The Rumpus Interview with Van Jones


Van Jones is an award-winning activist, bestselling author, orator, and political advisor. I helped him birth his first book, The Green Collar Economy (Harper One, 2008).

The book launched at #12 on the New York Times bestseller list. Its central claim, that green jobs can save both our economy and our environment, has lodged itself in the public debate. Jones’ organization, Green For All, helped author (and then pass) the Green Jobs Act 2007. The act authorizes $125 million in green-collar job training in emerging green sectors like solar and wind industries, energy retrofitting and green building construction, bio-fuel production, and more. Twenty percent of the funds support a green Pathways Out of Poverty Program, to provide targeted resources and support to low-income individuals.

Ariane Conrad: SO. Last year you founded a national advocacy organization, wrote & released a NYT bestseller (with me), advised the Obama team, and witnessed the birth of your second son. How are you gonna top that?

Van Jones: Well, it’s not a goal to top it. I think it would be good to get somebody a job. Right now we’re in a bubble of green rhetoric and a bowl of actual green investment and job creation. So my goal for next year is to move from inspiration to implementation on this stuff.

Ariane: You were one of TIME magazine’s (and other place’s) Environmental Heroes. Yet you eat meat, drive a gas-powered car…and you’re black! How is this happening?

Van: Well, this is not your grandma’s environmental movement any more. We’re now moving into a stage where the green economy isn’t just going to be the place for people to spend money. It’s going to become a place where a lot more people can earn money, and also save more money. These kind of solutions require collective action and government action. So as an advocate for government change, even somebody like me gets to have a role.

Ariane: A starring role. Aren’t you, in point of fact, a superhero?

Van: I am not, in fact, a superhero. Just a humble, mild-mannered civil rights attorney.

Ariane: I insist you reveal your true identity.

Van: Well my true identity, of course, is Anthony Jones from Jackson, Tennessee. One might be able to use a search engine to figure that out.

Ariane: Or the New Yorker.

Van: Right- or the New Yorker, which outed me! Just goes to show you shouldn’t let a reporter hang around you for 37 hours.

But- as you know, I do feel kind of like I have a split identity in that there’s Van Jones, who has this big public role and tries to inspire millions of people to do new stuff together. And then there’s just me:  a pretty quiet, shy, retiring person. I used to go to all these environmental conferences when I wasn’t an invited speaker. I was just somebody in the back taking a lot of notes. It was when I was least visible that I came up with the most cool stuff. Now, because I don’t get to be Clark Kent, I feel like my learning curve is slowing way down. I’m always afraid the conversation will move on and I’ll be up at the front of the room saying last year’s speech.

Ariane: You’ve been invited to and attended the World Economic Forum in Davos a number of times. You were also in the streets of Seattle ten years ago getting teargassed. How do those experiences relate to where you are today?

Van: I literally came out of protesting on the streets of Seattle in 1999 and getting run over by a police car in 2000 while protesting against the World Bank in Washington, DC… and then in 2002 I was part of the World Economic Forum as a so-called Young Global Leader. So within 48 months, I got a chance to be on both sides of the barricades. What I realized very quickly is that we (on the Left) live in a very small world. Those of us seeking social justice and solutions to the world’s problems live in a very small world, but imagine it to be a much bigger. And the people who seem to us to be a very tiny elite, far off and mysterious, actually live in a fairly big world. The way they look at the planet is like they’re looking at an index card covered in supply routes.  We (protestors) had imagined ourselves this huge threat. But we were at best bemusing. To the extent that the people inside did care, it was almost like we were paying them a compliment-it reinforced their sense of power.

So for one thing, I got a different perspective. I realized that those of us who want change and see a desperate need for it from a human and planetary point of view-we need to think bigger, dream bigger, and get bigger. We can’t be proud of ourselves for having a collective that includes 12 people, or for organizing a rally at which we’re able to get a couple hundred or even thousands of people. The question needs to be: how do you have a daily conversation with millions of people.

Ariane: Can you talk about the world changing potential inherent in the roles of: 1. Father 2. Organizational founder/social entrepreneur and 3. Author

Van: Well, I think parenting is one of the most important jobs, because you can hit two or three generations with the values in your house and the traditions you establish. But I don’t think I’m very good at it, and I don’t know anybody who thinks they’re very good at it. Probably almost everyone gets an A in grandparenting, but in parenting, if you get a B- you’re doing pretty good.

Every morning my son Cabral says to me ,”Are you going on an airplane?” because he’s trying to establish whether or not he’s going to see me when he gets home from school. And when I say “yes” he says “why?” And I say, “Well, I gotta go fix the world.” Recently this answer stopped working, and he looks at me as I’m getting my suitcase together and he asks “Daddy, why do YOU have to fix the world?” There’s no good answer for a four and a half year old.

Ariane: Is there a good answer for a 35 year old?

