Our Interview with Van Jones

Pexels: Porapak Apichodilok

Van Jones is working to combine solutions to America's two biggest problems: social inequality and environmental destruction.

In 1996, Van and Diana Frappier co-founded the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, headquartered in Oakland, California. Named for an unsung civil rights heroine, the Center promotes positive alternatives to violence and incarceration.

Van Jones
Van Jones.

Van and the Ella Baker Center were instrumental in working with House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), Rep. Hilda Solis (D-CA), Rep. John Tierney (D-MA) to pass the Green Jobs Act of 2007. This historic piece of legislation could provide $125 million in funding to train 35,000 people a year in “green-collar jobs.”

Green America editor Tracy Fernandez Rysavy spoke to Van about why green-collar jobs are an intrinsic part of creating a socially just and environmentally sustainable world that truly works for all.


Green America/ TRACY FERNANDEZ RYSAVY: When you first started your social justice work, I noticed that it focused mainly on civil rights.  You said you were not an environmentalist at the time. How did you start to see the links between the two?

VAN JONES: I’ve always cared about the world and the Earth, but when I got out of school in the 1990s, it seemed like you had to choose. You either had to choose to care about the environment or care about people. And then you had to choose again; Okay, you care about people, but do you care about economics or criminal justice or immigrant rights? Everything was so divided up, that even if your heart might incorporate everything, your job description couldn’t and didn’t.

So, like a lot of people, I found my way, as best I could. When I first got out of law school, I had an opportunity to help the Sioux fight off a Chevron refinery in Richmond, California, which was an environmental justice case.

But when I was trying to find more clients, many of them were more concerned about police brutality than they were about asthma, so I wound up veering in the direction of police brutality and prisons.

If there was a turning point for me, it came around the year 2000. I had a real emotional breakdown because of overwork and burnout and was trying to look for more hopeful answers than just opposition to injustice. I wound up meeting Julia Butterfly Hill and going to the Social Venture Network and going to Bioneers, and I started to realize that there was something positive happening in this world of green solutions. I could see that there could be a link between green solutions and social solutions.

I just had this kind of flow that came into my mind around “green jobs, not jails.” It just made sense to me, that if there’s going to be all this cool green stuff—organic this and hybrid that and solar the other thing—then the people who most need new hope and new jobs and new investment and new opportunities should get that stuff.

It didn’t seem like a big revolutionary thing in my mind. It felt like a natural extension of trying to solve problems.

I think it came from years of banging my head against the wall in terms of police brutality and prison expansion, and not really seeing a way out, short of a complete, revolutionary transformation of our whole society. It was very frustrating and very painful. But what happened for me was that I saw the green capitalist movement that was trying to find a better way of doing business and trying to put forward real solutions to ecological problems. It made me feel more hopeful, and I felt like this was a good little engine that needed to hitch other constituencies and concerns to it, and also to accept the added boost from a new caboose or two that came from other parts of society.



TRACY: It sounds like it’s more than a caboose, though, from what I’ve heard you discuss about “eco-apartheid” and “eco-equity.” You’re talking about retrofitting the whole train. Can you tell me more about those two concepts—what are they, and how do green collar jobs fit into the equation?

VAN JONES: Well, eco-apartheid would be a situation where you have ecological haves and ecological have-nots. You can see it in northern California now, where Marin County has a lot of ecologically friendly products and services, and Oakland has much less of that and a lot more pollution-based industries that cause asthma and other problems. The real nature of eco-apartheid is not only that it’s completely immoral, but it’s also deceptive. It won’t work.  It leads to a kind of blindness to the real extent of ecological problems, because you end up with this attitude of, “Oh, everybody I know eats organic, or everybody I know owns a hybrid, or everybody I know is recycling, so we must be making progress.”

And that’s very, very dangerous, because if only 20 percent of the economy is sustainable, that means 80 percent is not sustainable and will be undoing all the good work of people trying to do things more sustainably. So in order to have a green economy that really works, everybody needs to work in a green and clean industry, take green and clean transportation there, and have homes that are energy efficient. Getting the green benefits spread broadly across society is the only thing that makes sense.

And yet, many people believe that if we just had the right technologies and good entrepreneurship, everything is going to work out fine. That strikes me as a kind of trickle-down Reagan-omics in “greenface” applied to the biggest problem in the history in the world.

