In April of 2007, I was just finishing up my tenure as the editor-in-chief of Urbanite magazine. One of the last issues I helped to produce was about the evolution of the environmental movement, and how it was embracing a broader message of social justice. Paul Hawken had just released the new book Blessed Unrest: How the Largest Movement in the World Came in to Being and Why No One Saw it Coming. And a California activist named Van Jones was talking about the creation of green collar jobs. We brought Jones in to be a guest editor for that issue, and we interviewed him about politics and the future of social and civil rights in America.
Jones went on to become Obama's Special Advisor for Green Jobs at the Council on Environmental Quality and last night he resigned amidst a bizarre "scandal" being credited, in part, to Glenn Beck. In his statement to the press, Jones wrote:
On the eve of historic fights for health care and clean energy, opponents of reform have mounted a vicious smear campaign against me. They are using lies and distortions to distract and divide. I have been inundated with calls—from across the political spectrum—urging me to stay and fight. But I came here to fight for others, not for myself. I cannot in good conscience ask my colleagues to expend precious time and energy defending or explaining my past. We need all hands on deck, fighting for the future.
Jones talked at length about that "all hands on deck" approach in our 2007 interview. I thought I would share some more excerpts from our conversation, which took place in the winter of 2007.
The New York Times recently called you the new face of environmentalism. What did you think about that designation?
Oh, it’s silly but what can you do?
How did you start to evolve your work from social justice and begin to tap into the idea of the environmental movement?
I had been doing work primarily on criminal justice for a very long time and it was around 2000 that I went through a real emotional, spiritual crisis, for lack of a better term. I was banging my head against the wall going to business people for funding. It just kind of came to me as an epiphany: we need green jobs not jails. The green capitalists were trying to do enterprise in a more responsible way. We were working for restorative justice in the criminal justice system and these people were working for restorative economics. I thought that we should be allied and we should work together. It wasn’t very fancy, it was more like “Oh wow these people are talking about creating cool enterprises and who’s going to work for them?”
I thought that this green economy that was coming should be more than just business opportunities for rich people and consumer options for affluent people. I felt like we should make sure that this green wave would create job opportunities and wealth building opportunities and health improving opportunities for poor people. That was seven years ago. I was stunned that it struck people as novel. People would scratch their heads: “You’re talking about the environment and you’re talking about business and aren’t you a human rights guy?”
From my point of view it has always been about uplifting people. We don’t have any throwaway resources or species. We also don’t have any throwaway children or neighborhoods. It’s all sacred and precious and we should act that way.
Here in Baltimore, everyone has their own individual silos and they struggle to bridge that gap between what they’re doing and what others are doing. How do you address that?
In the ‘90’s everybody specialized in defining their problem really well. In the year 2000, Bush came in and within four years everyone was very clear: whatever your problem is, you’re not going to be able to solve it by yourself, in the face of a military petroleum complex, in alliance with the fundamentalist right led by this authoritarian president. Whatever you’re working on whether it’s lesbian and gay issues, civil rights issues, whatever your issue is, you’re too little to beat the Bush coalition. It meant that people who spent a decade slicing the problem more and more narrowly, whether it’s their own issue, the invasion of Iraq, Katrina, suddenly realized we have way too many enemies and way too few friends. Now what we’re seeing is a turning back toward each other on the part of the progressives. You’re seeing a willingness or an openness increasingly for people to make more friends on the left than enemies. A key to that is the turning away from talking about issues and problems, and starting to talk about solutions.
People get very frustrated because they feel somewhat impotent to impact change right now. You get people activated at a small community level and it does seem to impact change.
A lot of what is beautiful in our country is its roots. They’re underground and it’s not visible at first. There’s a way that we think if it’s not on the mainstream media everyday it doesn’t exist. I’ve gone to hundreds and hundreds of conferences, meeting tens of thousands of people. All of them say: “I’m all alone, the whole country is stupid, why isn’t anyone saying anything about BLANK?"
It is this way that we’ve trained ourselves to feel helpless and trained ourselves to feel marginal because we’re looking to the mainstream media to reflect ourselves back to ourselves.
In reality, there’s this huge, huge network of people who really do care and who turn the t.v. off and actually look at our lives as they’re occurring. We’re bigger than ever.
A lot of what is beautiful in our country is its roots. They’re underground and it’s not visible at first. There’s a way that we think if it’s not on the mainstream media everyday it doesn’t exist.
