Van Jones

by Rosemary Pritzker

“If the road to social transformation can be paved only by saints who never make mistakes, the road will NEVER be built.” -Van Jones
VAN JONES  <br> image courtesy of
image courtesy of

When people think about climate change, often the first thought that comes to mind has to do with all the solar panels, wind farms, and green rooftops we need, and how quickly it needs to be done. But the question that rarely follows is, “how much manual labor will this take and who’s going to do it?” It’s also becoming clear that more and more people in underserved communities, especially young people, are getting left behind while the rest of us struggle to climb closer and closer to the American dream. Can we think of these people not as a burden, but as an underused resource? The man who isn’t afraid to ask these questions, and who has an answer, is Van Jones, President and co-founder of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights (EBC) based in Oakland, California.

Van is one of the most vivid and spirited speakers alive today. One of the keys to his success has been his larger-than-life personality and his moving and powerful way with words. He has found the sweet spot of public speaking, using uproarious humor mixed with concrete solutions that link what are arguably the two most pressing problems for the United States and the world at large: climate change and economically under-served communities. It’s not just his charisma that has led to his successes. Van is also one of the most strategic thinkers on the world-changing scene today. Through linking environmentalism and social justice, he has found a more effective way of addressing both issues. This has manifested in a movement called Green For All, his most notable effort toward revealing this connection to the world.

Van Jones has been making waves for over 10 years as a human rights activist. In recent years he tried to point out the environment/human rights connection, but didn’t receive attention from the upper echelons with decision-making power, such as the United States government and the Clinton Global Initiative, until just a few months ago. For decades environmentalism was seen as crunchy, dirty, and based on restriction of everything from fun to taste. But lately there’s been a major shift, bringing green into the mainstream, or, as Van says, “eco-freak” became “eco-chic”. The tragedy of Hurricane Katrina began to make it clear to people that global warming disasters are not some abstract thing that might happen in the future – it’s happening now. The release of Al Gore’s film, An Inconvenient Truth, accelerated this process, especially after winning the Academy Award, and now Gore’s selection as the winner of the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize.

Van jokes about how in the past he’d stand up on the soap box and say, “We got kids going to school, 36 kids in one classroom with 6 books and no chalk”. The response was always, “not interested”. Then when all of a sudden everything eco started to take center stage, he said, “We want to create green jobs to keep kids out of jail,” the response was, “Green? GREEN?! Someone get this man a microphone!” Van also asks, as green moves to the center of our culture and economy, who are we going to take with us and who are we going to leave behind?

What do you think is the number one cause of death in Oakland, California? Violence? Wrong: heart disease. Oakland, primarily inhabited by minorities, is one of the major urban seats of industry in our country. At the same time, it houses one of the most violent inner cities, with 148 homicides in 2006. Despite this number, a person is more likely to have asthma or die of an environmentally provoked health problem such as heart disease than of violent crime. One in every four children in the area has asthma. Oakland has been a dumping ground for big industry for decades, which has taken its toll on the health of the people and the land. Young people have little opportunity in the area. Rather than providing these kids with opportunity or quality education, we leave little option than for many of them to end up in jail, ending any hope of a future by branding them as felons. Arguably the most renewable energy resources, both the sun and human beings could be utilized to lift us out of this mess. Why have they been ignored?

Van’s most recent project, Green For All, will provide tens of thousands of “green collar jobs” to minority and low-income people, mostly youth in urban areas. These jobs will include things like solar panel installation, weatherizing buildings and setting up wind farms. Now instead of ending up in jail, these kids can learn a trade like electrical engineering by being trained in solar panel installation. This could lead to joining an electrical workers union, eventually becoming a manager, and maybe one day starting their own business.

Van Jones and the Ella Baker Center (EBC) presented the idea of green collar jobs to Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and together they created the Green Jobs Act. The act was recently passed in the U.S. House of Representatives and will go on to become part of the next energy bill. The bill awards $125 million to fund 30,000 Green Collar Jobs per year, but Van didn’t stop there. He went on to the Clinton Global Initiative where he raised even more money. His goal is to raise $1 billion for green collar jobs by 2012. He asks, “Can we make sure the Green wave lifts all boats? I say we can!”