You have to have smart government involvement, you have to have the labor movement engaged, you have to have communities of faith, and racial justice communities, and others actively involved. Everybody can’t go hit Whole Foods and spend a bunch of money paying a green premium to be part of this movement. So the best-intentioned folks in the world are in some danger of falling short of true eco-equity. And eco-equity is the only outcome that will avoid a real catastrophe.

Eco-equity means you have a green economy that is strong enough to lift people out of poverty, and give everybody a stake in the clean and green future.

What does that look like? Well, it looks like green-collar jobs for people who might be displaced in either the globalized economy or in the transition to a low-carbon economy. We’ve got to make sure those people actually wind up in the workforce and not displaced or disgruntled. We’ve got to think about highlighting and foregrounding the health benefits. We’ve got to be shutting down a bunch of incinerators, dumps, and power plants.

We’ve got to try to make sure that the people who most need clean and green energy for their own health benefit early. Put the solar panels in the ghetto first, in the barrio first. If you’re going to weatherize buildings, start with where the poor people live, so they don’t have to spend so much of their income on heating and cooling and leaky homes.

Put young people in the neighborhood to work putting up those solar panels and working on those wind farms. Don’t stop there—help them become managers and owners and truly economically empowered through this green process.

A commitment to eco-equity is saying that the green wave will lift all boats, and then doing everything we can to make sure we do that. That’s the next step of this environmental revolution. The next step is to expand the coalition against global warming and ecological destruction to include people of all races and classes.


TRACY: Can you give an example of how ignoring working-class people hurts everyone?

VAN JONES: California gets celebrated as this place where everybody is for the green revolution, but in November 2006, California voters rejected a clean-energy ballot measure, Proposition 87. The idea was to take a little bit of the money from the oil and gas that was being extracted in California and put it toward a big clean energy fund that would have supported new technologies—basically using oil money to replace oil. It would have really benefited the planet in terms of global warming, it would have cleaned up the air and created more jobs in the solar, wind, and renewable fuel industry.

It was a great idea, but it went down in flames. Why? Because the polluters spent a bunch of money telling poor and working-class Californians that it was a big tax that was going to sock them in the pocketbook, and voters turned against it. Nobody made the arguments to working-class people about how it would help in terms of wealth and jobs and health improvements. When Bill Clinton and Al Gore got on the airwaves to try to sell the initiative, they didn’t speak to the kitchen-table concerns of working-class Californians, so people turned away from it and voted it down. Even a leader in the NAACP came out against it because she said it would hurt her constituency.

You know, if you can’t pass a clean energy tax in California without polluters reaching out to poor people and sinking the measure, then how are you going to get one passed in Kentucky or any place else?

Our view is that despite the state’s green reputation, working-class Californians have not been convinced that what’s good for the planet is good for their pocketbook.

In order for us to have a stable political majority in the country that can support this transition to cleaner, greener capitalism over the next couple of decades, we have to actively look out for the interests of working-class people. We have to take every step we can to minimize the pain and maximize the gain for poor people and people of color in this transition. We cannot accept a reality where low-income people get hit first and worst by all the ecological bad stuff like Katrina but are expected to benefit last and least from all the ecological good stuff like solar panels and improved transportation and cleaned up air. That is unjust.

Working-class and low-income people are going to have to be included in the environmental revolution based on tangible benefits to themselves and their families.  And those tangible material benefits will not occur automatically, without very deliberate design on the part of business leaders, government, and civil society.


TRACY: And you’re trying to do a microcosm of that design with the Oakland Green Job Corps?

VAN JONES: Exactly. In Oakland, we feel like we’re following the example of the civil rights movement. And it didn’t start in DC, despite all the pictures you see of Dr. King in front of the Lincoln Memorial. The movement started in its modern form in Montgomery, Alabama, which was one town that stood up and said we’ve been moving in one direction for 100 years, and now it’s time to move in another direction.

That one little town stood up, and pretty soon, towns all around the South were standing up, and we got federal legislation. We’re saying Oakland needs to be one of the Montgomerys of the new century, in terms of saying that for 100 years we’ve had a pollution-, poison-, and poverty-based economy, and now we need to have a clean, green economy that’s strong enough to lift people out of poverty, and we’re going to start it right here.

