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Van Jones – ‘Rebuilding the dream’ of a sustainable, more equitable nation

Date Published: 05/02/2013

Author: Dane Smith, President


In explaining his evolution from protester to pragmatist, Van Jones describes in his book “Rebuild the Dream” a heart-to-heart talk in his early 30s with his more conservative father, a junior high school principal who had been an Air Force MP.

“You are just blaming the system, fighting the system — but you are creating no opportunities for that individual kid who wants to excel,” Jones recalls his father telling him. “If you want to stop the violence, focus on jobs. That’s harder than suing someone, but you might make more of a difference, in the long term.”

Purpose and paychecks, in other words, eventually must replace righteous indignation.

Jones went on to become one of our nation’s most constructive policy leaders. He has founded or led organizations and movements focused  on social and racial justice (Color of Change, Ella Baker Center for Human Rights), a clean-energy economy (Green for All,  Green-Collar Jobs Campaign), and a newer hybrid (Rebuild the Dream) that does both, with special focus on organizing urban youth for constructive change. Jones will arrive in the Twin Cities for a speech and reception hosted by Growth & Justice on May 19, and the following day will keynote a national conference of the Social Enterprise Alliance.

As a regular CNN contributor and one of the most inspiring speakers on the national circuit these days, Jones draws on deep knowledge of policy substance and considerable experience with on-the-ground organizing. In 2009, he was named President Barack Obama’s Special Advisor for Green Jobs, Energy and Innovation.

He also was one of the first victims in the Obama administration of the right-wing noise machine and Tea Party backlash led by former Fox News firebrand Glenn Beck, who raised a phony furor over Jones’ youthful associations with radical groups as an organizer in the San Francisco-Oakland area. Jones resigned to end the destructive kerfuffle, and since then he has grown in stature, ascending to bigger and better things, while Beck has been removed from Fox News and has marginalized himself as one of the most extreme outliers on the reckless right.

Few leaders bring more breadth and depth to the public policy table than Van Jones. And he’s all about connecting progressive goals with business-minded solutions and private-sector leadership.

Passages from his book “The Green Collar Economy” reflect the wisdom that he earned from working with affluent, white progressives in Marin County and with black, Latino and Asian leaders struggling for economic justice in the tough and impoverished neighborhoods of Oakland.

Jones described white, college-educated progressives who are passionate about the environment, economic justice and global peace but who “do not yet work in concert with people of color in their own country.” And he described people of color who, fearing betrayal or resenting white arrogance, simply did not want to work in coalition with majority white organizations. Leaders on one side of San Francisco Bay favored ecology, business solutions and spiritual/inner change, while those on the other side favored social justice, political solutions and social/outer change. “Increasingly, I saw the value and importance of both approaches,” Jones wrote. “I thought to myself: What would we have if we replaced those ‘versus’ symbols with ‘plus’ signs?”

“We are entering an era,” Jones wrote, “during which our very survival will demand invention and innovation on a scale never before seen in the history of human civilization. Only the business community has the requisite skills, experience, and capital to meet that need. On that score, neither government nor the nonprofit and voluntary sectors can compete, not even remotely.”

Although Jones clearly identifies with and appeals to the leaders of the “99 Percent” movement, his “Rebuild the Dream” book offers similar clear-eyed recognition of the value of collaboration rather than confrontation between private and public interests.
He says this: “I am no longer the anti-capitalist firebrand of my youth: To fix our current problems, American communities will need investment, invention and innovation. That is mainly the task and role of a robust private sector.”

And this: “In my view, a movement that believes itself to be the 99 percent at war with the 1 percent cannot succeed in America — nor should it. But a movement that is the 99 percent for the 100 percent in American cannot fail.”
Among Jones’ most promising ideas is the retraining of the urban workforce, youth and adults alike — too many of whom are in or emerging from the corrections system, for the retrofitting and reconstruction of our vitally important and blighted urban spaces.
Jones has argued persuasively in other writings that these major projects to improve energy efficiency and deploy renewable technology will create new demand for skilled labor. He points out that investing in workforce training (including supportive employment services and community development programs) offers a critical opportunity to connect people who need jobs most with career-path jobs in new industries with high growth potential.

This is not exactly new. Using public investment and taxpayer dollars to prime new industries, to create public improvements and infrastructure, to educate and retrain workers, and to put people on career paths out of poverty has been a classic formula for American success and prosperity since our founding.

As Jones wrote in an essay included in a 2009 “progressive blueprint” compiled for then-incoming President Barack Obama, investing in green jobs and worker training is “grounded in neighborhood-level actions — restoring communities with green space and green buildings, restoring bodies with parks and clean air, and restoring families with purpose and paychecks.”

Get your tickets to see Van Jones today! 


A version of this coulmn originally appeared in the St. Paul Legal Ledger Capital Report on Thursday, May 2, 2013.  

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