunity in life.
Britt Bravo: What are some eco-equity success stories from Oakland and other cities and communities?
Van Jones: Majora Carter in the South Bronx, with the Sustainable South Bronx project, has really demonstrated that you can bring together lots and lots of usually hostile stakeholders to create green opportunity in urban America. What she did was, growing up in South Bronx, that's kind of the dumping ground for all of New York, she said, "Hey, I want to turn this into a recycling center. I want to create green space. I want to reclaim the waterfront and make it beautiful." And she was able to get millions of dollars and support from all kinds of players to actually begin to green, of all places, the South Bronx.

Certainly, People's Grocery here in West Oakland is something that is celebrated as a model of bringing environmental solutions to people who need them. It is a mobile market. It is basically a van that brings organic agriculture, organic food, directly into the inner city, for lack of a better term. West Oakland has lots and lots of liquor stores, very few grocery stores; and so they bring, in this kind of biodiesel van, healthy organic food from local growers. It is a great idea.

When you look at Majora Carter, when you look at Malaika Edwards and Brahm Ahmadi from People's Grocery, when you look at some of these people, they really are the new environmental heroes and she-roes of our age, because those are the people who are not only sounding the alarm about the problems, they also are coming up with the solutions, and then the solutions are not only for the affluent, who can afford to pay that super environmental premium on certain products, but the people who are really low income, poor, struggling.

That is really the intersection. Can you go from problem to solution, and can you go from an eco-chic politics that engages the elite, to more of an eco-populist politics that engages everybody else. I am very excited about what we are seeing beginning to develop.
Britt: What are some of the challenges to making this happen?
Van: Well, one of the big challenges is, even though we have Democrats in Congress now, they are very shy about investment, about making big public investments and things that are for the public good. And that is a big problem because in order for us to make sure that there are green pathways out of poverty, you know, the market is not going to do that by itself. The government needs to get involved. The government doesn't need to put everybody to work necessarily, though it may get to that point.

Certainly, the government needs to get involved with the job training, with work force development, with creating clean technology training centers in every public high school, in doing the things that began to prepare this new generation for the jobs and the entrepreneurial opportunities of a new period. And that costs money. And the Democrats want to be the fiscal conservatives in 2008 who want to run against Bush's mega deficit.

And I think that is fine, but the problem with that is that when you just say we are going to do all this stuff with, you know capping trade on carbon and that kind of stuff, and you don't do things that also give, not just the rich people who can invest and make money in that market, but also working class and poor people a stake, you set yourself up for backlash.

When things don't work out perfectly, or when more sacrifice is called for, or when the price of fuel goes up, or whatever happens, then you set yourself up for backlash, and that is the big concern. You know, we need to have a policy that says, "All for green, and green for all." We can't just expect working class people, poor people and people of color to do as we are told with regard to littering, or whatever, and have no stake in the positive things that are coming down the pipe.

So, I think that the Democrats need to be willing to invest in things that will pay back a hundred times over the long term. If you weatherize millions of buildings for low income people, and give young people jobs to do that, well, you have just solved your crime problem, you are saving lots of money on energy, you don't have to build more and more, you know, power plants - there are lots of savings there. But there is an up front investment. So, the investment shyness of the Democrats is a barrier.

The other barrier is, because businesses are designed to make money, and it is a stretch for them, "How am I going to make money and also honor the Earth?" it is a burden, at this point, to say, "And I have got to give jobs to people that arehard to employ." That is a big challenge, and again this has to be public/private.

The government has to be willing to step up and say, "Here is a young man, young woman, they are coming home from prison. We spend all this money housing them and feeding them. We are going to spend this money now to help them get job ready, to take on some of the burden of their first three months of employment to make them a more enticing job candidate. We are going to do those things that will make it easy for business to do the right thing."

Unfortunately, we have a government that is on the side of the problem makers in the US economy. The government is on the side of the war mongers, the polluters, the clear cutters, the incarcerators. The people in the economy who make the problems have the support, the subsidies, and everything else from the government.