Van: You know, it’s my calling. The difference between being 40 and being 30 is: when you’re 30, you’re driven. If you stay in it for another ten years, by the time you’re 40, you’re either done, or you’re called. I don’t feel driven anymore-I feel called to do what I’m doing, to take the stands that I’m taking. It’s not in my hands. I’ve been giving the same speech for 8 years. It’s not like suddenly I gave a much better speech and everyone starting paying attention. No-the world changed. Now some of us who had been saying things that were considered outlandish just two years ago, we have the microphone. It won’t last. I’m probably in my 13th minute here-I want to use it well. There’s probably some grand plan ensuring that some of our species hula-hoop and some people do political oratory.

Ariane: And social entrepreneurs and authors…?

Van: Right. Well, building groups where people can work together is fun, and sometimes necessary, but it’s not the most important thing. I think the most important thing is discovering an idea that moves you, and then letting people who are moved by that idea find each other, and work together. A lot of times people focus on the technical side-“oh, I’ve got to take a class on non-profit development.” Too few people allow themselves to think outside the box with regard to their issue areas.

As far as being an author. It’s just starting to hit me. The other day I met this kid from Morehouse College- black school, black student, an African Studies major, in the chocolate city Atlanta. He’d gotten really pissed off reading about all the horrific crimes and atrocities that have been inflicted upon African people since we got to these shores a few generations ago. Then somebody told him about this book that was written by someone in Oakland. He said the book was life-transforming for him, because he was able to see a way to get solution-oriented and get into action. To not be so angry and not be so stopped by the past that he couldn’t stand for the future.

Ariane: So the kid from Morehouse college is emblematic–

Van: Of the folks who’ve gotten frustrated and cynical, who find something in the book that resonates. I think that for those of us who come from oppressed backgrounds and who do our work in marginalized communities, recovering our innocence is one of the most important acts of self-liberation and de-colonization. Not letting the requirement that we adapt to impossible circumstances and unconscionable crimes leave us shackled to the kind of cynicism and armor such that we can’t breathe and laugh and magnetize to ourselves all the genius and love and support that we need to transform the situation. That’s probably the biggest challenge, is to recover our innocence.

Ariane: Let’s talk about the book itself. You’ve said it before, but tell me the significance of The Green Collar Economy on the NYT bestseller list. And congratulations.

Van: Well, congratulations to you too. The book represents a lot of firsts. It’s the first time that a book about green jobs has been on the bestseller lists. It’s the first time a book by an African American environmental writer has been on the lists. It’s also the first book by an African American writer on energy to get onto the bestseller lists. Its success is a breakthrough, and I hope it opens the floodgates for all kinds of people who don’t look like the traditional enviro to write about these issues. I’d love to hear from Native Americans and Latinos and Persians, transgendered and disabled folks.

Ariane: I thought you might comment some on the organizing feat that got the book there.

Van: That’s a cool story. Before the book came out, before anybody had read it or knew what was in it, literally tens if not hundreds of thousands of people took collective action to propel it onto the bestseller lists. Certainly our publisher worked hard to get the book into stores and visible, but the book came out in the middle of an election. There just wasn’t a lot of space for new voices to break in. So people on staff at Green For All started calling friends and colleagues and sending out emails, and our friends and colleagues didn’t just pre-purchase the book, they also sent word out to their lists. Some people got the same email from five different places in their lives.

The reality is if you take any three people and look at their cellphones or blackberries and facebook pages, you can get to almost everywhere in the country, because we’re networked together in a way that is incredibly powerful. The fact that one random guy with a first book could stun the publishing industry, in the middle of an election season, with no appearance on Larry King, Oprah, or The Daily Show, is a testament to this powerhouse that exists. And it can be tapped for lots of things.

Ariane: Like getting someone into the White House. But I think there’s a caveat-what you accomplished isn’t something that any author could have done. Because it was more than a ‘buy my book” message that prompted people to act.

Van: This is true. There’s something about faith I want to talk about here. I’m definitely a person of faith, both in the traditional sense in that I’m a Christian-but I’m also a person of faith in that I have faith in motherfuckers, you know what I mean. In the past two years, I’ve talked face to face (not on TV or on the radio) to maybe 150,000 people. And you make a connection with people. In that regard, I’m like a garage band that spends a couple years touring around the country. When they bring their CD out, people remember that performance and buy it even if they didn’t love the music all that much.

Ariane: And now the term “green jobs” is everywhere. “Green COLLAR jobs”-not so much.  Is this an omission you’re concerned about? Are the jobs being discussed the ones that will reach the people most in need of jobs?

Van: Well, when we first started the book, it was a smaller idea. The idea was how do we get this new sector, which is likely to be growing up and to be bedeviled with labor shortages, to be an entry point for people who were locked out of the pollution-based economy. Now, because of the economic collapse, people who were not in poverty are at least broke, if not unemployed, and there’s going to be an incredible tendency for us to just re-employ those people. Meanwhile the people who’ve been unemployed for years or who are coming out of prisons, high schools, coming home from wars, who’ve maybe never had a job, they get short shrift. It’s a tremendous challenge now: to make sure the green economy is big enough that there is enough labor demand that people who’ve been thrown out of work can be re-employed AND people who are new to the workforce can be employed. And that is going to be very difficult.