What does that mean? It means that even though the mainstream media is lying and stupid and talks about Jessica Simpson all the time or Britney Spears’ latest crush, the reality is that people get it. The tide is turning. People are now looking for answers. They can’t do more bashing-Bush books or bumper stickers. You have to come forward with solutions, because people get that Bush let them down. They may not say it the way you say it, they may not feel it the way you do. They may argue it differently, but they know Bush let them down. Now the question is can progressives step forward with a plausible vision for the country?
I think that we will get somewhere, but it doesn’t start out with a million people on the Washington Mall. It starts with people in their communities, their workplaces, their neighborhoods, getting clearer and clearer not about what they’re against, but what they’re for.
You’ve gotten very creative about this, getting your message out to lawmakers through vehicles like a record label. What are some of the other things you’ve been doing that you feel are successful in getting your message out?
Well, you know, there’s no easy way to do this stuff. The most important thing is that you be willing to be an insider as well as an outsider. We all need each other. We have a very complicated system that we’re trying to change. We need to be at least as sophisticated as the system we are trying to impact, which means we need lots and lots of people doing lots and lots of things and we need to support each other.
We’ve done everything from the sit-ins and marches to rallies and press conferences to research reports and papers. We go to a lot of funerals and stand outside of a lot of prisons. So the thing about the Ella Baker Center is that we are willing to try anything. We’re willing to work with anybody and everybody.
I was digging through a bunch of photographs over the weekend and here’s a picture of me with Coretta Scott King, a there's picture of me with John McCain. I can show my friends most of these pictures, but can I show these other pictures? I know which party I feel close to, but at the end of the day, there are good people in all of the parties. There’s one thing that we can all do together and for each other: We can learn something that we didn’t know. That’s invaluable. We spend so much time inbred and incestuous and we wonder why we don’t have fresh ideas. For me, it’s very simple. This government is on the side of the problem makers of the U.S. economy. They’re on the side of the warmongers, the incarcerators, the polluters. The problem solvers in the U.S. economy, the eco-entrepreneurs who are trying to go with clean energy and renewable fuel and who are trying to do triple bottom line and treat their workers right—the grandmas, the coaches, the counselors, the art instructors, the yoga teachers—those people get no help from the government. If anything they get a hard time. It’s really time that we put the U.S. government on the side of the problem solvers in the U.S. economy and that will require a grand alliance, a grand coalition. It will require a coalition as big as the New Deal coalition from FDR’s day or the New Right coalition that formed around Reagan to take the country back in another direction.
I know which party I feel close to, but at the end of the day, there are good people in all of the parties. There’s one thing that we can all do together and for each other: We can learn something that we didn’t know. That’s invaluable. We spend so much time inbred and incestuous and we wonder why we don’t have fresh ideas.
They need that kind of a grand coalition, a green growth alliance that includes the best of business, the best of labor, the best of urban activism, the best environmentalists, to say we can build a green economy that is strong enough to lift people out of poverty. The market can’t do it by itself and we can’t do it without the market. You’ve got to have a partnership between government, community groups, and the best of business to put the country back to work.
Retrofitting all these buildings, putting up solar panels, putting up windmills, figuring out free ways to do agriculture, that’s the agenda of the future, that’s the agenda that can bring together the best of the country. But you can’t get there if you’re mainly focused on your issue and you aren’t focused on the big solution that moves the whole agenda forward for a potential progressive governing majority.
Who are some of the other leaders that you’re seeing arising around this idea of the new green agenda?
Majora Carter is probably the most important figure. She runs Sustainable South Bronx.
Certainly, Omar Freilla who runs the green workers co-operative also in the South Bronx is an important figure. He wants to do green jobs, but on a co-operative basis so the workers actually own what they’re working and he’s making real progress in getting investments also African-American.
You have Jerome Ringo who leads the National Apollo Alliance, pulling together this big alliance of national labor organizations, national environmental groups, business leaders, community leaders, to get the U.S. government to pursue a clean energy jobs strategy.
You have in Los Angeles Anthony Thigpen who is running the Los Angeles Apollo Alliance. He convinced the mayor of Los Angeles to sign on to the Los Angeles Apollo Challenge to create a job training pathway to green employment to the community colleges down in Southern California.
You have Winona LaDuke who ran for vice president twice on the green party ticket, a Native American leader doing clean energy on the reservation, an unbelievably inspiring, powerful writer and speaker.
