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Green Streets: O Interviews Van Jones

By Ned Martel
O Magazine

Putting two at-risk entities together—the environment and inner-city kids—activist Van Jones has come up with a plan to save both. And now that he's got some friends in high places, his ideas are about to take off.

Green Streets: O Interviews Van Jones

Photo: Art Streiber

Van Jones is shouting from a rooftop, asking the folks below him to agree on one thing, which he issues in his Tennessee drawl: "If I fall, y'all cannot laugh. We got a deal?"

The shingled slope is not really sheltering anyone or anything from the elements; it's a facsimile of a building—an unfinished house inside a cavernous warehouse. The whole setup looks like an art project but is really an inner-city green-jobs training site in Richmond, California. In yellow construction helmets, Jones and two trainees have just hoisted a solar panel into place and secured it with power tools. And they do so over and over, as a camera crew from Dan Rather's HDNet television program keeps asking for retakes. Jones, in a dark blazer, black jeans, and street shoes, is game, masking his discomfort about the danger and the artifice of all this. He has, above all, a message to get out.

At 40, Jones is busier than he's ever been. His best-selling manifesto, The Green Collar Economy, came out in October. It broadcasts his goal of bringing environmental principles to the rescue of urban communities. His theory of economic empowerment is not, as he says, some "eco-chic thing or eco-freak thing for those of us who live close to Berkeley." His organization, Green for All, advocates for green-worker training, counsels local governments on how to set and meet energy-saving goals, and mentors leaders in poor communities to become front-runners in this emerging economic field. He thinks the unemployed during this downturn could be paid by the government to put their communities' houses in ecological order. Green workers could turn roofs into solar fields and fix leaks in windows, doors, and poorly insulated walls.

"Our vision is that people will be able to be continually up-skilled: from laborer to installer to licensed electrician," says Jones, who believes, with his characteristic optimism, that as workers climb the job ladder, they might discover new applications for existing technology. "Tilt the panel this way or that way, and you could conceivably come up with a real breakthrough and start your own company," he explains. "Managers, then owners, then inventors." The most important job a person gets is their first job, says Jones, noting that many folks without employment history can't get hired, even for positions where the company will have to train all its recruits. "It's like Jack and the beanstalk," he says. "We just want people to get in on the ground floor to grow with the industry." In one of Jones's favorite sayings, inner-city kids would realize the real ways to get rich if they would "put down the handgun and pick up a caulk gun."

Launched at the 2007 Clinton Global Initiative, Green for All has a $5 million annual budget and a staff of more than 30, and a growing list of foundation grants and individual donations. Although Green for All is officially a little more than a year old, Jones' involvement in environmental causes has its roots in his work at a nonprofit group that he co-founded in 1996, the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights. Green for All partners with groups in other cities—a green-job-corps group in Pittsburgh, another in Atlanta, and one in Newark—some of which have been around longer and some of which began with different missions, but all now laboring toward the Green for All objective of a surge in new workers creating a surge in cleaner, more sustainable energy practices.

At the training facility, Jones is eager for cameras to spotlight his organization and its partners at Solar Richmond, a nonprofit that has a goal of helping the city produce five megawatts of electricity from solar sources by 2010. Jones has an easy and encouraging manner with the trainees and gives his full concentration to one who is telling him how to climb down from the ladder. The instructions require him to stand to one side of it and configure his hands so they will hold him up as he does a twisting move to put his feet on the rungs. The bookish man in rimless spectacles hoists his 6'2" frame into place. There's a three-second flash of anxiety visible just before he pushes forth a big smile. The dozen colleagues and spectators below him start clapping.

Jones grew up in western Tennessee, where he attended college. After graduating from Yale Law School in 1993, he moved from New Haven to the Bay Area and turned his energies toward the local social justice movement, surprised that a region known for its progressive public policy had such strained ties between the poor communities and law enforcement. Most pressing was the problem of police brutality, with a shoot-first impulse in urban zones that left unarmed youth murdered and police ranks closed in and defensive.

It reminded him of similar injustice in New Haven, where he saw moneyed white kids who were caught with drugs receiving judicial wrist slaps, while drug use among African-Americans was punished with prison terms. Jones co-founded the Ella Baker Center in the Bay Area, which became known for its Books Not Bars program, advocating against the imprisonment of juvenile offenders. Jones and his allies could chalk up success when they blocked a juvenile superprison and helped reduce the mass jailings. But the death toll in his community took a psychic toll on the young activist.

