“It should be a green economy that Dr King would be proud of”
Erik Jaques meets Van Jones, US environmental advocate, civil rights activist and attorney
After being driven out of office as White House special adviser for green jobs, enterprise and innovation last September by Fox News polemicist Glenn Beck and a frothing horde of Tea Bagger demagogues, you could forgive Van Jones for being more than a little pissed off.
It was the perfect job, at the perfect time, for the perfect administration. Nobody had done more than Van Jones to usher the phrase “green collar job” into the US political lexicon.
The founder of three NGOs, the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, Colour for Change (an advocacy group for African Americans) and Green For All (a synthesis of the ideals of the first two), Jones had evolved his hard-hitting civil rights background and social justice agenda into an all-inclusive environmentalist ethos.
An electrifying advocate for using the green economy to tackle social inequity as well as carbon emissions, his bid to “green the ghetto” included initiating the first job training programme in the US targeting low-income people for work in the solar and green industries.
Most famously he was one of the most persuasive voices behind getting the Green Jobs Act of 2007 signed into reality by an uncharacteristically progressive George W Bush, earmarking $125M to train 35,000 people a year in green-collar jobs, and subsequently paving the way for $500M in retraining funds provided under the Recovery Act during the Obama administration.
Despite a virtually non-existent marketing budget, Jones was also the first black author to score an environmentalist hit in the New York Times bestseller list with The Green Collar Economy. A mesmerising, empathetic speaker at least equal to Obama himself at full oratorical pelt, everything was set for Jones to make the role of the White House’s green jobs “handyman” (he hated the term “czar”) his own.
Then came the rabid Fox News, cheer led into dirt digging overdrive by the relentless Beck, who, in a crusade against Obama’s czars, featured Jones on his show 14 times, breathlessly spinning past political activities such as an association with a Marxist group during the 1990s, and a signature on a petition for the mainstream defying 911Truth.org into shlocky scandal.
It was innocuous, massively distorted stuff, particularly the 9/11 “truther” smear, which was little more than Jones naively signing a petition on the understanding that he was supporting families of 9/11 victims. Even so, a wall of adversarial noise built up to fever pitch and Jones, fearing it would bring potentially disruptive focus to the Obama administration during the fraught healthcare reform drive, resigned. He’d been in the role for just six months.
“At this critical moment in history, I could not in good conscience ask my colleagues to expend precious time and energy defending or explaining my past,” he wrote on his website.
“Please do everything you can to support both President Obama and the green jobs movement,” he added. “Winning real change is ultimately the best response to these kinds of smear campaigns.”
Jones, though, is not bitter. In February he emerged from a five month hiatus to start work as a senior fellow leading the Green Opportunity Initiative at the Centre for American Progress, a liberal public policy research and advocacy organisation headed up by John Podesta, former chief of staff to President Bill Clinton, and one of three co-chairs of the Obama’s administration’s transition team.
It is a hugely influential group, that has helped shape the message on Obama administration initiatives including healthcare reform, economic stimulus and national security.
“We don’t have enough policy tools and laws and regulations to make sure that poor people, people of colour and women have a fair shot in the emerging green economy,” Jones says with urgency, “so I’m now working to create a second generation of policies and propose laws and regulations that will make sure that those who most need green jobs can get them.”
Jones has also taken on posts at Princeton University, as a visiting fellow in the Center for African American Studies, and in the Program in Science, Technology and Environmental Policy at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.
Jones’s focus is firmly on the future and there is a palpable antipathy to revisiting circumstances leading up to his resignation; he’s said his piece on the matter, and is ready to move on, though he did give a wry shout out to “fellow countryman” Beck when he was awarded the NAACP President’s Award in February: “I see you, and I love you, brother. I love you and you cannot do anything about it,” Jones said. “Let’s be one country. Let’s get the job done.”
Jones clearly can’t wait to get his hands dirty again. One of his main duties at CAP will be to progress the proposed Home Star Energy Retrofit Act of 2010, which rewards consumers with $6B over two years for installing energy efficient equipment in their homes. According to analysis by Climate Works, the initiative could create 168,000 jobs concentrated in the hard-hit construction and manufacturing sectors of the US economy.
Jones is well equipped to succeed, having run an interagency process called Recovery Through Retrofits during his time at the White House. He will also be pushing for a strong renewable energy standard (RES) and a Green Enterprise Zone that is designed to reward green and clean energy companies that locate and hire in poor and disadvantages communities.
“Van will be critically involved in convening high level folks from congress and the administration who work on the real implementation aspects of the green economy agenda with people at the community level,” says CAP’s vice president of energy policy Kate Gordon.
“He doesn’t get caught up in all of the Washington process crisis mentality, and is really good at being in a conversation and then synthesising the points that have been made and connecting the dots. He’s very focused on core principles and then working to achieve those.”
Phaedra Ellis-Lamkins, who replaced Jones as CEO of Green For All, is delighted to have him back in the game, unfettered by the shackles of political office.
“What Van has done is to bring together an intersection of people into one movement, so it’s a not just about protecting animals or land, but also protecting people and the planet,” she says.
Van Jones was born Anthony Jones in Jackson, Tennessee. His mother was a high-school teacher, his father a junior-high-school principal. An intelligent, idiosyncratic child, he imagined his Star Wars action figures politicians: John F. Kennedy as Luke Skywalker, Bobby Kennedy as Han Solo, and Martin Luther King as Lando Calrissian.
“Some people are just born to play the violin,” he says. “And there are some that like trying to solve political problems for disadvantaged constituencies – people like Dr King and the Kennedys caught my eye when I was a child.”
After graduating from Yale Law school a self-confessed “rowdy black nationalist”, Jones moved to San Francisco and in 1995 formed Bay Area PoliceWatch, the region’s only bar-certified hotline and lawyer-referral service for alleged victims of police abuse. The following year he founded the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, which focused on criminal-justice issues affecting low-income people of colour. In 2005, after he founded web-based grassroots black advocacy group Color of Change, Van had his environmental epiphany.
Foreseeing a green wave of renewable energy, organic agriculture, and cleaner production, he was determined the people he had been fighting for would not get left behind, but form an integral part of the nascent low carbon economy.
“I burned out banging my head against the wall in urban politics and I wanted to find some solutions would that benefit my constituency and maybe the earth too, and green jobs is what I came up with,” he recalls.
Having started to push for green jobs as a pathway out of poverty via the Ella Baker Centre on a local level, he took the fight nationwide when he launched Green For All in September 2007. Jones spoke of “rust-belt cities blossoming as Silicon Valleys of green capital” and “dying blue-collar towns blooming as green-collar meccas”, and exploding the environmental movement’s status quo.
“We have to expand the constituency calling for broader environmental policy beyond just the traditional ‘eco-elite’, and the best way to do this is to link positive environmental performance to positive economic performance,” he says.
“In other words, to advance those policies that will give those people who are not already wealthy a shot at work and wealth. So, a purely pragmatic, strategic point of view, but there’s also a moral aspect to it. If we’re going to have a green economy it should be a green economy that Dr King would be proud of. And whatever challenges we have in the new century we shouldn’t leave behind the hard one from the last century that everybody counts and everybody matters.”
At a time where there are around 15 million unemployed people in the US (15% of which are black), Jones is relishing the opportunity to get stuck in and do what he does best – inspire and facilitate change.
“My starting point is people want to work together, they want to solve big problems, they want to get out of the negative ‘food fight’ style of politics that we’ve had for so long – all accusation and confrontation and no actual solutions getting implemented,” he muses.
“We underestimate people’s desire to be a part of something big and to make a difference.”
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