The problem solvers in the economy, the eco-entrepreneurs, the green business people, the people who are trying to do solar power, the people who are trying to do biodiesel - those people get pennies, if anything, of support from governments - state, local or federal. That is the political challenge. It is to change the balance of power in the country, so that the government, in the middle of this huge crisis, is on the side of the problem solvers and not the problem makers.
Britt: What gives you hope that these changes will happen?
Van: Well, we are on the right side of history with this one, I mean at the end of the day, we are on a completely unsustainable course as a society. Economically, politically, environmentally, spiritually - you just can't imagine that you live on a disposable planet where you've got disposable kids that you throw in prison and disposable species that you throw in the trash can.

So, change has to come, and the leadership challenge, I think, for people of color, especially those of us who are concerned about the poor, is to try to offer leadership and hope to the whole in a way that centers the people who most need that hope. There is a way you can do politics where you can say, "Well, I'm concerned about these people that have been left out, and I'm mad at everybody else," and you polarize, and you actually reinforce the isolation dynamics that you are most upset about.

There is another way to do politics and that is what we are trying to find our way towards. Is a politics of hope and solidarity and inclusion that is constantly looking for ways to expand the circle and include more people in solving the problems, and I think that our way works better.

I think that when we have had our meetings here at the Ella Baker Center, there are people from the Mayor's Office, the City Council, Chamber of Commerce, Labor Council and people who don't get along with each other, people who fight all the time, but when they come in this building, and we sit down and we think, "How are we going to get these people off the streets and into work that is beautiful and dignified and will help solve the biggest problem in the history of the world - how can we give these young people that mission?" It is a completely different conversation. People are quiet, they listen, they are respectful, they offer each other support.

I am convinced that this way of doing politics, where you put the poor, the marginalized, people from distressed communities in the center--don't put them in the margin, "See, we are not going to deal with the poor people, they are scary, you know, we will build a majority and then we will help you later." No, no no. Put it right up front and be constructive with real solutions that can help everybody. I think that is a better way to do politics, so I think that we will eventually win over both parties, or all three parties to this approach, and I don't think that there is any other approach that is going to work.

I also have been very very blessed. I grew up in the rural south, went to public schools there. Then I went to Yale for law school, fancy Ivy League, East Coast, intellectual, all this stuff. Then I moved to the Bay Area, radical, communists, anarchists, environmentalists, any other "ists" you can think of, friends and circles and involvement. I feel like I have kind of triangulated the country. I know what it is like to grow up in the heartland of the country with malls and Wal-Mart and Taco Bell being your exotic food. I know what it is like to be on the East Coast and I know what it is like to be out here.

What I have seen is that most people, given the opportunity, would rather help other people, than hurt other people. They would rather see a problem get solved, than a problem be described, and most people feel better when they see unlikely coalitions working. I don't care who you are, if you are a Christian and you find yourself in a situation where you are working well with people who are Jewish, or are Buddhists, or who aren't Christian, there is something about that that is deeply affirming.

If you are a business person you can find yourself working side by side with somebody that is from the not for profit community. There is something about this that is deeply affirming. There is something positively addictive about working constructively in big coalitions and cooperatively, and I believe that that is a solar power for our political movement, and I think the diesel that we have been burning in terms of this politics of confrontation and accusation and stuff like that, both on the Left and on the Right, I think that that is quickly becoming a thing of the past.
Britt: You said in a talk that you gave a while ago that this country needs a reverence movement. What did you mean by that?
Van: Aqeela Sherrills, who is a huge peace leader in Watts who helped to negotiate and broker the first gang truce back right after Rodney King. He's the person who coined that term, and I always give him credit for that term because I think it is a very powerful term. People get hung up when you say, "Religious this," or, "Moral that," or even, "Spiritual," that pushes some buttons for people.

