East Bay Express  [Printer-friendly version]
November 2, 2005


Van Jones renounced his rowdy black nationalism on the way toward
becoming an influential leader of the new progressive politics.

[Rachel's introduction: "There is a green wave coming, with renewable
energy, organic agriculture, cleaner production," Van Jones said in
an interview. "Our question is, will the green wave lift all boats?
That's the moral challenge to the people who are the architects of
this new, ecologically sound economy. Will we have eco-equity, or
will we have eco-apartheid?" -- Van Jones]

By Eliza Strickland

On the opening afternoon of last month's Bioneers Conference -- the
massive gathering of environmental activists held annually in San
Rafael -- shiny hybrid cars parked in spaces "reserved for clean-air
vehicles." Conferencegoers polished off kale salads and raw cucumber
soup while a three-piece band picked out bluegrass tunes in the
sunshine. Several thousand righteous souls had trekked here to the
Marin Center in search of ideas and enlightenment. But the 2:45 p.m.
panel on "social entrepreneurs" was failing to inspire.

The first speaker, a ponytailed environmental philanthropist,
subjected his audience to a dry academic talk about the people he
calls social entrepreneurs: ambitious visionaries who take risks and
seize opportunities. He portrayed such activists as special people,
implying that the rest of society should basically get out of their
way. Some audience members seemed more interested in getting out of
his way, and quietly slipped out of the auditorium in search of more
fiery oratory.

The second speaker, a community organizer who works in Mexican border
towns and embodied many of the traits her predecessor had catalogued,
repeatedly left the room in silence while she struggled to get her
PowerPoint presentation working. "I had hoped to show you..." she
said, her voice trailing off. "You're not going to get a visual, I

By the time the final speaker addressed the crowd, people shuffled
restlessly in their seats as a lone infant wailed. Van Jones, a tall,
dark-skinned man wearing a "Kanye was right" T-shirt under his black
blazer, seemed to have little in common with his audience of
predominately white hippies. Feeling the energy in the room ebbing
straight from the stage, he later said, Jones decided to throw out the
talk he had planned to deliver about the work of his human-rights
organization, the Ella Baker Center. Instead, he asked the name of the
squalling baby. "Tavio," the mother replied.

"Tavio is a social entrepreneur," Jones said. "Tavio is changing the
rules -- see? Speak when you want to speak."

The crowd laughed, and Tavio's parents smiled beatifically.

Then Jones alluded to what he had heard from some of the other
speakers that day. "They're calling out for us to be brave again," he
said. "To break out of patterns, start breaking some rules, try some
new stuff." He explicitly challenged the ponytailed speaker's notion
that social entrepreneurs such as he are isolated heroes. Jones said
he personally would be "babbling on a street corner" somewhere if not
for the support of his colleagues. He instead insisted that each
member of the audience had the potential to light a fire that could
change the world.

Jones quickly involved others in his presentation by lobbing questions
back at his audience; each raised hand signaled another person won
over. "Is there anyone here who has a recurring dream that there's
something you're supposed to be doing?" he asked. "You look at your
journal and the same idea keeps coming back? Is there anyone here who
ever swallowed hard and took a stand for something that you knew was
unpopular? Has anybody in this room ever really, really screwed
something up, and then tried again? Well, I would say if you answered
yes to any of those questions, you are a social entrepreneur."

The activists hung on Jones' words, captivated by the potential that
he described within each of them. He finished with an exhortation
worthy of a revival: "Our species is struggling to live through you,
through that dream, through that journal entry that keeps recurring,"
he said, his voice quivering with passion. "I beg you, I beg you,
embrace that rule-breaking, life-affirming, risk-taking you that the
world needs so desperately right now."

He bowed his head, and was greeted with whistles, hoots, and applause.
Half the audience leapt to its feet. If it hadn't been a crowd of
sedate white liberals, someone might have shouted "Hallelujah." A
woman turned to her companion and asked, "Where did this guy come from

Jones came from rural Tennessee, by way of Yale Law School. The self-
described former "rowdy black nationalist" is best known as founder of
the Ella Baker Center, an Oakland-based nonprofit group with roots
firmly grounded in criminal-justice issues that affect low-income
people of color. In 1995, he started Bay Area PoliceWatch, a program
that assists victims of alleged police brutality. He made his mark as
an activist by brashly saying things no other civil-rights leaders
would say, such as "Willie Brown's Police Commission is killing black
people." The center's second program, Books Not Bars, runs a campaign
to radically transform California's youth prisons into rehabilitation
centers. As the group gained visibility and a reputation for in-your-
face tactics, its annual budget snowballed to $1.4 million, and its
staff increased to 22.