"In the 1990s, I probably went to a funeral of somebody under 25 if not every month then at least four times a year," he says, recounting a series of victims that remains vivid in his mind: In one incident, a white girl was merely sitting in a car with black friends when police shot up the car. He was surrounded by "the culture of funerals—the poster boards with pictures of the prom." His voice trails off. "I just couldn't take it."

Jones was confronting burnout at a make-or-break time for his coalition of Bay Area activists—the folks who had been pushing mayors and city councils and school boards to brighten the prospects of inner-city youth. California voters, however, had been exhausted by urban violence. A group of conservative reformers backed Proposition 21, a statewide referendum on juvenile crime that called for stricter penalties for gang violence, carjacking, and other felonies. The initiative would place 16-year-olds into the adult prison population. The activists Jones worked with had a common opponent, but the strains among them grew.

"In 1999, that was the year a lot of the infighting blew up," he says. When the voters went to the polls in March 2000, the proposition passed with 62 percent of the vote, and allies became enemies. "There was grantmaker rivalry, Jerry Springer–worthy escapades. It was just a train wreck. That kind of threw me on my back." He felt as if he were on one side of a battle, with seemingly everyone else on the other. It didn't help that Jones was living what he calls a balled-up-fist existence, a solitary life that involved sleeping on a mattress on a floor with stacks of books around him. His outlook involved no pleasure and no compromise. One day he found himself arguing with a government official, when it occurred to him that "this guy is being nicer to me than half the activists in Oakland."

He realized, slowly, that maybe other people weren't the problem. Maybe he was. In 2000 Jones embarked on a series of trips north to Marin County. He says he spent his time "meditating, listening to New Age lectures about self-improvement, dancing ecstatically with white people banging on drums." He delved into shamanism, Buddhist retreats, Rolfing, yoga, Landmark, you name it. "I was so desperate for healing," he says now, "I was like Frankenstein, drinking out of every vial."

He began to resolve his grief through counseling, praying, and falling in love with a law student named Jana, who is now his wife. His personal quest would begin to influence his work at Ella Baker. "I remember driving back over the bridge into Oakland," he says of one trip. "I was coming back to all the bullshit." At that moment, he noticed he was crossing a divide he hadn't realized was there, where the northern zones had healthy, greener lifestyles and the urban areas had the lethal opposite. "In Marin, they had all this stuff you never see in Oakland: Salads! Tofu! Hybrid cars!" he says. "I had this epiphany: This is eco-apartheid. If I have to move over here in order to be healthy, we're gonna have ecological haves and have-nots, and it's gonna get worse and worse and worse."

His green conversion was gradual, and his new personal interests didn't immediately translate to professional success. He knew his enthusiasm for hybrids would not spread quickly in poor neighborhoods: "No one's ever going to say, 'Yeah, pimp my Prius.'" Still, his Marin soul-searching had given Jones a vague idea of "green-jobs-not-jails," and his course was charted after he attended a workshop featuring Julia Butterfly Hill, a legend in the eco-community for having sat on a platform atop a redwood tree, protesting the clear-cutting of old-growth forests. "She was there not for two days, not for two weeks, but for two years!" Jones says, his eyes wide in disbelief. He was amazed not just by her commitment but also by her sense of peace, which enabled her to befriend hostile loggers whose company tried to literally force her to fall from the upper boughs with the blasts of air from their helicopters, and there were months when the winds of El Niño might have done it first.

"I wanna be like that!" he recalls saying to himself. "I was very good at calling people out— 'You suck!'—and Julia was good at calling people up." He befriended Hill, and together they realized that forces in the economy were clear-cutting inner-city kids in much the same way they were clear-cutting old-growth forests.

To date, Green for All has led to the training of only "several hundred" green workers, by Jones' count, but that could soon change. He advised House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on the creation of a clean energy jobs bill, which passed the House and became law in 2007. Its principal sponsor, Hilda Solis, was President Obama's top choice for Secretary of Labor, and the Jones agenda is moving forward faster than he could push it on his own, with green-worker training an important part of the Obama stimulus package. The new administration, in its opening weeks, requested a staggering $500 million for these programs, which could train as many as 120,000 workers. At press time, Congress was still negotiating the final number, but the green-collar movement, in all its permutations, is likely to see some of its most industrious dreams come true.

