by Cesca Janece Waterfield
Van Jones is one of the nation’s most vital minds today, merging goals like creating jobs with environmental protection and restoration. His vision often results in solutions that simultaneously address social inequity and environmental misuse.
A Yale Law graduate, he has helped cities create “Green Jobs Corps” to train people in jobs that meet civic and ecological needs, reducing the jobless population while improving and preserving our natural legacy. He is founder of “Green for All,” an organization that promotes clean energy as a means to improved health and better housing. His familiar slogan, “green-collar jobs, not jails,” highlights his dual focus on social equity and environmental consciousness. He’s been honored with many awards and was named a “Young Global Leader” by the World Economic Forum, and a “Next Generation Leader” by the Rockefeller Foundation.
Van is married and recently celebrated the birth of his first child, a boy. In October of last year, he released The Green Collar Economy: How One Solution Can solve our Two Biggest Problems (HarperOne), which has become a New York Times best seller. www.vanjones.net
How did you develop such a passion for environmental activism?
Most people care about all living things and want to protect and promote living systems. I think it’s strange that we get off that path. It isn’t that I offered something new to the conversation. It’s just fundamentally recognizing that anything that is good for the environment is a job. Wind turbines don’t manufacture themselves. We just want to make sure that all these good jobs that need to get done, go to the people who need the jobs. If we can get the jobs to the people who need work, we can fight poverty and pollution at the same time. I came to that viewpoint seeing urban youth without job prospects, without any future, and really thinking that was awful, and wanting to see some kind of alternative. The solar industry is growing, organic food is growing. I can see automatically, that’s something that we should be part of in the African American community.
What are some practical tips that everyone can put into practice to benefit the environment?
Everybody can go online and figure out how they can eat better or save energy. But we need to come up with much more job-generating environmental solutions. People think about those kinds of consumer individual choices, and those are very important. But I think we have to be cooperative citizens at a higher scale. I think everybody should push their schools to serve 25 percent local and organic food in the cafeterias. That would create jobs for local farmers and it would also make the kids healthier. Of course, most school districts will say that it costs too much money. But the reality is we’ll spend the money on [treating] epidemics by giving them cheap lunches. It’s about trying to find collective solutions. I think we should have our utility companies and mayors to support weatherization and energy efficiency in our homes, so we can better afford our energy bill but also cut pollution from the power plants, and cut global warming. Non-toxic insulation, double-pane the glass – all that creates jobs and it’s work that can pay for itself. Those are the solutions I’m excited about. It’s time to go to the next level. We need to start working community wide, with school districts, with utility companies, with mayors, with our neighbors to come up with much more ambitious job-generating environmental solutions.
How far are we from that?
The good news is that Barack Obama has already put [funds] for energy efficiency and weatherization. Here’s the danger: a mayor or governor might get that money and use it just to weatherize for efficiency in public buildings and none of that money will get to the community level. We have a moment of time. We have a president who’s on our side, who believes in us, and that can help solve a lot of problems. It’s not never-neverland stuff. We have to figure out a way to work together.
Do you consider yourself an idealist?
I try to balance idealism with realism. For me, the fact that black people are still here is evidence of the miraculous. We survived our enslavement and Jim Crow and the prison industrial complex and we’re still here, and we’re still a vibrant community culturally, spiritually, even politically. There are miracles everyday. We live in a world that’s made of miracles. If four years ago you said the next president of the United States would be a community organizer from Chicago named Barack Hussein Obama, they would have looked at you like you were crazy. Now he’s the most famous and powerful man in the world. When somebody says [environmental solutions] can’t work, I think they’re the ones who are not realistic. The whole country is awake, and you’ve got people who never got involved in anything in their life and got a black father in the White House. We have a little black girl sleeping in the Lincoln Bedroom every night with hot combs! If we can do that, you mean to tell me we can’t put up solar panels and get off oil? Put up windmills and stop using coal? Put people to work who don’t have jobs? That’s baby stuff compared to what we just saw. The people who deny the human spirit and the miracles all around us, they’re the ones who are unrealistic.
Thank you, Van. Any final words for readers?
Let black people know we’re trying to get a Clean Energy Corps so everyone who wants a job can get a job and if people want to help us, they should go to our Website www.greenforall.org. Sign up for our action team and help us get this thing better.