But Jones' personal life has been punctuated with a series of
epiphanies, each of which has expanded the focus of his work. In
college, he embraced the fight for racial justice. Then he moved to
the Bay Area and embraced the struggle for class justice. When he
gained interest in environmentalism, he started searching for a way to
pull together all three quests in the service of a better future. Now
that he believes he has found that unified field theory -- one
suffused with his rediscovered spirituality -- he's out to sell it to
the progressive world.

"There is a green wave coming, with renewable energy, organic
agriculture, cleaner production," he said in an interview. "Our
question is, will the green wave lift all boats? That's the moral
challenge to the people who are the architects of this new,
ecologically sound economy. Will we have eco-equity, or will we have
eco-apartheid? Right now we have eco-apartheid. Look at Marin; they've
got solar this, and bio this, and organic the other, and fifteen
minutes away by car, you're in Oakland with cancer clusters, asthma,
and pollution."

Jones started his first environmental program, Reclaim the Future,
only six months ago. Notably, it wastes little time critiquing the
negative aspects of society, but rather accentuates the positive. As
such, it exemplifies the new concept of environmentalism's so-called
third wave -- a movement refocused on neither conservation nor
regulation, but investment. Jones envisions West Oakland and other
depressed neighborhoods as healthy, thriving hubs of clean commerce.
He hopes to "build a pipeline from the prison economy to the green
economy" by training prisoners reentering society to help build a
solar-powered, energy-efficient future. He believes the flourishing of
"green-collar jobs" can give gainful employment to those who most need
it, and give struggling cities an economic boost into the 21st

But since the Ella Baker Center itself will neither start green
businesses nor run job training programs, what precisely does Jones

As the staff runs the day-to-day operations of the center's three
programs, Jones' job is to raise money, manage personnel, and
propagate the group's ideas beyond the office walls. "Van's role and
[the center's] role is really to evangelize, to spread the word of
this vision," said Juliet Ellis, a member of the Ella Baker Center's
board and the executive director of the nonprofit Urban Habitat.

Jones spreads his gospel at every conference, speech, and awards
ceremony that finds its way onto his busy schedule, and he has found
receptive ears from coast to coast. His rise to prominence has a lot
to do with timing. As environmentalists and progressives grope to
rebuild their respective movements after years of disarray, Jones is
often pointed to as an avatar of Environmentalism 3.0. Lefties have
come to one conclusion since the debilitating defeats of 2000 and
2004: that they need to present a positive vision Americans can latch
onto and vote for.

"The country is waiting for a movement that inspires people, that
doesn't just critique," Jones said. "That's my gut instinct. And when
it's resonant, when it's right, people feel how they fit into it. We
want a green economy that's strong enough to lift people out of

It took a personal crisis for Jones to conclude that complaint-based
politics can get you only so far. Since 2000, when he watched a
budding political movement destroyed by infighting, he has tried to be
a voice for solidarity while showing other activists that "there's a
path out of this self-marginalizing place without compromising your
constituency." But while his vision brings many submovements together
under one tent, some of the people who helped Jones devise that vision
aren't invited to the revival.

It's been a little more than a year since two of Jones' fellow
travelers dropped a bomb on the environmental movement in the form of
a paper provocatively titled "The Death of Environmentalism." The
paper played an important role in the debate that followed the re-
election of President Bush. Shaken progressives had to admit that
their best electoral efforts had failed, and began to cast about for
the reason. There was "The Death of Environmentalism" with its bold
declarations: Environmentalism had defined itself as a special
interest, its message was too negative, and it presented narrow
technical solutions instead of an inspiring vision tied to values
voters hold dear.