What Aqeela has been trying to say is that it is that quality of real reverence for life that will keep you from shooting somebody in the neighborhood, or that will keep you from destroying the planet environmentally based on your consumer choices. That ability to stand in awe and reverence for what a precious gift it is, just to be alive, and just to share this planet with so many other beautiful sister and brother species and nations and neighborhoods. Just that quality of reverence, that is really the gateway through which we can begin to rediscover our capacity to do good.

We have kind of been in this trance of consumption and competition, and consumption and competition have their place, but it has just been out of balance, and the idea of protection and nurturance and cooperation and solidarity, and really believing that there is something precious about everything and everyone, that is not too fashionable right now. That's kind of corny, and I think there's a way to make it cool again to care, I think, re-engaging the country based on our idealism as a country. The U.S. is such a mixed bag; it is sort of a schizophrenic country in that we are founded on stolen land and stolen labor, and yet with these high ideals from the beginning.

And I think, often, we on the Left are the ones who give up on the country, and give up on the ideals of the country, and kind of fall, without really knowing it, into this politics of cynicism, resignation, accusation; and we forget--and I've said it a million times--Dr. King didn't give a speech called, "I Have A Complaint." That wasn't the speech. It was, "I Have A Dream." This guy had been stabbed at that point, seen dogs sicced on them. He had a lot worse days than we do, and he was still willing to stand up and say, "I still have a dream for the country."

I think that we have to be willing to re-engage with our inner third-grader who really believed in liberty and justice for all, who really believed in America the beautiful, who really believed that we were a great country and we could do great things. I mean, that third-grader wasn't wrong. It's the grown people who are running the country that are wrong.

But that inner third-grader, that third-grader's not wrong, and we need to, I think, let that back out again and remind people that for all of our shortcomings--and there are too many to list--and for all of our mistakes and our crimes, there is something good in this country that, when it is allowed to shine, inspires the world, and we have an obligation to do that. Again, in the middle of this huge, huge ecological crisis, probably the biggest crisis ever to face the human family, it is not a time to be sucking our thumbs and mad at George Bush. We need to be out there rallying the country.
Britt: What keeps you motivated and inspired to do this work? Is there one thing that has motivated you from the very beginning and that carries you through?
Van: You know, people ask me that a lot and I don't ever have a great answer, because failure is not an option. What I always come back to, it's like it doesn't occur to me that there is some option of giving up on the country or giving up on . . . what are we supposed to do, just sort of abandon the people to the floodwaters of Katrina, and just say, "Oh well, sucks to be you." I just can't even imagine not standing up for the best in the human family, and insisting on the best for my own country.

The other thing is that a lot of folks, I think when you're young it's like, oh yeah, you kind of hate the U.S., and you kind of go through your rebel phase. But then you go overseas, and my experience, in Israel and Palestine and London and South Africa, Mozambique, people ask you, "What the heck are you doing over there? What are you doing to turn this thing around?" They don't want to hear that you refuse to vote and hate both parties and sit on your hands, or maybe march around sometimes with a sign.

They want to know, what are you doing to organize real power to get this government on some sane course. I think that what I have found is that you can't abdicate responsibility. You can't say, "Oh well that's them." When you go to Palestine or you go to Israel or wherever, you can't say, "Well that's George Bush." They'll say, "No, it's America. Tax dollars, American tax dollars, paid for that. George Bush didn't pay for that. What is going to happen here?" So number one, you can't abdicate your global responsibility, I don't think, and you can't just sort of pass it on, or something like that, or blame somebody else, number one.

And then, you can't lead a country you don't love. That is the big problem that the Left has had since the late '60s. You're trying to lead a country but you don't love the country. You can't lead a country you don't love. If somebody came in here right now and said, "Britt, I think you're a horrible person and I hate you, and here's what I want you to do different," the conversation is over before it even began.

If somebody came in here right now and said, "Britt, I love you, you're amazing, I appreciate everything you're trying to do, and here are some ways that you can be even better," you'll follow those people off the cliff, because those people--whoever that person is--they care enough about you to want you to be better. They are trying to call you up, and not call you out, and I think that this whole politics of, "I'm going to call this person out for their sexism, I'm going to call them out for their racism!" I'm thinking, "How does that work for you?"