Recently at the Bioneers Conference, after pointing out the difference between the environmental issues poor black people care about and the ones affluent white people worry about, he jokingly declared, “This is the power point presentation Al Gore would give if he was black.” Van often resembles a standup comic, but also has the ability to speak from the depths of his heart with more clarity and vision than anyone I’ve heard. Most people who have had the opportunity to hear him speak have no doubt deduced that this man will go down in history. This humble heavyweight may frequently meet with powerful politicians about his assorted projects, but he always has time for the mother of the kid who got abused in the horrendous California Youth Authority prison system, or the exuberant high school activist at an environmental conference, and always has something profound to say.

Already the recipient of several prestigious awards including the 1998 Reebok International Human Rights Award and the Rockefeller Foundation “Next Generation Leadership" Fellowship, as well as being a board member for several acclaimed groups and organizations, Van has a clear vision of what the future could look like and how we can get there together. No matter what issue he is addressing, he speaks out about finding new, creative ways of changing the way things are done, and finding new ways of loving each other and resolving our conflicts.

He was not always the dynamic, witty, confident figure he is today. Van would be the first to tell you that he started out life as a constantly sick skinny kid with a speech impediment and a limp, and had to work hard to overcome these setbacks. He was, however, able to rise above his challenges to become one of the most well known, well liked, powerful and strategic human rights activists alive today. Marianne Manilov, a close friend and ally of Van’s, says that when she first started working with him fifteen years ago, he was extremely shy and wouldn’t lift his head from his legal books long enough to engage in conversation during their activist carpool ride. When they pulled up to his home, he’d say, “thanks” and then practically run inside.

After years of working on himself and adjusting to the limelight, he’s finally earned the Superman belt buckle a friend of his awarded him as a Christmas present last year. It’s taken much encouragement and support from close friends for him to accept himself and his position enough to step into the role as the spearhead of a major social movement. Van strongly believes that if we’re going to change the world, we’re going to have to do it together. He believes that each one of us has the power to affect this shift.

As a child, Van’s heroes were Martin Luther King, Jr. and Bobby Kennedy. He explained that, “They brought hope to the country, and I wanted to do that as a child. I wanted to be able to use words to inspire people to take action during times of consequence for the nation.” In his earlier years as an adult, Van became acutely aware of injustice and racism, becoming more and more disillusioned with our country’s politics. For a while he sought refuge in the words and actions of civil rights figures such as Malcolm X and the Black Panthers, as well as revolutionaries like Che Guevara and Amilcar Cabral.

Ella Baker, a little known civil rights activist who is the namesake for the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights said, “We who believe in freedom cannot rest until all mothers children are honored.” Van said, “I just drunk the Kool Aid on that.” He would repeat to himself over and over, “We cannot rest, we cannot rest, we cannot rest, we cannot rest…” His constant working, fighting, worrying, sleeping in his clothes with the lights on surrounded by books, hurt him on every level. Physically, emotionally and spiritually, he was severely depleted and one day in July of 2000 his body literally wouldn’t put up with it anymore. He had a major emotional breakdown. He finally admitted to himself that he needed time off.

It took Van two years of facing his spiritual self, feeding his health needs, and spending time with people outside of his work to return to what he considered a stable place. His breakdown happened just a few months after Julia Butterfly Hill came down from her two year tree-sit. Both of them emotionally raw and wanting to work hard to change the world, they helped each other walk through this difficult time. He stresses the importance of allowing yourself to recharge, and to talk to people who aren’t involved in your work in order to get outside perspective. He emphasizes this by saying, “We who believe in freedom have to rest.”

Van was no longer as inspired by his previous anger-based heroes, and chose a new more positive foundation for his present politics. Rather than running around pointing out what’s wrong, what if we focus on the solutions? He frequently likes to point out that Martin Luther King’s famous line was not, “I have a complaint.” He had a dream.

Now he says, “I would point to Gandhi and Julia Butterfly as heroes.” I also asked him who he thinks will be remembered as today’s heroes a hundred years from now. He said it depends on who is able to turn things around. Only a handful of people leave footprints on our society large enough to be remembered a century later, but he believes that in our day and age, it might be networks of people as opposed to individuals who are recognized. “I would put Majora Carter up there, as a leading contender to be remembered in 100 years.” Majora is another spokesperson for the movement towards melding the human rights and environmental movements, doing similar work to Van in the South Bronx. I would venture to guess that Van will be right there with her in the future halls of heroes.