Commentators quickly pointed out that all these criticisms could just
as easily be leveled at other segments of the left. What was the
movement besides a collection of special-interest campaigns? Just like
that, the paper became a mirror reflecting back the fears of a
disenfranchised movement.

Predictably, there was an angry backlash, which the authors chalk up
to the movement's reluctance to admit its failures. "There's a lot of
fear," said Michael Shellenberger, one of the paper's authors, in an
interview. "We have to come to grips with the fact that our current
strategies not only aren't helping, but might even be
counterproductive." While Shellenberger said he and coauthor Ted
Nordhaus didn't set out to write a generational statement, they may
have done so inadvertently. "The responses have been
disproportionately positive from young people," he said, "and
disproportionately negative from the older generation that's more
invested in older ways of doing things."

Although the paper was primarily an assault upon the strategies of the
left, Shellenberger and Nordhaus praised a few people and projects.
One was Van Jones, whom the authors called an "up-and-coming civil-
rights leader," extolling his vision of a broad alliance between
environmentalists, labor unions, civil-rights groups, and businesses.
His focus on investment, they said, pointed the way to the
environmental movement's future.

The glowing words were no coincidence. Jones and the authors met in
2005 and became close allies who brainstormed ideas for the new shape
of the environmental movement. Although Jones says the Ella Baker
Center's environmental program isn't based on the ideas in "The Death
of Environmentalism," it benefited from conversations he had with
Shellenberger. The two worked together on the Apollo Alliance, a
national environmental organization that promotes many of the ideas
associated with environmentalism's third wave. It was Shellenberger
who convinced alliance leaders to include Jones on the national board.

Yet last spring, Jones spoke out against "The Death of
Environmentalism" at a panel discussion about the progressive
movement's future, where he shared the stage with luminaries of the
activist left. "I love the authors, I love the analysis," he said. "It
breaks my heart the way that it was brought forward." He thereafter
repeated his criticisms in stronger terms, and now calls the paper an
"immoral attack."

Jones said his quarrel lay not with the authors' ideas but their
tactics. Their critique of the status quo was an assault on national
environmental organizations, which leaders such as Sierra Club
executive director Carl Pope greeted with anger. "It was a smart
document, but it was not wise," Jones said. "You don't ambush allies.
You don't shame elders."

Although he concedes the need for discussion and argument within any
movement, Jones said the authors of "The Death of Environmentalism"
conducted the debate with insufficient respect. "I'm interested in
managing conflict with an eye toward maximizing unity," he said.
"There's a tradition of very nasty polemics on the left. I've seen it
split coalitions, movements, parties. This is my concern: it's easy to
start a fight, it's hard to finish a fight."

But from the perspective of Shellenberger and Nordhaus, Jones has
merely adopted the same tack as most of the progressive left. He has
embraced their paper's feel-good ideas, but renounced the dialogue and
arguments that helped get to that point. "There's this culture within
the progressive community that everybody has to hold hands and sing
'Kumbaya' before you can introduce a new idea or piece of
legislation," Shellenberger said. "People say, 'Oh, you can't
criticize your friends." It's strange that liberals who believe in
being small-D democrats think ideas should be talked about behind
closed doors and then get so angry about a paper that calls for open
debate. It's a symptom of how uncomfortable people are with asking the
hard questions about what kind of future they want.... A whole series
of fights need to happen on the left before we can become unified."

The authors complain that Jones didn't begin critiquing their paper
until he was surrounded by its detractors at the Apollo Alliance, a
group whose strong ties to the Sierra Club guaranteed that it would
take a stance against the two upstarts. Shellenberger said he saw
Jones twice in the immediate aftermath of the shakeup. The first time,
shortly after the paper was distributed, he said, "Van congratulated
us; he praised the essay. He was very positive to us, privately." The
next time, at a meeting of the California Apollo Alliance,
Shellenberger remembers Jones saying, "Wow, a lot of people are really
angry about this," before repeating his praise of the paper. But in
the months after Jones joined the board, Shellenberger said, he began
to criticize the paper and its authors. "I think he was worried about
politics," the author said.

The Ella Baker Center distanced itself from the rabble-rousers, both
figuratively and literally. The controversy erupted just as the center
was moving across the bay to bigger digs in Oakland. Shellenberger and
Nordhaus were left behind. "There was just too much fire around those
guys, and we didn't want to get burned," explained Joshua Abraham,
director of the center's environmental program.

