Van Jones on The Green Economy, a Deep Commitment to Social Justice, and Creating Jobs for People of Color

Interview: Paul D. Miller aka DJ Spooky


Paul D. Miller: Let’s jump in to the idea of aesthetics versus implementation. One of the things I’ve always found incredibly powerful is you’re one of the people who’s able to bridge the gap between praxis and theory, and I’d love to hear how you made the transition from #YesWeCode [to] some of your green jobs initiatives as well. Maybe you can just talk about your evolution of ideas.

Van Jones: Well, you know, I consider myself to be sort of a progressive Afrofuturist that is deeply committed to social justice. So that’s the starting point. If you look at my career over the past twenty years, I’ve always been trying to look around corners for low-income communities of color. So [in] the 1990s, it was police brutality and prisons. Long before that became a popular thing to work on, I came out of Yale Law School in ’93, a year after the Rodney King rebellion in LA, and I started building a relational computer database to track problems, precinct problems, practices of the problem officers. Initially, that was kind of my claim to fame, having built the area police watch, having gotten a horrible police officer fired in 1997, and having built the organization that stopped the super-jail for kids in Oakland from being built, etc. Because even though at that time most of even the civil rights establishment was saying, “Hey, we got some of these crack dealers and these people with their pants sagging down and we’ve got to get them off our streets,” I was able to see down the road and say, “Hey, wait a second, that’s going to wind up with what we now call ‘mass incarceration.’”

It started off with that. Then, in the 2000s, if we started bringing folks home from the prisons, we started closing prisons, [and] we were starting to close youth facilities in California, what kind of jobs are they going to have? So I started trying to figure out what are the jobs of the future where there might be a job shortage or there might be a worker shortage, because a lot of times, if something is a new industry, you just don’t have people who are already trained to take those jobs.

So the first set of jobs I saw were “green jobs”: jobs in the solar industry, wind industry, energy efficiency, organic food, etc. So these are new companies, new products, new services, and they needed a new workforce; maybe we can get in there. We’re proud of the work that we did at Green For All; we created about ten thousand green jobs across the country in about fifty different cities, mostly for people of color. We would have been able to create more jobs if Congress had done more to pass GAPPA Trade and create more demand for green jobs, but we felt good about that and still feel good about that. But if you look around now, you think, “Okay, well, green jobs are actually still growing faster than the rest of the economy,” so we’re working through Green For All. Even today they increased the number of people who are working in the green economy. The president’s climate plan is going to roll out this summer for the EPA. That’s going to create more jobs; it’s going to be strong there as well.

Obviously, now, information technology is still really just taking off, so we’re supplying that same framework. We are likely to be left out, and how can we make sure our communities are locked in? If next year there turns out to be a massive bloom of jobs in bioengineered space larvae [laughs], then you’ll see me making a case for urban kids to have a shot at those jobs as well.

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