Despite the frantic hubbub of his life, the constant travel and the leagues of staff members reliant on him, Van always has time to support a friend in need. His modus operandi seems to be to always help others first in any way he is physically or emotionally capable. This is what has guided him to his present work. Despite this however, he warned an audience recently that we all have emotional and physical needs that we must find a way to take care of outside of this work.

Most people find it unbearable to admit a mistake, as if it’s a sign of failure, which is hardly accepted in our culture. Yet Van admits to his mistakes all the time, in public and in private. When I asked him what gives him the courage to do this again and again, he attributed it to the fact that he’s always trying to solve real problems. Like anyone in such a situation, “from getting your stalled car to start, to saving the world,” he’s likely going to make a few mistakes on the way before ending up with a concrete, viable solution. “So I share the mistakes and failures, as well as the successes, because that is the truth of my journey - and of anyone's journey.”

I also asked if he is ever afraid that someone will exploit his mistake and make him look bad. He says that, no, he doesn’t worry about this because he’s not so concerned with the way he’s making himself look. He’d rather confess than accuse. “I can't rail against all the warmongers, polluters and incarcerators OUT THERE,” he says, “without first confessing to all the warmongers, polluters and incarcerators that I carry within myself. I am just as bad and terrible and greedy and selfish as all the people in the White House whom I like to criticize and oppose. I have no doubt about that.”

He continued, explaining that in trying to be a good person, he needs to face the reality that he has demons, and must deal with his challenges and struggles on the path. His hope is that if he is willing to fess up to his faults, it will open up the space for everyone else to forge ahead together. “If the road to social transformation can be paved only by saints who never make mistakes, the road will NEVER be built.” The up side is that we don’t have to be perfect to save our communities and restore the Earth. “We just have to try hard and be as honest as we can be about the processes we are going through.”

Van embodies many of the same attributes that made Martin Luther King, Jr. his hero as a child. These qualities go beyond his speaking abilities, his commanding presence, and his recognition. He has a potent and unique vision of how to lift up his community using non-violent means, bringing more equality and stability to the citizens of our great nation. He believes the problem in America is not deeply seeded racism, but the “sink or swim” mentality of rugged individualism that says that the only thing we need government for is fighting wars. “Let ‘em sink or swim. We don’t need government.” But then Katrina hit and we saw our brothers and sisters and aunts and cousins sinking in a U.S. city that was underwater. Van says that at that moment we moved away from being in a 9/11 century. “We’re living in a post-Katrina age.” He says that in this age we need to stand together and say, “We reject any world view that says let people sink or swim in an age of floods.”

We need more people like Van Jones if we’re going to turn things around, because these are the people who will be holding the torch that lights the way to a safe, peaceful future in which everyone is taken care of. When I am in Van’s presence, I see the roaring fire of hope and hard work bursting out of his mouth, his eyes his heart. I see a flickering of that light in the heart of everyone who is touched by him, and feel it within myself. He inspires us to act because he helps us believe we can make a difference. He inspires us to come together, because we don’t want to go it alone in this confused world of shattered ties and unnecessary battles.

Van and Rosemary at Bioneers, 2007
Van and Rosemary at Bioneers, 2007

Julia Butterfly’s most famous quote is, “Through life’s trials and hardships, we arise beautiful and free.” In the course of a lifetime, all good-hearted people have to learn to care for themselves before taking care of others. Unfortunately, this lesson rarely comes easily. Van’s breakdown helped him understand what he never could have learned by being told or by reading it in a book. He had to learn that you can’t save a drowning person until you learn how to swim. He had to sink to the depths of despair and learn to swim before he could resurface. He had to learn to rely on other people for support before he could support others. We all need to recognize that we’re in this big, beautiful world together, and, as Van says “We will not leave anybody behind.” We don’t have time to fight or to hate. As Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “Hate is too heavy a burden to bear.” Van did learn how to swim, and his time of recovery and contemplation is what made him the legendary luminary he is today. It allowed him to arise beautiful and free.

Page created on 8/5/2014 11:02:33 AM

Last edited 1/5/2017 8:57:46 PM

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Related Links

Ella Baker Center for Human Rights - "promotes positive alternatives to violence and incarceration through our four cutting-edge campaigns."
Green For All - strives "to help build a green economy strong enough to lift people out of poverty."
The Color of Change - Its goal is "to empower its members—Black Americans and allies—to make government more responsive to the concerns of Black Americans and to bring about positive political and social change for everyone."

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