Jones' emphasis on solidarity only increased his cachet among
environmental leaders. But Nordhaus believes Jones is taking the easy
route by avoiding confrontations with the progressive movement's old
guard. It may allow him to be a more popular leader in the short term,
Nordhaus said, but ultimately prevent the movement from undergoing the
self-scrutiny it needs to regain a place in the national debate.

"Van will have a very successful and prominent career as a spokesman
of the left," Nordhaus said. "He's a handsome, charismatic,
intelligent man who can speak with passion. But Van will have to
decide at the end of the day whether he's willing to put all that at
risk to take the leap to 21st-century politics that can really go
somewhere. In that, he's a fascinating, transitional, and ambiguous
figure. Is he going to be part of the vanguard or part of the

Jones has taken a keen interest in the vanguard from almost the moment
he and his twin sister were born in 1968. "We were in utero while King
was assassinated, Bobby Kennedy was assassinated, MLK was
assassinated, the Democratic convention was bloody," he said. "And I
was born nine months into that. For some reason I was always intensely
aware that there had been all this hope right before I was born, and
then all these problems."

As a tyke, he carefully cut out articles about John and Bobby Kennedy
and pinned them to a corkboard in his room in the specially delineated
"Kennedy Section." After that came the Star Wars action figures: Luke
Skywalker was JFK, Han Solo was RFK, and Lando Calrissian was MLK.

Although his parents, both teachers, grappled with the desegregation
of the school system, the civil-rights movement wasn't a dominant
force in his young life. Racism troubled him little in the mixed
neighborhood he grew up in. The white and black kids exchanged
insults, but it felt no different than the other trash talk boys slung

Jones first began his long process of reinvention when he attended the
University of Tennessee in Martin. Unhappy with his given name,
Anthony, he made a list of possible replacements -- Jet, Rush, Van. "I
was, like, 'The coolest people in the world have monosyllabic names,""
he said, citing Prince and Sting. He laughs about his reasoning now,
as well as his motive for entering campus politics. He just wanted to
impress his girlfriend, who was smart, beautiful, and planned to be a
doctor. Her parents were both professors, and Jones worried that she
was out of his league. "I really wanted her parents to like me, and
think that I was worthy," he said. "So I said, 'Well, I'm just going
to take over this goddamn campus.""

He ran for dorm vice president, and then for student council.
Meanwhile, inspired by the crusading editor of his hometown newspaper,
he worked toward a career in journalism by starting an underground
newspaper. He later followed his mentor to Shreveport, Louisiana, for
a summer job as a cub reporter, where he got his first jolt of radical

A rap concert was coming to town, featuring provocative acts such as
NWA. The sleepy city of Shreveport panicked. "They acted like there
was going to be a black riot as a result of it," Jones said with
disgust. On the night of the concert, police helicopters hovered
overhead and highway patrol cars lined the streets, but the audience
was peaceful, he recalled. He felt vindicated, until the next morning
when he saw the front page of his own newspaper. "There was a picture
of a black kid on the ground with a cop on top of him with a gun out,
looking over his shoulder," Jones said. "And the headline was, 'Rap
concert peaceful, but ..."" Underneath the photo was a map of the
city, with every stolen car and noise violation from the day before
marked with the icon of an explosion. Jones went in to the editor's
office yelling, and didn't stop until the paper printed his response
to its coverage.

But that wasn't enough to assuage his anger. Convinced that American
society needed a wake-up call on race, Jones abandoned his plan to
become a journalist, concluding that he would rather make news than
report it. "If I'd been in another country, I probably would have
joined some underground guerrilla sect," he said. "But as it was, I
went on to an Ivy League law school."

He arrived at Yale Law School wearing combat boots and carrying a
Black Panther bookbag, an angry black separatist among a sea of clean-
cut students dreaming of Supreme Court clerkships. "I wasn't ready for
Yale, and they weren't ready for me," Jones said. He never fell in
love with the law, and at one point contemplated dropping out of
school. But he realized that a law degree gave him the credibility to
speak out about the criminal justice system, so he persevered.

