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Want Jobs? Rebuild the Dream

Van Jones is leading a national mobilization to rebuild the middle class—through decent work, fair taxes, and opportunities for all.

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With politics in D.C. hitting new lows, few progressives look to either the Obama administration or the two major parties for leadership in restoring the middle class and transitioning to a green, just economy. Instead, many are returning to a strategy that actually brought real progress during the last century: building strong, unified, and sustained people’s movements.

Van Jones is one of those working to build people power today.  Jones is a co-founder of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, Color of Change, and Green for All. He was appointed as a White House advisor on green jobs, but an attack led by Glenn Beck of Fox News led to his resignation in September 2009. Jones is currently a senior fellow on green jobs and climate solutions at the Center for American Progress and a visiting fellow at Princeton University.

YES! Executive Editor Sarah van Gelder spoke to Jones shortly before he launched the movement to Rebuild the American Dream. With groups involved ranging from MoveOn.org to organized labor, could this be the 21st-century movement that makes hope and change relevant again?


Sarah van Gelder: You are launching a movement to rebuild the American Dream. Can you tell me about what you’re planning?

Van Jones photoVan Jones: Sure. It’s been almost two years since I resigned from my position at the White House. I spent a year teaching at Princeton and reflecting on what happened and what we can do next.

I came away with some thoughts about how the Tea Party movement was able to derail our movement for hope and change. We didn’t have a grassroots mechanism to consolidate our own vision and our own voices. So now the politics of war and austerity have taken over Washington, D.C., and the politics of peace and prosperity don’t have a voice in American society.

It's impossible to deal with the deficit if you refuse to put increased tax revenues on the table and if you refuse to wind down the wars.

So, we can continue doing what we’ve been doing—each of us fighting our own battles, often fighting well, but fighting alone and leaving the coordinated, coherent, consolidated movement on the other side to wipe us all out as individual causes.

Or, all the folks who are fighting foreclosures, who are trying to make banks more accountable to the American people, fighting against union busting, fighting against major cutbacks in essential services, fighting against the attempt to destroy Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, and fighting for jobs—all these Americans could stand together under a common banner of defending the American Dream.

For the YES! Magazine readership, which is a very conscious, green, and spiritually grounded readership, the idea of defending the American Dream might sit poorly at first. I think that’s because what used to be called the American Dream got turned into the American fantasy, which is the idea that everybody is going to be rich and that buying a bunch of things will somehow make you happy. Well, that American fantasy has led to an American nightmare.

But that does not take away from the power of the American Dream itself. The very first thing Dr. King says about his dream in his famous speech is this: “I have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American Dream.” He’s referring to the notion that hard work should pay; that ordinary people, no matter what sort of family they were born into, should be able to work hard and get someplace. Ordinary people, if they’re willing and able to work, should be able to get up in the morning, find a job, and walk through the front door with the dignity of a paycheck able to give their kids a better life. And they should be able to retire with dignity.

That is the American Dream. That is why people have come here from all around the world, and that’s why those of us whose families didn’t choose to come here have chosen to stay—because we believe that we, too, can make good on that promise.

Well, that dream is exactly what is being destroyed for tens of millions of Americans by dream killers who are shoving an austerity agenda down our throats. They have painted a wrecking ball red, white, and blue, and they expect the American people to stand here and salute while they knock down the pillars of America’s great middle class and all the pathways into the middle class for Americans who are not yet there.

I think that we have a responsibility to meet that cheap patriotism with a deeper patriotism that defends the best values of our country.

It’s not a question of wallets but a question of will­­—whether or not we connect all the people who need work with all the great work that needs to be done in our country.

Sarah van Gelder: You mentioned that you learned some lessons about how to go about that organizing from the Tea Party. What did you learn?

Van Jones: Yes. People think of the Tea Party as a solid organization with a headquarters, a building, a receptionist, a president who you could get a meeting with.

That’s not the way the Tea Party works. The Tea Party is in fact an open-source brand that thousands of organizations use but nobody owns. You have the Tea Party Patriots, Tea Party Nation, and Tea Party Express and other national federations. You also have 3,528 affiliates of the Tea Party Patriots alone. Many of these organizations pre-existed the Tea Party movement—many of them go all the way back to the Perot days. There are some new people, but most have been around for a very long time.

They’ve been able to achieve an incredible amount of cooperation. For example, they have consolidated their values in a Contract from America, which between 50,000 and 100,000 people worked on together as a wiki.

This is a very interesting development. Here you have the most staunch advocates of rugged individualism, and yet this is the most collectivist strategy for taking power that we’ve seen in the history of the Republic—3,528 affiliates all using an open-source brand, writing their documents collectively using a wiki. But they stand for rugged individualism!

Yet, on our side, we technically stand for “solidarity forever,” “Kumbaya,” “can’t we all get along,” “let’s all cooperate,” and yet we act in ways that are extremely individualistic: my group versus your group, crabs in a barrel, “Why did they give her that grant?”

So I think our challenge is to get our movement to be as warm and fuzzy and cooperative as the Tea Party.

The American Dream Movement is trying to take the very tactics that made the Tea Party such a force: identifying pre-existing assets, organizations, and leaders, and getting them to cooperate under a shared brand and framework.

Just like you can’t copyright or trademark the Tea Party because it’s part of American history, nobody can copyright or trademark the American Dream. The deeper patriots who are fighting to rebuild the dream can keep their own organizational affiliation, but use the banner of the American Dream Movement to face off with the cheaper patriots whose policies actually kill the American Dream.

Sarah van Gelder: What is this movement’s jobs agenda? We’re in a period of protracted, high unemployment—how will this movement help?

Van Jones: We’re the richest country in the history of the world—still. Our economy is as big as two Chinas; it’s almost as big as all of Europe. We’re not a poor country, although we may have poor leadership. In a crisis like this—which is the worst crisis that we’ve had since the Great Depression—the government should be stepping forward as a lender, spender, and employer of last resort.

People say, “Well, it’s not possible, because of the deficit.” Au contraire. If we just went back to Clinton-era tax policy and military expenditures, we could kill the whole deficit in 10 years. It’s impossible to deal with the deficit if you refuse to put increased tax revenues on the table and if you refuse to wind down the wars. That’s when you then have the excuse to destroy Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid.

It’s not a question of wallets but a question of will­­—whether or not we connect all the people who need work with all the great work that needs to be done in our country.

Face in protest photo by Elvert BarnesHow to Build a People's Movement
Now's the time to challenge economic orthodoxy—but only a massive social movement can turn things around.

And that is where the American Dream Movement comes in, because we want to disrupt this austerity mania and put forward more common-sense ideas. For instance, on Wall Street right now, you have people who are literally sitting with their feet up on their desks, sipping a latte, while a computer runs a thousand trades a second, based on algorithms—and makes tons of money. Yet people say, “We can’t tax rich people because we’ll discourage them.”

We could have a small tax on every one of those lightning trades, and The New York Times says we could pull billions of dollars off of Wall Street to fund massive infrastructure projects across America, and get skilled workers back rebuilding America’s roads, bridges, hospitals, and schools.

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