I grew up in an era in which communities of color had been devastated by the loss of leadership. Crippled by the death, incarceration, co-optation, or expatriation of many of the civil rights movement’s brightest heroes, much of the momentum that had been built in the 1950s and 1960s had been lost by the time the 1980s hit. And while it is rarely talked about, this loss of leadership has diminished our ability to effectively fight for change, even when communities of color potentially have the political power to demand sweeping structural transformations.
Of course, not all has been lost. All across the country, leaders born in the post-civil-rights era have been picking up the baton.
Van Jones is one the brightest examples of our generation’s leadership. From his powerful oratorical skills to his impressive track record tackling issues like the intense unemployment and police brutality that plague urban America, over the last several years Van has inspired thousands of people from a diverse array of backgrounds to get engaged.
That’s why I was so surprised when progressives did not respond more decisively when right-wing, conservative talking heads first attacked Van while he was serving in the Obama administration as the Special Adviser for Green Jobs. While I understand that no individual is bigger than any cause or campaign, I don’t believe that we are in a position to let our leaders get undermined by right-wing ideologues.
The rhetoric coming from his attackers was completely contrived, but when we allowed the right to attack Van without raising our voices, we gave our opponents an opportunity to build momentum. By not protecting him, we allowed the right to prevent us from having a transformative thinker and leader inside the administration.
And that’s exactly why Van was attacked. Like so many of our fallen heroes, Van has a rare ability to both build coalitions and challenge us to envision a world that does not yet exist. He was not attacked because of his political beliefs or because of his economic ideology. They attacked Van because he is effective at building a more equal and just society.
But we can’t let them win.
We need to become more engaged than ever in pushing Van’s message of eco-equality and clean energy at the federal level, especially now, as Congress is considering climate bills. If we let this opportunity pass us by, we have truly let Van Jones down.
And more importantly, the next time someone attacks our leaders, we have to step up and say something. Don’t be afraid to speak up and let the administration know that you aren’t going to tolerate our leaders being picked off. Your emails, letters, and phone calls can go a long way. Because we absolutely cannot let the right be the loudest voice in the discourse.
After all, our generation can’t afford to let our leaders become martyrs.
Interested? Van Jones is a former YES! Magazine contributing editor. .