Jones first moved to the Bay Area in the spring of 1992, when the San
Francisco-based Lawyers Committee for Human Rights hired a batch of
law students to act as legal observers during the trial of Rodney
King's assailants. Eva Paterson, who was then the committee's
executive director, remembers getting a cover letter that stood out
from the rest: "It was this piece of stationery that had little faces
across the top, a stencil of little guys with dreads. We said, 'Oh,
yeah, we're hiring him.""

Paterson got to know Jones over the coming months, and enjoyed having
the young radical in her office. "He was a kid then, really," she
said. "He was brilliant, pretty feisty, pretty in your face, but
that's how you are when you're young. Just a force of nature."

When the verdicts came down -- not guilty for three of the officers
involved, and deadlocked on the fourth -- Paterson's office, like the
city, reacted with disbelief. Paterson said she felt like picking up
her office chair and hurling it out the window. The staff hit the
streets to monitor the demonstrations that erupted in San Francisco.
One week later, while Jones was observing the first large rally since
the lifting of the city's state of emergency, he got swept up in mass
arrests. It was a turning point in his life.

Jones had planned to move to Washington, DC, and had already landed a
job and an apartment there. But in jail, he said, "I met all these
young radical people of color -- I mean really radical, communists and
anarchists. And it was, like, 'This is what I need to be a part of.""
Although he already had a plane ticket, he decided to stay in San
Francisco. "I spent the next ten years of my life working with a lot
of those people I met in jail, trying to be a revolutionary." In the
months that followed, he let go of any lingering thoughts that he
might fit in with the status quo. "I was a rowdy nationalist on April
28th, and then the verdicts came down on April 29th," he said. "By
August, I was a communist."

In 1994, the young activists formed a socialist collective, Standing
Together to Organize a Revolutionary Movement, or STORM, which held
study groups on the theories of Marx and Lenin and dreamed of a
multiracial socialist utopia. They protested police brutality and got
arrested for crashing through police barricades. In 1996, Jones
decided to launch his own operation, which he named the Ella Baker
Center after an unsung hero of the civil-rights movement. Jones wedged
a desk and a chair inside a large closet in the back of Paterson's
office. He brought in his home computer and ran cables through the
rafters to get the operation humming.

"Eva was really my saving grace," said Jones. "She understood that I
was a little rowdy and difficult to deal with, but she tried to find a
way for me to fit into her system. She finally figured out that wasn't
going to work, and then she went way beyond the call of duty helping
me start my own thing."

Paterson was surprised by the number of tattooed individuals suddenly
passing through her office, but she didn't interfere. "He didn't need
a lot of coaching; he just needed a place where he could have a desk
and a phone, and a little infrastructure support," she said. She did
give him one piece of advice. "I think I counseled him to be
diplomatic," Paterson said. "I tried to convince him that you could be
passionate, but you didn't have to talk about your opponent's mother.
That you could be very, very committed and say what you had to say so
that people listened."

The lesson lay waiting in Jones' brain for years, until he was ready
to receive it.

Jones began transforming his politics and work in the aftermath of a
crisis that coincided with the primary election in March 2000. He was
campaigning hard against California Proposition 21, a ballot
initiative that increased the penalties for a variety of violent
crimes and required more juvenile offenders to be tried as adults.
Several activist groups united to organize young people into sit-
downs, rallies, and protests. But Jones said the coalition ultimately
imploded "in the nastiest way you can ever imagine."

The activists who worked on Prop. 21 had lofty ambitions -- they hoped
to create a youth movement as powerful as the antiwar coalition of the
1960s. With a hip-hop soundtrack, they aimed to enlist a generation
clad in puffy jackets and baggy pants in the fight against the prison-
industrial complex. Yet despite early successes such as rallies
covered by MTV and support from rap icons like Mos Def and MC Hammer,
the movement fell apart in the glare of the limelight. The groups
fought over grant money and over who deserved credit for various
successes. When the voters went ahead and approved the proposition
anyway, Jones took a big step back.

"I saw our little movement destroyed over a lot of shit-talking and
bullshit," he said. "It just seemed like an ongoing train crash that
was calling itself a political movement. It was much more destructive
internally than anyone was talking about, and much less impactful
externally than anyone was willing to admit."

