I first met Van Jones just a few days after he announced his departure from the Obama administration. During the 2008 campaign I’d heard something about the “Green” Jack Kemp – known for being a coalition builder around the use green, business-based solutions to address poverty. Time magazine called him one of the 100 most influential people in the world in 2009, helping to create a green jobs program that has been replicated around the country; among his many other accomplishments, Van was instrumental in passing the Green Jobs Act which was part of the 2007 Energy Bill signed by President Bush.
After joining the administration, the same political thuggery recently cited by a number of members of Congress as the reason for their retirement, came after him. What got lost in that feeding frenzy was that these attacks never questioned whether or not he had valuable, important ideas; the quality of his work, or if he was doing a good job. Instead, the attacks had everything to do with thug politics aimed at undermining the president.
That’s an old game here in Washington – distort the facts about someone, throw around divisive rhetoric, and create a political distraction from the things they are trying to accomplish for the country. Having survived the witch-hunts of the 90s as a Clinton Administration staffer, I was saddened but not surprised to learn that, of course, the attacks against Van Jones were based on an incomplete set of facts about a petition he’d thought supported the 9/11 families, not the crazy rhetoric (which he apparently never saw) that ended up on the petition.
Let’s be clear: if the new standard in Washington is that you can’t make any mistakes, regardless of whether or not you have since realized those mistakes, D.C. would be a ghost town.
This week Van re-emerged, announcing that he will rejoin the Center for American Progress as a senior fellow working on the Green Opportunity Initiative; and has been appointed as a visiting fellow at the Center for African American Studies and at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs’ program in Science, Technology and Environmental Policy.
Tonight, he will be honored for his work as an innovator in human rights and the clean-energy economy, with one of our nation’s most prestigious awards, the NAACP Image award.
So what’s on Van’s mind these days? Everything from the meaning of the NAACP award, to the African-American community’s role in the green economy and the modern civil rights agenda, to job creation, to thoughts about his departure from the Obama administration. In a town known for far too much spin, here’s a bit of my conversation with Van, in his own words:
KF: How’d you get from September 2009 to here and now?
VJ: A lot of prayer, and a lot of good counsel from a lot of good people.
KF: What does the NAACP Award mean to you?
VJ: I’m most proud of this one. This is the oldest and most respected civil rights organization in the world, not just in the United States. Ella Baker, who is my hero, whom I named my civil rights foundation after, was an NAACP secretary. The NAACP played a critical role in desegregating the county I grew up in. My father in some ways was able to become an award-winning junior high school principal, in part because of the desegregation lawsuits that were brought by the NAACP in my home county.
KF: How do you see the pieces – climate change, the environment, civil rights, jobs and the economy — fitting together?
VJ: First of all, there’s just a common ground for humanity here. And for me it was very simple: equal protection from negative things and equal opportunity for positive things. Once I knew there were ecological solutions that made business sense, I became an evangelist to expand green business in America and make sure that we had equal opportunity in that sector. The promising set of opportunities arising in the country, come out of the energy sector. I want to make sure that we have a green economy that Dr. King would be proud of.
KF: Where does this movement go from here?
VJ: I see two big challenges: one, we actually have to implement this vision so that we can see visible success. Number two; we have to make sure that green jobs are actually here in America.
My big fear is that we’re about to see the global production for wind turbines, solar panels and smart batteries overseas. If all of that production is locked in place in Asia, then we will get 10 percent of the overall market and we’ll just be installing Chinese technology; and the great jobs, will be overseas.
I’m going to be working on a bi-partisan package of policy proposals – Green Opportunity Zones. We’ve got to reward green and clean energy entrepreneurs for creating jobs in places like Appalachia, and Watts, and Detroit – our struggling places — we’ve got to give them tax incentives and rewards and help and support. If the U.S. becomes a leader in clean energy technology and does it on an equal opportunity basis and shares and sells that all over the world, that’s a huge success story for the country.
KF: How does the African-American community and communities of color take on these issues?
VJ: Our community starts the conversation in a different place. We tend to use words more like “positive”, “natural”, “healthy” — those tend to be our code words rather than “green”, but we’re talking a very similar value set, a very similar set of products and services. From a cultural point of view, from an economic point of view, these ideas already have a much stronger foothold than most people know.
For instance, positive rap, positive hip hop, is increasingly taking on environmental themes. Will.I.Am and the Black Eyed Peas – they’re on tour right now, one of the groups they’re sponsoring as part of the concert is Green For All. You have Reverend Yearwood doing a clean energy bus tour with Al Gore’s organization (RePower America) so there’s something that’s happening.
This is civil rights, the right to a healthy community, the right to have your kid be able to play without an inhaler in their back pocket. That is civil rights on a crowded, increasingly polluted planet.
KF: What surprised you about what happened when you left the administration?
VJ: I was surprised buy how many different kinds of people took it hard, as a personal disappointment for them, about where American politics was headed. For some people my choice to resign signaled something very disturbing and very sad about American politics.
At the time I was more focused on doing what I could to serve the president and make sure that he was able to have the right conversation, which was not about my past, it is about America’s future. I wasn’t as aware as I became, about the symbolism of my resignation by some people who are committed to more humane politics. I’m more committed to the politics of hope now than ever because I understand how easy it is for a more humane politics to just slip away.