Ariane: And that’s a function of…

Van: That’s a function of Barack Obama. It’s a function of whether government policy will create enough incentives and support for energy efficiency and renewable energy to really take off. If the federal government does what I want them to do, which is to create a Clean Energy Corps that would combine green service, green job training, and green jobs that retrofit millions of buildings, well, you can put almost a million people to work doing that, at a cost of about $40billion. If the government follows the Green Recovery Proposal from the Center for American Progress, where I’m a Senior Fellow, for about a hundred billion dollars, you can put 2 million people to work across the country–professions like roofers, pipefitters, metalworkers, electricians– retrofitting and repowering the country with clean energy and making the country more energy efficient. So there’s 2-2.5 million jobs that could be created by smart government investment, incentives, tax breaks, loan guarantees, revolving loan funds, direct grants, subsidies… There’s a lot of stuff the government can do to get people working in this area.

At the end of 2009 or 2010 at the latest we’ll have a report card on this green jobs movement. We’ll know how much of this was hopeful but unrealistic, how much was rhetorically convenient for elites but not something that was a practical investment play for them on either the public or the private side. So 2009 and 2010 are big years, to go from inspiration to implementation. We’ll see.

Ariane: What’s the opposition saying/doing?

Van: Well, the people who were global warming deniers, once they came around to believing in global warming, then they said “we’re still for Drill Baby Drill.” And then when that was no longer the conversation, they became the “we’re for shovel ready” voices-as opposed to people ready or planet ready. So now they want the stimulus to go to “shovel-ready” projects. What are “shovel ready” projects? They’re sprawl-ready projects. Every governor’s got a load of highways to nowhere that they can throw money, contractors, and unions at, and get a lot of political payoff in the short term. But then we’re actually feeding what we’re fighting, if our aim is an energy-independent, climate-smart country. “Shovel ready” gets pitted against green jobs because green jobs will have a little longer turnaround, in terms of training people, getting regulations in place, making sure companies are ready to go. But my view is we shouldn’t be talking about a stimulus anyway, we should be talking about recovery. A stimulus is a response to a V-shaped problem in the economy. This is a U-shaped, or a pan-shaped problem; we’re going to be in an economic slowdown for a couple of years. So to take three months, four months, six months to spend this money the right way-we’re not going to get a chance to spend a trillion dollars again! Ever. So let’s do it the right way.

It’s going to be a long, twilight struggle between the forces that want a new economy and the forces that are fundamentally committed to the old.

Ariane: What about the tension between the free market and sustainability? Is now the time to conceive a post-capitalist future?

Van: Well, there’s the new economy, and then there’s a really old economy, the ancient economy. In Bay Area politics I find myself in an interesting position, because I’m fundamentally still trying to green up capitalism. And there are people who are a lot smarter and better read than I am who say that’s just a fool’s errand, and we need to be moving to some post-capitalist economy that would be zero-growth, as well as zero-waste and zero-pollution. When I talk about green growth, it drives deep ecology people nuts, because they’re very clear that green growth is just a speed bump on the way to the same eco-apocalypse that grey growth will bring.

Those folks are probably right in the long view, and maybe even in the immediate view. I don’t think they know the country that they’re trying to move very well, though. This is a big country. You can be in three different time zones and never see an ocean. We have a long way to go to get the basic education done. We have to hope for radical discontinuities in the pace at which people have been learning, so they’re learning a lot faster. I don’t think we can overestimate people.

And the ultimate answer doesn’t change the immediate tasks. One of the immediate challenges is to get people in America to think they could live like Europeans, and it wouldn’t be like living in a cave! Just the idea that we could use mass transit at the level of the Europeans, that we could be as energy efficient as the Europeans, that frankly the rest of the country could be as energy efficient as California, is revolutionary thinking. I see my role as weaning people off their commitment to a pillage-and-pave mentality, which sets things up for later advances.

Ariane: Does that make you more pragmatic than idealistic these days?

Van: You know, I believe in miracles and the possibility of the miraculous. So pragmatism and realism, optimism vs. pessimism, I see myself as kind of orthogonal to all of that. I think that if your heart is right, you can go pretty much anywhere and make a difference. And you’ll never know what difference that difference made. Again, my job is to stay somewhat innocent at that level. To try to encourage people and inspire people to do the best they can, today. To stretch a little bit more today. To dream a little bit bigger today.

I watch my friends who have a yoga practice; it’s not about: “you can’t turn your body into a pretzel, so you’re fucked up.” That’s not how it works. You just stretch a little bit more every time, and eventually you can physically do things that you literally could not have done a year earlier. The heart is a muscle, and I feel my job is to keep encouraging people to keep stretching that heart muscle. My belief is that if enough people do that, there will be things that are possible in a year, in ten years, that are literally impossible today.

Ariane Conrad is a writer, editorial consultant and collaborating author known professionally as The Book Doula. She collaborated with Van Jones on the New York Times bestselling The Green Collar Economy (Harper One, 2008), with Christabel Zamor on HOOPING! (Workman Publishing, June 2009), and with Annie Leonard on The Story of Stuff (forthcoming in Spring 2010). Follow her on Twitter. More from this author →