Let's be wise enough to look in our own hearts. When do we feel moved to make a change? It is not based on being shamed and blamed. I think we have a Left that, in general, wants to shame and blame the country into being better, and I don't think that works. But if there is one good thing in the United States let's start with that, and let's see if we can grow that. Let's see if we can expand that. Let's see if we can make that bigger and bigger in the country.

So, for me, you go overseas, you recognize your responsibility to the country. You come back to the country, you realize you can't move this country by yelling at it, and hating everybody, and burning flags. You've got to actually use that flag to wrap people up in a warm blanket and go somewhere together. That's a long journey for me from where I was five years ago, or ten years ago, but I think the stakes are that high now that I am willing to forgo my right--I have a right to be mad at America--and I am willing to put that down. I'm willing to put that down in the pursuit of a better tomorrow for my son.
Britt: You give a lot of talks and interviews. What is a thing that you would like to talk about the most that you don't get an opportunity to talk about?
Van: I think that for me there is a way that being a bridge-builder is lonely. The role that I play is a lonely role in that if I am in a group of black people talking to them about green politics, or if I am in a group of green people talking to them about black politics, I might be of real service trying to play that bridge-building role, but the actual experience can sometimes feel lonely. In some ways it's OK because I am actually more of an introvert than most people would guess, but I do think that we have to remember that we are asking people to go beyond their comfort zones over and over again, and I'm kind of used to it.

I'm equally uncomfortable everywhere now--that's basically what I have been able to achieve. I am equally uncomfortable in the World Economic Forum as I am in a prison or a public housing project, or a church or a synagogue. I'm equally uncomfortable everywhere, so it makes it easier for me to do my job. My hope is that by trying to model real solidarity, that more and more people will join me in that middle part, that kind of, that lonely space in the middle. I would really like to see it get populated with more people.

I think that the other thing is just, solidarity to me is the most important value, and solidarity is a two-way street. That's one of the challenges, I think, for a lot of the racial justice activists. When they say they want solidarity they mean they want the white people to help them, but when you say, "OK, well, that's fine, but solidarity means it's two forces giving mutual aid in pursuit of the same objective." That's what Samora Machel, a beautiful African revolutionary said: "Solidarity is not charity, it is mutual aid between two forces pursuing the same objective."

Well the first question is, what is our shared objective? If you don't have a shared objective, it's either going to be charity, or we are going to fight. To me the shared objective is a green economy strong enough to lift people out of poverty. That's a shared objective. And inside of that, I've got to be willing to fight to help the Sierra Club. I can't just say I want the Sierra Club to help Oakland, I've got to say, what can Oakland do to help the Sierra Club? What can we do to help the wilderness preservation people? Is there something we can do?

Maybe it's small, maybe it's just a prayer, but something has to go back in the other direction, otherwise it is charity, and it is this kind of--and I think that white people will often feel they're kind of damned if they do, damned if they don't. If they reach out a hand in solidarity, they are being patronizing, if they don't, then they're being contemptuous and don't care.

That whole kind of sickness and the relationship between the nationally oppressed minority groups and the majority group is something that we have a role, as people of color, in trying to sort through. So for me, I'm committed to real solidarity and I'm really inspired by Amilcar Cabral, who I named my son after, Samora Machel, Nelson Mandela, these beautiful African revolutionaries who were uncompromising in their defense of the humanity of their own people, and who refused at the same time to dehumanize the people who were oppressing their people. They were a stand for the liberation of the oppressor and the oppressed.

That is the basis of my politics. I refuse to demonize or deify white people. I see white people as humans who need to be rehumanized as much as the people in my community need to be rehumanized, and we can only do that with each other, in working out in common effort a way back to a shared sense of humanity and purpose and destiny.

So, I don't get a chance to talk about why I do what I do, or the kind of political roots of it, but that's what I'm about. When I was younger I linked a lot of that to class analysis and Marxism and all this sort of stuff, and I think that stuff has tremendous value, but you could take all that away from me and I would still have the same basic approach to life and to politics, which is, it should be in the service of the least of these--from a Christian perspective, the least of these.

