Van Jones: Beyond the Politics of Confrontation

Meet the man who’s convincing the country, and the new President, that the next economy needs to be green and just.

YES! Photo by Betty Udesen

When I first met Van Jones in 2004, he was working in Oakland with young people of color who were being funneled from inadequate schools and impoverished neighborhoods into overcrowded courts and detention centers. Jones was speaking at a beachside peace conference that day, trying to explain his world to a predominantly white, middle-class audience. When he spoke of his newborn son and the steep odds against his future success, the audience got it. The next economy needs to be both green and just, Van said. It needs to include those left out of the last economy. Van later founded Green for All, became a YES! contributing editor, and now speaks widely about the need for a transition to a just and green economy. I interviewed him shortly after the election of Barack Obama.

Sarah: What does this election change in terms of the issues you care about?

Van: Having President Obama in office means that we have someone whose number one campaign pledge is five million clean jobs, who says that clean energy and energy independence are among his top policy priorities.

So it means that at Green for All , we have a chance to do what we have been talking about doing: helping to build a clean-energy, green economy strong enough to lift people out of poverty and put folks back to work, beat global warming, and make us more energy secure and less involved in oil wars or resource wars. The whole enchilada.

So Barack Obama’s agenda is our agenda, except he’s the president-elect. So that makes our agenda a whole lot easier to get done.

Sarah: Some people say we just don’t have the money to deal with climate change because we have already spent so much on the financial bailout.

Van: The smartest things we can do in the short term pay for themselves. If we were to weatherize and retrofit millions of buildings in the United States, the energy cost savings would let you pay for that work in two to four years. So we literally are wasting money, time, and our planet when there are cost-effective, revenue-positive answers here that would put people to work.

The government needs to create a revolving loan fund so cities, hospitals, and universities can put people to work retrofitting buildings so they leak less energy. Slap some solar panels up there while you’re at it, and then use the cost savings to repay the government so the government can loan that money out again. Now that would be a smart strategy. Or the government could offer federal loan guarantees to get private capital moving in this direction. That’s a way to put people to work.

Sarah: Did you work with the Obama campaign?

Van: I was on a couple of working groups and got a chance to give some advice and counsel to the campaign, as did many people.

Sarah: Are you planning to be part of the Obama administration?

Van: Uh, no! (laughs) No! I am planning to be a part of the Obama Nation as a whole, to bring grassroots power to bear.

Even though we have a great president, we also need a great popular movement to support that president. All of us can’t go into the White House and hang out there. We’ve got a lot of work to do out in these communities, and that’s what I plan to do.

See: Why Van Jones is going to Washington after all

Sarah: One thing I was struck by during the campaign was how much it resembled movement building. How does that work once the head of this movement is in power, and how do those involved in this mobilization maintain independence?

Van: The great thing about it is that Barack Obama didn’t create this movement. This movement created the opportunity for Barack Obama.

This all started with the civil rights movement, of course, but my generation’s involvement began in 1999 in the streets of Seattle when we were warning that the WTO and NAFTA and all the so-called “free-trade” agreements would lead to disaster. People forget that. Here we are 10 years later, and we see the collapse that we were afraid of. The global justice movement morphed after 9/11 into an anti-war and peace movement, then into a “dump Bush” movement, and in 2006 we took back Congress.

We have to make sure this movement keeps on moving and growing, and that we can continue to pull the best out of Barack Obama, even as he inspires the best in us.

Then Barack Obama—seeing the potential of this pro-democracy movement, this concern for green energy, the incredible work Al Gore had done, the pain of Katrina —decided to jump in and relate to this movement and help to take it to an even higher level.

So Barack Obama didn’t create this movement, this movement created the opportunity for Barack Obama to become an historic figure. That means we have to make sure this movement keeps on moving and growing, and that we can continue to pull the best out of Barack Obama, even as he inspires the best in us.

People have to remember what happened when Nelson Mandela became president and all of the ANC activists left Soweto and left the townships and went into Parliament. Those communities are now worse off in terms of violence and economics than they were even under apartheid. That’s one of the shameful secrets of South Africa.

Obama may declare the 10 million people who were part of his campaign an independent organization. He may call it “Yes We Can!” or something like that. But we have to make sure there are independent groups that continue the ecology of hope and the ecology of progress. It’s never going to be one person or one organization—it’s going to be networks of networks that solve these problems.

Sarah: You are one of the people who first brought together the social justice and the environmental movements, and in both places, you have been pushing people to move outside their comfort zones and learn to work together. What was it like for you, personally, to be in that position?

Van: You know, I’ve achieved something great in my life—I am equally uncomfortable everywhere. (laughs) That’s a huge achievement!

It was a long road. It took a while to figure out the language and develop the personal skills. But it was an important road for me to go on as a person, as a man, as a father.

I lost my father this year, and this year I also became a dad for the second time. I have two boys now: Cabral, who is named after Amílcar Cabral, and Maathai, whose name is inspired by Wangari Maathai .

