Feature UTopics — 25 May 2009
Van Jones and the Promise of a Green Future

With a touch of Tennessee humility, Van Jones deflects suggestions that he’s Barack Obama’s green jobs “czar.” Instead the UT Martin graduate insists he’s the administration’s green jobs handyman, working with various federal agencies to advance the Obama climate and energy agenda. His official title, bestowed in March 2009, is special adviser for green jobs, enterprise, and innovation to the Council on Environmental Quality. Late last year, he talked with Tennessee Alumnus about his already considerable activism and accomplishments.

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By Rita Mitchell

Van Jones isn’t likely to forget 2008. He scored a New York Times bestseller with The Green Collar Economy, was named a Time magazine Environmental Hero and one of the George Lucas Foundation’s Daring Dozen, and received the San Francisco Foundation Community Leadership Award. It also was the year his father died, his ­second son was born, and he turned 40.

Jones—a Jackson, Tennessee, native who lives in Oakland, California—is an environmental, civil-rights, and human-rights activist. He is founding president of Green for All, a national organization that promotes green-collar jobs and opportunities for the disadvantaged. He is promoting a plan to put people to work retrofitting the country and making it more environmentally sound. He also is a senior fellow for the Center for American Progress, a Democratic Party think tank. In 1996 the UT Martin and Yale Law School graduate co-founded the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, which advocates for juvenile justice reform, police reform, youth violence prevention, and green-collar jobs.

Also last year, Jones and his ideas were featured in Tom Friedman’s book Hot, Flat, and Crowded. He appeared on CNN’s Feature #1, Fox News’s Your World With Neil Cavuto, National Public Radio’s Living on Earth, and Steven Colbert’s The Colbert Report. He’s been featured in Good magazine, Newsweek, and the New York Times. He helped develop policy papers for presidential candidates and gained endorsements of his book from former vice-president Al Gore and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi.

It was a momentous year, but Jones says, “We’re just getting started.”

“I’ve always been passionate about positive change, and I think we need a lot of it in this country.” During the next decade he hopes to see America “getting back to being America” and taking “a leadership role in clean energy.”

Jones says Americans are supposed to be the innovators and problem-solvers of the world. “We’ve got a big problem with global warming and our reliance on oil, and I believe we can fix it. I believe we can do it in a way that gives everybody a shot at a better job and lower energy prices.” Jones isn’t talking about high-tech solutions; he says skilled labor is what’s needed to weatherize buildings and put up solar panels.

He says the buzz his ideas have created in the national media has been gratifying, but it’s the ideals his father taught him, the values he wants to teach his sons, and his hope for the future that fuel his passions—helping to save the environment, lifting people out of poverty, promoting juvenile justice reform, and combating youth violence, among others.

He credits UT Martin for preparing him for life on a global stage. “I left UT Martin confident that I could take on any challenge and do well at it if I studied hard and worked hard and kept my nose clean. I really do think you can get absolutely anywhere from UT Martin . . . because of the quality of caring and individual attention.”

Jones said he could imagine “being a volunteer” serving on a federal commission on clean energy or green jobs.

“The role that I think I can play is primarily helping mayors and governors get on board with the new agenda and do well. In other words, just because the president wants something to happen or Congress passes a law doesn’t mean that people at the local level can or even want to implement it.” Jones maintains there is a real need for the “ ‘bottom up’ to meet the ‘top down,’ and I’m more of a bottom-up person. That’s the role I’ve carved out for myself with Green For All. We work with the U.S. Conference of Mayors. We have agreements with them to do green jobs in multiple cities.”

Jones says the U.S. needs to get away from “borrowing from Asia, and start relying on U.S. creativity to power our economy again. It’s a breakdown, but it can become a breakthrough.” He says the premise of his book and the desire to try to cure several of society’s ills stemmed from a personal experience in 2000. He was working with poor, troubled youths who had been jailed for nonviolent crimes, trying to help them turn their lives around. Jones says he burned out and needed to restore his health in order to continue the work. In the process of adopting a healthier lifestyle, he met a number of people who were promoting solar and organic companies, and he could see the job-creation potential in those markets, besides their environmental and health advantages.

“I just had a flash of insight. I said, ‘What if these kids I’m working with have green jobs and not jail?’ So that became my slogan—‘green jobs, not jail.’ That was in 2000 and 2001, and when I said ‘green jobs’ no one knew what I was talking about.” Still, he persisted and envisioned how the very people who needed jobs the most could benefit from companies promoting clean energy products, as well as other environmentally friendly and healthful ideas. “I said, ‘We can fight pollution and poverty at the same time by creating some of these jobs and making sure the people who need those jobs get them.’ ”

When Congress held hearings in January on green jobs and the economic stimulus, Jones was invited to testify. “We can power America through this recession by repowering America with clean energy,” he said. He proposed that the Obama administration form a Clean Energy Corps to do community service and job training and put people to work retrofitting buildings.

Jones has been committed to social issues, especially helping children out of poverty, for a long time. “My father grew up in poverty, and he always gave back.” So in working with youth, Jones believed “If they get that chance at the right moment, they can go out and become anything. I’ve been thinking about this for almost a decade.”

He says his personal conviction helped convince such people as Gore and Pelosi to support his book. “They could see I had thought this through.” An e-mail–based people-to-people networking effort helped The Green Collar Economy debut last fall at the number 12 spot on the New York Times bestseller list.

“That was eye-opening and mind-blowing,” he says. “Ordinarily, if you are a first-time author on a kind of strange topic, you have to either be on Oprah or spend a million dollars [to be successful]. Now technology takes networking to a different level. And if a network can elevate a book to the bestseller list, it can propel a law, a concept, an issue to the forefront.”

Jones says his faith and upbringing spur him to remain hopeful, learn from his mistakes, and apply that knowledge and experience to help people. They also provide a strong foundation for how he and his wife, Jana, raise their two sons. First and foremost, he wants them to be honest and hardworking.

What will he tell them about his passions when they’re older? “I think every gift that you’ve been given is a loan to give someone else, and that whatever you do, don’t hoard it. Find a way to pass it on to other people. That’s going to give you a better life, and it’s going to make a better world.”

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