Jones' fixation on solidarity dates from this experience. He took an
objective look at the movement's effectiveness and decided that the
changes he was seeking were actually getting farther away. Not only
did the left need to be more unified, he decided, it might also
benefit from a fundamental shift in tactics. "I realized that there
are a lot of people who are capitalists -- shudder, shudder -- who are
really committed to fairly significant change in the economy, and were
having bigger impacts than me and a lot of my friends with our protest
signs," he said.

First, he discarded the hostility and antagonism with which he had
previously greeted the world, which he said was part of the ego-driven
romance of being seen as a revolutionary. "Before, we would fight
anybody, any time," he said. "No concession was good enough; we never
said 'Thank you." Now, I put the issues and constituencies first. I'll
work with anybody, I'll fight anybody if it will push our issues
forward.... I'm willing to forgo the cheap satisfaction of the radical
pose for the deep satisfaction of radical ends."

His new philosophy emphasizes effectiveness, which he believes is
inextricably tied to unity. He still considers himself a
revolutionary, just a more effective one, who has realized that the
progressive left's insistence on remaining a counterculture destroys
its potential as a political movement. "One of my big heroes is
Malcolm X, not because I agree with Malcolm, but because he wasn't
afraid to change in public," he said.

Devising a new strategy for the left went hand-in-hand with finding a
new approach in his personal life and relationships. Jones said he
arrived at that by harking back to his roots. Although he had spent
many childhood summers in "sweaty black churches," and in college had
discovered the black liberation theology that reinterprets the Christ
story as an anticolonial struggle, he had pulled away from
spirituality during his communist days. During his 2000 crisis, he
looked for answers in Buddhism, the philosophy known as deep ecology,
and at open-minded institutions such as the East Bay Church of
Religious Science.

The last step was learning to ignore critics from within the movement
who didn't appreciate his new philosophy and allies. "I'm confused
half the time about what I'm doing, but none of the things that
leftists use to discipline each other into marginality have any power
over me anymore," he said. "It's like, 'Oh, you're working with white
people." Or 'Who are you accountable to?' A lot of the things that we
say to each other to keep anybody from getting too uppity, too
effective, I just don't listen to anymore. I care about the
progressive movements as they are, but I mainly care about all of our
movements becoming a lot bigger and a lot stronger."

Jones has since become known as a guy who actually can get things
done, a guy whom the mayor will take meetings with. For instance, last
June he worked with San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom on the UN World
Environment Day conference about green cities. Some environmental
groups boycotted the event, which was heavily underwritten by Pacific
Gas & Electric, a perennial environmental nemesis. Jones sidestepped
this controversy while pursuing his own goal, the inclusion of a
series of events highlighting the environmental issues faced by the
poor and people of color.

His efforts led to six days of conversations between environmentalists
and crusaders for racial justice. Juliet Ellis, of the Ella Baker
Center board, said it was a necessary step for groups that have shied
away from collaborating in the past. "We're still not at a place where
social justice and mainstream environmental groups believe they're
fighting for the same things," she said. "As far as bridging those
divides, Van definitely has the skill sets and the experience and the
personality to play a role in that."

But Jones also attracted a number of critics. During the conference,
many environmental-justice groups were irritated by what they saw as
Jones' attempt to appoint himself the leader of a movement in which
he'd never before played a role. They also thought his silence on the
sponsorship of PG&E compromised his integrity, given that the
company's Hunters Point Power Plant is a primary target of Bay Area
environmental-justice advocates.

In the aftermath of the event, seven of these groups wrote a letter to
Jones expressing their concerns about the perceived glory-hogging of
the Ella Baker Center team. Henry Clark, the longtime executive
director of the West County Toxics Coalition, and one of the signers,
complained that Jones excluded the true leaders of the Bay Area
movement. "They jumped out front to put themselves in the lead, to
make contact with these funders, in more of an opportunistic way," he

"There was concern among many, many environmental-justice
organizations who have been working on these issues for years," added
Bradley Angel, executive director of the group Greenaction. "But I
know we all have the same goals. I'm looking forward to those goals
being addressed, since we're all working together."