It’s been a long walk, but I am glad that I went on that walk because I know the goodness in this country. I know that many of the best people have not even been heard from yet. People of faith, African Americans, Latinos—a lot of people who you might assume don’t care about the environment and don’t know anything about climate change. They do know what’s going on. But they haven’t had the chance to work together in a way where they feel comfortable and respected and where their other concerns—like their concerns about thrown-away kids—are part of the conversation.

Green for All and the book that I wrote, The Green Collar Economy , both come out of the experience of walking between those worlds and seeing the goodness on both sides—seeing the beauty that, if it could just be connected to itself, would be an unstoppable force for good in this country. It is beginning to happen because it’s the right time, and it’s so beautiful to see!

Sarah: You talk in your book about how our movements should be issuing fewer demands and instead setting more goals, and how we should have fewer targets and more partners. What are you getting at?

Van: I’ve been the biggest practitioner of the politics of confrontation and outrage for most of my life—I’ve gone to my share of prisons and public housing projects and funerals.

But I’ve come to realize that the way that we have done left activism for the last 20, 30, 40 years has been about multiplying enemies. We’ve been trying to show how more and more people are wrong, to be more and more refined in our denunciation of the country and of American culture, and of all the different isms and sicknesses. We’ve been trying to achieve this incredibly rich taxonomy of the pain that we have experienced with varying forms of oppression. And I just don’t think it’s worked out very well.

You can’t lead a country you don’t love. You can’t save a country you aren’t willing to serve.

I think that we’ve gotten ourselves into a bit of a logjam of accusation and blame on all sides of American politics and that it’s time for some of us to give up the addiction to being righteous, being victims, and having the right to be mad at somebody.

It’s not that we are wrong when we point out the exploitation, the oppression, the bigotry, the incredible levels of discrimination that so many people experience. I just don’t think that litany and that dirge is something that has worked out well in terms of getting us the power we need in order to fix it.

I think the power we need to fix it comes from saying that all of that is true, and there is another truth. The other truth is that, despite all of that, there’s still more good in each and every person than there is bad—that there is still more reason for us to work together than for us to fight.

If I have to fight you, I’ll fight you, but I would rather work with you to get a better outcome for my children and for your children.

Sarah: Is there a particular moment when you came to that realization?

Van: Yeah. This morning. (laughs)

It’s a learning, like I said. I was tear gassed during the WTO protests in Seattle, and I think what happened there was an important moment in American politics. I got run over by a police car in D.C. protesting the World Bank in 2000. I know about the need for us to stand up against injustice. I also know about the need for us to stand up for the best in this country.

Here’s the thing: We let people we don’t like tell us what America is. Well the Castro District in San Francisco, that’s America, right? Bayview-Hunter’s Point, Watts, New Bedford, Newark, Appalachia where good working folks are—that’s America, too. I think it’s time for us to stand up for our America and snatch that flag back.

I remember when I was a child, we were told about “liberty and justice for all.” Well, I’m for that! “America the Beautiful,” I’m for that. And I’m willing to oppose the clear-cutters who want to destroy that beauty. I’m willing to oppose the “Drill, baby, drill” and the “Spill, baby, spill” politics that would undercut America’s beauty.

The best gift that we can give the world is a better America. If you want to be a good global citizen, fix America ! You can’t lead a country you don’t love. You can’t save a country you aren’t willing to serve.

So as far as I am concerned, the big contradiction has not been on the right. The big contradiction has been on the left. Allegedly, our politics are the politics of love and redemption, but you sure couldn’t tell it coming to our protests. You sure couldn’t tell it listening to our radio programs. You sure couldn’t tell reading our blogs that we are on the side of love and forgiveness.

So I hope I don’t sound too Pollyanna-ish, but part of a politics of restoration has to do with fixing some of the brokenness inside. Fighting the polluter within, fighting the incarcerator within, fighting the warmonger within—as well as all those things without. That’s where I think the new politics is going to take us.

Sarah: The first time I saw you speak, your first son had just been born, and you were talking about your fears for his future. Now you have two sons, and so much has changed in American politics. How are you are feeling now about your children’s future?

Van: You know, it’s funny. In 2004, there were so many people who were despairing because of John Kerry’s defeat. I felt there was something to be gained by four more years in opposition. I felt there was something to be gained by four more years to actually build a pro-democracy movement that didn’t necessarily fit under the Democratic Party—which is what happened.

I also thought it was time for me to take more responsibility as a father for what was going on and not be content to just protest from the sidelines. I wanted to find ways to build better coalitions and to work on my own issues so that I could be a better bridge builder and continue the work of expanding our pro-democracy movement. I spent the past four years doing that. As a result, I’m much more hopeful.

When Maathai was born, I was excited for him. I said, “This guy’s gonna have a president that looks just like him when he’s eight years old. Going into third grade, he’s never going to have known a president that didn’t look just like him.” Now that’s pretty remarkable. He’s going to see technological innovations and things in his lifetime that will save the world. That’s a good thing. So in four years, not only has the country gotten more hopeful, more determined, more effective, but I hope I have, too. And I hope my kids will benefit.

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