There are many others. The difference is rather than focusing on environmental problems, we’re focusing on environmental solutions, a solution-based environmental agenda that can engage the majority of Americans. Not just the few who can afford the eco-premiums for the eco-chic products, but the majority of people who need their homes to be retrofitted so they don’t leak so much energy so they can save money, who need to move to a clean energy strategy because their kid has asthma, who need for us to move away from poison-based agriculture and toward organic agriculture because they’re suffering from cancer. There is a new working-class environmentalism, an environmentalism with its sleeves rolled-up and its fingernails dirty trying to make America work for the majority of people who live here. That’s the future.
I work in neighborhoods where kids go to school, 30 kids in a classroom, six books, and no chalk. There are metal detectors that go off all the time not because kids are bringing in guns but because they are bringing in inhalers for their asthma and I think we can do better than that in this country.
I have to say also that there is an emerging rainbow of hope in the United States. If you look at Barack Obama, if you look at Deval Patrick, who just became the first African-American governor of Massachusetts and ran on a message of hope, if you look at Cory Booker who’s now the mayor of Newark, New Jersey. You’ve got world-class leadership.
It’s important for us to recognize that the country that we want is being born in us everyday and it’s not about how awful Bush is, it’s not about all the bad news we’ve got to focus on. We already have in our ranks as many people who have marched against the war in Vietnam or ever went to jail in the Civil Rights Movement. Those were microscopic minorities compared to the whole country. The question is: are we willing to put forth real solutions for the country?
How do environmentalists reach out to our counterparts in social justice and get something going that’s more powerful than all of us who are just trying to do our own thing?
Well, I think two things. First of all, it’s about coalition building. It’s about going and being in service and listening. It’s an investment of time. There are leaders you like and organizations you admire, even if you’re executive director of your own thing and you’re a big shot in your own little world, be willing to go be of some service. Go get on a board and just help them do what they’re doing. Don’t say come over here and help me do what I’m doing, go help them do what they’re doing and listen and assume that there must be an awful lot that you don’t know that they’re desperately trying to communicate to you, while you’re trying to communicate at them. Somebody’s got to stop talking and start listening. Last century was the century of the great speaker. I think that this century is the century of the great listener. Can you actually just go and learn?
Number two, none of this stuff is going to happen based on issues or solutions. Groups work together or don’t work together based on individual relationships. Who knows each other? Who likes each other? Who respects each other? You used to be housemates or you went to school together. So we have to create artificial opportunities for people to get that level of this personal knowledge going across these racial, class divides. Is it possible to do some leadership retreats together? Everybody’s struggling around fundraising. Everybody’s struggling around human resources and meeting huge demands.
The last thing I’ll say is go slow, but go fast because it would be much, much better to do one small thing, a small information sharing brunch where people from one organization come to another organization and just get a tour of the building and get a little face and eye time for one hour. That will do so much more than trying to say we’re going to create this huge coalition and we’re going to argue about language, and get frustrated with each other and hate each other for the rest of our lives, which is the basic strategy so far that I can tell.
Somebody’s got to stop talking and start listening. Last century was the century of the great speaker. I think that this century is the century of the great listener. Can you actually just go and learn?
I think that part of it is that coalition work is more emotional, it’s more heart, but we immediately go into our heads. Who do you want to spend a lot of time with and who are you willing to trust with money? Who are you willing to trust with getting more attention than you? It has a lot more to with dating than it does with manifestos.
When you use the word “sustainable” in your discussions with us do you have any feelings about the appropriateness of that term? What do you think about it?
I don’t use it when talking to most people. A lot of terms like racial justice, eco-sustainability, nobody uses except like .001% of the population. So I just try to avoid it.
How do you, then, communicate to your audience what your message is?
I talk about people. I work in neighborhoods where kids go to school, 30 kids in a classroom, six books, and no chalk. There are metal detectors that go off all the time not because kids are bringing in guns but because they are bringing in inhalers for their asthma and I think we can do better than that in this country. You don’t half to talk about race, about racial justice or sustainability; you’re talking about people.
The problem is that we want everybody to have a PhD level of understanding about social change and ecology in order to really feel comfortable in our meetings or to understand what we’re talking about on the radio. I don’t think that’s right. There are two kinds of smart people: the smart people who take very simple shit and make it complicated and the smart people who take very complicated shit and make it simple. And the problem is we’ve got these kids coming on campuses and the only thing they’ve seen is professors taking very simple things and making them complicated because that’s what intellectuals do. There’s a time to study and there’s a time to actually give a shit.