Photo by Merie W. Wallace
Anthony Kapel “Van” Jones is among the most productive and best known activists of his generation. He joined the protests against the World Trade Organization on the streets of Seattle, became a best-selling writer, then a White House adviser. Today he appears frequently as a commentator on CNN.
Jones defies easy categorization: attorney, human-rights advocate, political radical, environmentalist, churchgoing Christian—he is all of these. He can sit with two feet squarely on one side of an issue, while simultaneously intuiting how others might see the same issue differently.
He grew up in rural Tennessee, worked on the campus newspaper at the University of Tennessee, then helped start a statewide African American newspaper. He went on to Yale Law School, arriving on campus with a Black Panther patch on his backpack.
In 1992, as the Rodney King trial concluded, Jones spent a semester as an intern at the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights in San Francisco. After three of the four officers charged with violating King’s civil rights were declared not guilty, riots blew out parts of Los Angeles and spontaneous protests broke out across the country. Acting as a legal observer at the San Francisco demonstrations, Jones was arrested alongside hundreds of activists. In jail he met a broad cross-section of young people fighting for change and was so impressed that, after finishing law school, he moved to San Francisco to be part of their movement.
Jones, now forty-seven, was an early leader in the effort to connect two key issues: the ravaged conditions of U.S. inner cities and the need for a healthier planet. He called for the creation of a “green-collar” job corps that trains urban youth of color to retrofit U.S. cities so they are environmentally sustainable. As special adviser for green jobs, enterprise, and innovation at the White House, he helped lead Obama’s multi-billion-dollar investment in skills training and jobs development in green energy sectors.
After six months, Jones resigned under pressure as rightwing groups launched a campaign focusing on his early 1990s association with a Marxist group and a public comment disparaging Congressional Republicans. While his departure from the Obama Administration upset progressives, he said at the time, “I cannot in good conscience ask my colleagues to expend precious time and energy defending or explaining my past. We need all hands on deck, fighting for the future.”
Jones’s newest initiative, Dream Corps, embraces a range of policy areas, including programs to train 100,000 disadvantaged youth to become top-level computer programmers, halve the U.S. prison population over the next ten years, and lift people out of poverty through green job creation.
His two books, The Green Collar Economy (HarperOne, 2008) and Rebuild the Dream (Nation Books, 2012), in which he reflects on how he came to work at the White House and why he resigned, were both bestsellers. Time named Jones one of the “100 Most Influential People in the World” in 2009, and the World Economic Forum called him a “Young Global Leader.”
Jones is currently a fellow at the MIT Media Lab and a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. I caught up with him in California in November.
Q: How has the political climate changed since you were in the Obama Administration?
Jones: I think the Republican Party has become even more of a parody of itself, and Obama has become more true to himself. His recent stances on criminal justice and the Keystone Pipeline have been very encouraging.
Q: Do you see a sea change in public opinion and citizen involvement?
Jones: The Republicans are more wacky and more fired up, and frustration on the right is starting to boil over. And on the left you have movements like Black Lives Matter, Idle No More, and the Dreamers. African American, Native American, and Latino youth are really being heard through social media and direct action activism.
Q: You call yourself a social entrepreneur. What do you mean by that?
Jones: A social entrepreneur is somebody who is trying to create not-for-profit enterprises to make change. A normal entrepreneur creates for-profit enterprises. I have been blessed to build five successful, thriving not-for-profit organizations. The first one, the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, has succeeded in stopping a super-jail from being built in Oakland and helping to close five youth prisons across the state of California. Green for All has helped to create more than 10,000 jobs for low-income people and people of color in green industries. ColorofChange.org is the biggest, fastest growing online human rights organization in the world, and the Dream Corps is housing some of the newer initiatives. I like to build things that solve problems and have had a very exciting career doing it.
Q: Why did you decide to build the Dream Corps?
Jones: I have been working on social justice causes for more than twenty-five years, from police brutality to environmental racism to immigrant rights to transgender liberation. At this stage of my life, I wanted to create a single platform to support a broader agenda. Dream Corps is really a home for world-changing initiatives. Our main slogans are “Close prison doors, open doors of opportunity” and “We are working for twenty-first-century jobs, not jails.” Everything we do kind of falls under that framework.
Q: What has it achieved?
Jones: For the #YesWeCode campaign, we have been able to pull together thirteen major technology companies, including Twitter and Pinterest, to help us develop an apprenticeship program to get young people of color from Oakland to jobs in Silicon Valley. With Green for All, we have been working directly with top solar companies, the White House, and the EPA to increase by ten times the number of solar rooftops in communities of color. With #Cut50, we have been working with everybody from Cory Booker to Newt Gingrich to pass criminal justice reform legislation.
Q: What have you gained personally from your time on CNN?
Jones: I have a more nuanced view now. Working with Newt Gingrich really gave me a tremendous amount of insight into the complexities and nuances of the American right; it gave me a lot more respect for Newt and his level of genius and leadership. I was surprised to realize that, sometimes, even if you have a different politics from the head, you could have the same politics of the heart. Newt cares an awful lot about young people in this country, including young people of color. It has been a real delight to get to work with him and no one has been more surprised by that than the two of us during our time together working on criminal justice.
Q: Isn’t it odd for you to be working with Koch Industries and Newt Gingrich?