Everybody sees the environmental revolution in terms of consumer choices and entrepreneurship and cool technology, and that’s one way to look at it. But we look at it from the point of view of the workers—and the people who would be workers if they had a chance. If you’re going to have a world-class green economy, you’ve got to have a world-class green-collar workforce to do all the work. Somebody has to put up all those solar panels and weatherize the buildings and reforest all the countryside and urban landscapes, and all of that’s labor. It’s good vocational labor that can be the first step on a pathway out of poverty.

If the green economy can speak to those kinds of people—people who need work, who are present in the US in large numbers—you suddenly have a very formidable force of people who are supporting this U-turn. If we don’t reach out to working class Californians or working class Americans, they will be organized by the polluters and the foot-draggers. We saw that in California with Prop. 87.


TRACY: So, how, exactly, is the Green Jobs Corps is going to work?

VAN JONES: It’s fairly straightforward in that we already have a training apparatus in the US. Most people know it as their community colleges and vocational programs. The problem is that 1) they’re dramatically underfunded, and 2) they’re targeted toward the  poison- and pollution-based economy.

Why is that? It’s because the good, old-fashioned, pollution-based businesses are used to going down to City Hall or a workforce investment board and saying, “We’re expanding in this kind of way, and we’re expanding in that kind of way, and we want people trained in this kind of work.” And the community colleges respond, and they figure, “Well, if we train up 500 people, we’re fairly sure they’re going to get jobs.”

But the green businesses don’t go down there. The eco-entrepreneurs and the people who are trying to figure out how to make solar work don’t go to city council or workforce investment meetings. They may not even know those options exist. They’re hiring their college buddies and posting on Craigslist.

So our strategy is very simple: It’s to re-purpose the existing job training infrastructure so it supports the green economy, not the gray economy.  

We already have good contacts with our local community college system. It was not a tough sell to them. They could see that something was changing in the economy. And there were already people who independently wanted to get engaged but didn’t necessarily have the time or the resources to connect all the dots and to sort through all the funding. We worked through all that stuff, and got the Oakland City Council to agree to spend about a quarter million dollars setting up a strong Green Jobs Corps program at our local community colleges. Right now, it’s not 100 percent settled that it will go through our community colleges, but we think it probably will.

What the Green Jobs Corps will do is give both soft-skill and hard-skill training to people who need it. By soft skill, we mean the behavior that makes you job-ready before you get trained—being able to come to work on time, understanding the way that workplaces function, and so on. These things are not always obvious to folks who have not had work experience yet.

Everybody can’t just volunteer, so we want to set up paid internships with decent stipends on the way to a pre-apprenticeship.

A green economy can’t just be about reclaiming throwaway stuff. It also needs to be about reclaiming throwaway people and communities. And at some point, we have to start reinvesting in people who may have been neglected or hurt by underfunded public school systems or foster care or juvenile halls or prisons. Getting those folks job ready and getting them plugged into jobs that can’t be outsourced to India or China and have to be done in the US by definition is a great service—for them and for the community and for the world.

The good thing about these green-collar jobs is that they can’t be done by a call center in Asia. You’ve got to put up the solar panels here. The buildings have to be weatherized here. It’s the wind blowing across Oakland that has to turn that wind turbine. So you need a local worker to build that and maintain that. And those are great jobs for people.

Again, we don’t want to stop there. We don’t want to create a lot of happy workers on the solar plantation. It’s about giving people true career pathways out of poverty and to be able to continue to move up in these developing industries.


TRACY: You’ve talked about going to get the people who might be on the streets, going into the prisons, and getting caught in the system because of poverty and bad education and all that. But how are going to reach those people, who think they can’t afford community college?

VAN JONES: We may not be able to. Right now, we don’t even have a pathway to work for the people who do want to and are already entering at the community college level. We have to build that first, and then we may be able to build a carpool lane for people who need more comprehensive help.

We don’t want to over-promise and say we’ll get every single person in America, no matter how poor or damaged, a great job in a great industry. But what we do say, is that we’re going to try. And we’re going to take it step by step. Once we have this first on-ramp, we can start trying tougher and tougher populations.