That should be the center of our effort, and certainly the people who are closest to those conditions should, and will, cry the loudest and work the hardest and fight the longest to advance the interests of the people who are at the bottom of society, but all of us have a responsibility, an obligation, to commit class suicide and dive in and help, and move society for it.

So for me, that's what I believe. It's kind of lonely, and it gets kind of weird sometimes--I'm talking to Sharon Stone or Bill Clinton or Angelina Jolie or something, and I say, "Damn, I'm a long way from West Tennessee." It's a long way from home. But what I'm saying when I'm talking to them is the same thing that I would be saying if I were anywhere else, "Let's work together. Let's meet the challenges of the present period with the biggest ideas and the biggest hope that we have, and maybe that will be enough."
Britt: Is there anything else you want listeners to know about the Ella Baker Center or an action they can take?
Van: Well, we're working with Congress to get a Clean Energy Jobs Bill put forward so that we can get hundreds of millions of dollars down to community colleges, vocational colleges and high schools, to start training our young people up in this new green, clean economy. It would be great for people to go to our web site,, and keep up with this and join the campaign. is going to come on board and help us to do a lot of online advocacy to push this green jobs agenda forward, and hopefully, my belief, is that both parties, all three parties, will see this idea of job creation, and the green economy, as something that all three parties, all four, or all twenty parties in the U.S. are committed to, and that it will just become the almost invisible mainstream, and not be fringe and marginal. Everybody listening can help with that process by getting involved.
Britt: Is there anything else you'd like to add?
Van: This is my first day as President of the Ella Baker Center after ten-and-a-half years of being the Executive Director. Friday was my last day as Executive Director, and Jakada Imani, who is a beautiful, amazing brother who grew up here in Oakland, is a strategic genius and a brilliant orator and has been leading our Books, Not Bars campaign for a couple of years now, he is now the Executive Director, and he is just great.

And suddenly, now I'm the President, and I'm a senior statesman and get a chance to focus on some of the things that I'm better at than managing people, which, I've never been good at managing or supervising anybody, including myself. I can focus on some of the long term strategy and on some of the fundraising, and this green job stuff which I am really called to. So, this is my first day in the building in a different role, and it feels good.

I have always felt that any not-for-profit should change EDs at least every 10 years, if not every 5, just because it gives new people the chance to step up and learn. As I told J, I said, "It's one thing to ride in the bus, it's another thing to ride in the front of the bus, but it's a whole other thing to drive the bus, and have to figure out how to pay for the gas, and read the maps, and deal with the kids throwing popcorn and all that kind of stuff. That's a very different thing." I know he's going to do a great job with it.

It's a feeling of pride that you have when you start something. The Ella Baker Center was just a scribble in my notebook, and then Diana and I got a borrowed closet, literally, from a not-for-profit, and pulled out the shelves and stuck a desk in there, and ten-and-a-half years later we've got 24 people on staff and a 1.6 or 1.7 million dollar budget, and six attorneys, and a new ED. So, it's pretty exciting.
You can listen to the audio from this interview on the Big Vision Podcast.

Transcription by CastingWords


  1. Britt! Thank you so much for doing and sharing this piece with Van. His work as a nonprofit leader of color is a great inspiration to me. I hope you don't mind my posting bits of it on my beginning baby blog :)

  2. Hi Rosetta,

    I'm thrilled that you are sharing the interview with your readers!


  3. Anonymous7:42 AM

    Thanks for posting this interview. Van Jones's project and politics are very inspiring and refreshing! Seriously, I had almost forgotten what my passion in life was until this article woke me up and reminded me.


  4. Great interview. It looks like advocacy has found a place on the World-Wide Web. There are now a lot of websites that offer Internet advocacy tools and services. The Internet has great potential for promoting a cause or campaign for the protection of human rights and protecting the environment.


If you are having trouble commenting, please let me know.