Jones: I have never met a single person behind bars who said, “Well, I want to get out of here, but I sure hope the Republicans don’t help.” I have never talked to anybody who has a parent or child behind bars who has said, “Look, I want my loved one home but for God’s sake please don’t get the Republicans involved to get that done.”
It was a bipartisan consensus that created mass incarceration in the first place. Bill Clinton was a mass incarcerator, Jerry Brown is a mass incarcerator. Democrats are just as guilty as Republicans of demagoguing this issue in the 1990s and into the 2000s. We are going to have to have a bipartisan effort to turn it back. I am happy to say I was able to be a part of the movement that beat Koch Industries on Keystone, and yet I am working with Koch Industries on the issue of criminal justice. That means we are mature grownups and we aren’t doing “you have the cooties” politics, which is what has taken over Washington, D.C.
Q: What is your take on the incredible upswelling of support for Bernie Sanders? What comes next? Is there a grassroots network you see building to push for change?
Jones: Bernie has been doing an extraordinary job and is a blessing to this country. My hope is that his candidacy will become a place where people of all ages and races can work together so that no matter who wins the primary, progressive forces will be more consolidated.
Q: Do you believe that race-neutral populism is a thing of the past?
Jones: Race-neutral populism was never going to work on the left, period. This whole idea that people I love like Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders had, that they could just talk about Wall Street and Social Security and that put them in some sort of 1950s utopia was inevitably going to blow up in their faces. You are not going to be able to talk about Wall Street enough to get black people jobs. Fixing Social Security is not going to do anything about mass incarceration, and we are not going to settle for trickle-down justice. Nothing good happens for black people by accident. Any progressive movement has to directly target African Americans if we are going to see any real benefit, and the fact that the left in the United States is overwhelmingly made up of people of color means that there is no pathway for a progressive, populist agenda that doesn’t directly deal with the problems of African Americans, Latinos, Native Americans, and other underrepresented groups.
Q: Do you think Hillary can be a progressive force if she wins?
Jones: I don’t think Hillary Clinton will be any more progressive than the progressive movement forces her to be. I think that is true of every President. We have to have a leader in the White House who is willing to be moved and a movement that is willing to do the moving. That is the combination. At the same time, you can’t elect some horrible person like George W. Bush, who is not willing to be moved no matter what you do.
Q: What is the best strategy for real grassroots change in this country?
Jones: Create organizations that are solution-oriented and are just as clear about what they do want as what they don’t want. One fundamental critique of the left is that we are too focused on the “anti-” in that we are anti-racist, anti-war, anti-homophobic, anti-pollution and nobody knows what we are for. When you are so clearly defined by what you are against, you have a problem. So it’s important for us to be primarily oriented to building solutions and not just describing problems.
Q: Are you seeing new coalitions forming among people who haven’t made common cause before, around issues like liberty and justice, racial equality and the environment?
Jones: I see new coalitions forming all the time and the potential for new coalitions. If we are a “liberty and justice for all” country, we have a long way to go on criminal justice. The right wing, at its best, is a defender of liberty, with a concern for individual liberties and limited government. That principle of liberty is being run over by mass incarceration. The left wing at our best is a defender of justice, insuring that no one group is singled out and mistreated. That notion of justice is being run over by the incarceration industry. So there are principled reasons for us to work together and do something about it.
Similarly, when you look at the environment, the Tea Party doesn’t want to live under government domination, but the utility companies are a government-created monopoly that force everybody to consume dirty energy at the price they set and often rob people of the liberty to power their own homes and their own property with solar power and wind power. We are beginning to address the potential for an alliance between the Tea Party, which wants American homeowners to power their own properties and sell their excess on the power grid, and Native Americans who are fighting to get solar and wind going on the reservations and folks in urban communities who want weatherization and solar power.
Q: What were the transformative moments in your life?
Jones: Going to the White House changed my life and leaving the White House changed my life. I went there on a big wave of hope and optimism. The whole world was experiencing the Obama phenomenon and the green energy discussion. I left as one of the first casualties of a kind of Tea Party backlash.
It has been six years since I have been out of the White House, trying find a way to get back to solid ground. Movements like Black Lives Matter, Idle No More, Occupy Wall Street, and the Dreamers got to that solid ground before I did. A whole new kind of politics that emerged out of the rubble of the Tea Party backlash gives me hope and inspiration every day. I am proud to be one of the few people on national television to interpret this new source of hope.
Q: How has being a father changed you?
Jones: When you are a young person, you think, screw this school. When you are a young parent you think, fix this school. Immediately your perspective changes on what matters. I have two boys, seven and eleven. I am accountable to my dad and I am accountable to them. I don’t give myself any cookies or credits or points for describing problems and denouncing wrongdoers. If I give myself a cookie, it is because I describe a solution and figure out a way to get the solution right, not to blame the person who got it wrong.
We often talk about “accountability” on the left as a way of leveling a weapon against anybody who desires to shine or stand out in any way. Well, who are you accountable to? Who gave you the right to speak? Who gave you the right to take on that issue? I am not accountable to anybody but my children, and sometimes not even to them. But I am responsible. I take responsibility for what is going on in my country.
David Kupfer has contributed to The Progressive since 1993. A Northern California writer whose work has appeared in The Sun, Bay Nature, Earth Island Journal, Whole Earth, and elsewhere, he is currently working on a new film documentary on the history and evolution of the organic farming movement.