TRACY: I’m wondering where you’re at now. What’s it going to take to get the Jobs Corps really going?

VAN JONES: We need additional funding to support the city dollars. Everything takes longer than I want it to. I wish we could start it now.

But by this time next year, there will actually be people going through the Green Jobs Corps. The more philanthropic and government dollars we’re able to pull in, the faster and better everything is going to go.


TRACY: And if people want to donate, they’d do it through the Ella Baker Center?

VAN JONES: Yes, just go to the Web site.


TRACY: So once you get Oakland going, what’s the ultimate goal?

VAN JONES: Our ultimate goal isn’t any different than anyone else’s ultimate goal. We have to cap and reduce the amount of carbon in the environment. We think there are smart ways to do that that actually generate revenue for the government that should be captured and reinvested in communities and people. So we talk about “Cap, collect, and invest” as a slogan to guide the national level. Cap carbon, collect fees from people who continue to put carbon in the air, and invest those fees in people, communities, and technologies.

Our more specific ideas have to do with ensuring equal protection for vulnerable people from the worst of ecological peril, and at the same time ensuring equal access and equal opportunity for vulnerable people everywhere in the face of all this ecological promise. Protect us from the bad stuff and give us a fair shot at the good stuff.

It used to be, the greener you were, the more estranged you were from working-class America. Now, the greener you are, the closer you should be to working-class Americans, because we’re going beyond the lifestyle solutions to the big macro solutions. Those solutions require a lot of well-trained labor, and that’s where we can re-engage with people.

We want to put clean technologies in every public high school. We want to have green- collar vocational training available in every neighborhood. We want to put solar panels on your house, and plug up all the holes, so that you’re not paying the electric company, the electric company is paying you.

What I’m excited about is that this is going to be the birth of an environmentalism that’s rooted in creating opportunities for working-class people. If you can imagine an environmentalism with a hard hat and a lunch bucket and the sleeves rolled up, we can fix America. And that worker is every color under the rainbow and every gender and faith and sexual orientation.

That’s where I really think the environmental movement has to go. We see ourselves as a bridge organization helping to show that kind of green politics to America.


TRACY: How can people who don’t live in targeted neighborhoods help with the environmental justice and green jobs movements?

VAN JONES: The thing is, wherever you are, there are poor people around. And the question has to be asked, do their kids have a future?

Anybody who’s investing money in a green company should ask, “What is your job- creation strategy for giving a chance to these throwaway kids and throwaway neighborhoods and communities?” Everybody has to redefine green, so it’s not just about the throwaway stuff, but about the throwaway people, too.

And ask the question: “You want me to buy your product, you want me to invest in your company, you want me to wear your T-shirt? Well, I used to ask you only how you were dealing with toxins and water and energy. Now I’m going to ask how you’re dealing with people. Not just people in overseas factories but also people right here in the US, who equally deserve economic opportunity. How many green collar jobs could be created for people who need them?”

It requires a lot more from the government, from the eco-entrepreneur, from everybody to get that green job to a kid who’s been in foster care and who doesn’t want to be homeless when s/he is emancipated, but who will be [homeless] if s/he doesn’t have a job. If you’re going to create jobs, what’s your responsibility to make sure at least one of those kids gets through your program?

I’m an employer, and I’ve been an employer, and it’s not easy. People don’t work out sometimes. But kids from Harvard and Yale don’t work out sometimes, too. You have to be willing to take that chance.

It’s important to recognize that ensuring an economic, social, and political stability in the US during this transition to a cleaner economy is critical for the whole world. There has to be a job strategy for this transition. We will have a right-wing backlash against this transition like you will not believe. When energy prices start going up and hybrid solar Hollywood talk gets louder and louder while people aren’t able to make ends meet, it will be very easy for the Rush Limbaughs to forge a backlash alliance of the polluters and the poor to derail everything we’re talking about. So ensuring green jobs for all is not just charity. It’s the right thing to do morally, and it’s the smart thing to do strategically.

This interview is intended to complement our “Environmental Justice for All” article, which appeared in the Fall 2007 issue of Green American. To order extra copies, call us at 800/58-GREEN.

To contact the Ella Baker Center on Human Rights, call 510/428-3939, or visit www.ellabakercenter.org.