Jones is determined to take advantage of this moment. Keeping up with him over two days in December demands stamina; his life is spent sprinting from panel discussion to community meeting, from a job-training site to a baby shower in the Green for All break room. In the backseat of a borrowed hybrid SUV hurtling down a Los Angeles freeway, he fields a phone query from a congressional aide, scans an agenda for his next meeting with East L.A. church leaders who want to go green, and edits a piece that is about to go live on The Huffington Post . At an activist confab held in the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, Jones quickly warms up the crowd. "How many of you people made a fool of yourself on election night? Crying all over the place, flying snot everywhere, traumatizing your children?" With a practiced ear, he lets the laughter build and then pushes it with what his 4-year-old son—he has an 8-month-old son, too—asked that night: "Mama, what is history and why does it make Daddy cry?"

During the question-and-answer session, a Sierra Club veteran offers broad support of green-collar goals, though the audience feels a "but" is coming. Sure enough, the man wallops the panelists with vehement criticism of one small aspect of the day's talk. Jones offers that he isn't easily discouraged. "Luckily, I've had a lot of therapy," he says, and repurposes the man's negative energy into something vaguely positive that everyone can agree with: "There are no disposable resources. There are no disposable species. There are no disposable children." His remarks create long lines of folks who want their books signed, their business cards pocketed, their related ideas absorbed, until it's time for Jones to literally close the door of the SUV and speed off to the next meeting.

If Jones began his green quest by communicating with outsider radicals like Hill, he's now solidly on the inside. Brainiacs in the environmental community, überlobbyists in Washington, Al Gore and other heavy hitters are not only supporting Jones but asking him what's next and what they can give him to get there. "He really understands that there is a lot of work that needs to be done and that there are a lot of folks who need work. He's been able to figure out how to connect those twin needs," says Fred Krupp, president of the Environmental Defense Fund.

Jones acknowledges that his race provides more opportunities for his voice to be heard. "I'm just a friendly black guy," he says, and does an old-white-man voice, "Let's put him on the board." His new contacts have taken him to familiar left-leaning places—for instance, a Ben & Jerry's–sponsored get-together—and then to some more unexpected ones, like the Arctic trek the Aspen Institute and the National Geographic Society organized that had him gabbing with Jimmy Carter, Tom Daschle, Ted Turner, and executives from Google, Monsanto, and DuPont. The purpose of the expedition when it was planned the year before was to show power brokers the Great Melt up close, but when the hard-to-book guests flew north last summer, that awareness-first goal had basically become obsolete. As Jones says, "By the time we got up there, the conversation had pretty much moved on nationally." Still, he found inspiration just by looking around. "Every 10 feet there would be some chunk of whale bone. You know, our forebears should have left us a bay full of whales and all they left us with was bones. They overfished the whales practically to extinction; that just rang in my head in terms of what we're leaving our kids. We'll be lucky if my grandkids can find a zoo with a tiger in it."

Despite his packed schedule—his talks, trips, and solar panel demos for Dan Rather—and his seemingly innate storytelling talents, Jones isn't a natural power broker. "I'm an extreme introvert in an extrovert's job," he says. "I'm most comfortable reading or in small groups." It becomes clear after the events of the past two days that he would prefer to retreat from any crowded room and instead to hole up with a biography of John Muir or a podcast of Ronald Reagan, whom Jones admires for "making it look so easy and telling a lot of stories." Reagan's example shows that as a president, you need to "plant your pole and let the country come to it," Jones says. "Actually, Reagan gave me comfort because he spent a lot of time in the wilderness."

Today the country is moving toward the ideas Jones has planted. He realizes there's a lot of communal goodwill for his goals right now and—he's learned this the hard way—a lot of conflict ahead too. But he's clear about what he wants: hundreds of thousands of green-collar workers trained and deployed, returning energy to the power companies' grids, and finding roles for workers and investors in poor communities—all as this green economy recharges the nation's gross domestic product. "I'll work with anybody to get that," he says. "And I'll work against anybody to get that."

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