On the fourth day of the conference, some of the environmental-justice
groups that Jones left out organized their own event, a rally across
from City Hall protesting the conference's involvement with PG&E.
Angel said it was a coming together, "to confront the powers that be,
and to show that we will not compromise with those who violate the
principles of environmental justice."

"City hall is listening!" a speaker shouted to the crowd. But, in
fact, it was Saturday, and the halls of power were empty.

Jones has long displayed a knack for absorbing the ideas of others and
then broadcasting them in a way that turns theorizing into movement-
building. In the best scenarios, this leads to the harmonious
amplification of the message.

In September, he cohosted the Brower Youth Awards for environmental
activism with Julia Butterfly Hill, the protester who drew attention
to vanishing old-growth forests by living in the canopy of a redwood
for two years. Jones and Hill have been close friends since they met
at a conference in 2002. Their alliance embodies the sense of unity
desired by many environmental and racial-justice activists.

They met at a pivotal time in both of their lives. Hill said she was
reaching out to the racial-justice community, trying to make the
connection between "humanoid and planetary rights." Meanwhile, Jones
was going through a similar process in the opposite direction. He
calls Hill "the Mahatmama," in homage to her earth-mother vibe, and
credits her with helping him connect to the environmental movement.
"Before I met her, I already had the idea in my head, 'Green Jobs, Not
Jails,"" he said. "But the whole idea for a green-collar solution for
urban America was something that Julia was really helpful in

Around that same time, the Apollo Alliance was launched in Washington,
DC, with a catchy slogan: good jobs, clean energy. Modeled after
President Kennedy's famous challenge to America to put a man on the
Moon, the alliance is an effort to inspire the country into a frenzy
of environmentally friendly inventiveness. But Jones approached the
Apollo organizers because he believed that their original formulation
of environmentalists plus labor unions wasn't ambitious enough. "I
wanted to enrich their framework, which I thought started out with too
little racial-justice understanding," he said. He was already working
on the Ella Baker Center's own environmental program, but saw the
Apollo Alliance as a useful partner, with a national platform. "I was
met with absolutely open arms," he said.

The Ella Baker Center was one of the first groups to act upon the
ideas espoused by the Apollo Alliance. Jones is talking to organizers
about starting a branch of the alliance in West Oakland. He said he
believes the down-and-out neighborhood could be a model of urban
sustainability through investment, technology, and job creation.
Concrete plans for Oakland include a job-training program at a
biodiesel company that is starting up a production and wholesale
facility this January, and the construction of the "green-designed"
Red Star Housing project on the former site of a polluting yeast
factory. Developers have promised to include a job-training component
to teach environmentally friendly construction techniques to prisoners
reentering society.

"We're really curious; we're all watching to see where it goes," said
Peter Teague of the Nathan Cummings Foundation, which is funding the
center's environmental work. "It's moved from that giddy, imagining
stage to trying to make something happen on the ground, which is a lot
tougher. But I think Van is making a huge contribution in just showing
us what's possible."

But while Jones continues to advance the ideas he developed along with
the Apollo Alliance, the organization's cofounders Shellenberger and
Nordhaus were both forced to remove themselves from the national board
because of the controversy they stirred up. "When Ted and I put out
'Death of Environmentalism," we had people coming up to us and saying,
'You're finished in this business,"" Shellenberger said. "Basically,
'You will never work in this town again." I was telling my wife that
we might have to move to Humboldt County and take up organic farming.
We knew it was a risk, but we felt like we had a moral imperative to
say it. We felt like we could see what was making the environmental
movement ineffectual, and we had to speak out.... If the movement were
really strong and robust, people wouldn't have felt the need to go out
and destroy us."

Nordhaus agrees that the progressive left is doing its best to avoid
looking at the fault lines exposed by the paper. "It is really through
debate that a political ideology gets built, not by trying to paper
over conflicts," he said. "The irony is how little taste there has
been on the left for continuing the discourse that 'Death of
Environmentalism' started. The impulse is to say, 'Yeah, we read that,
and there were a lot of things I disagreed with, but there were some
good ideas, and we're all doing it! It was that easy!' It's indicative
of everything that's still wrong with the left."

Jones, with his message of effectiveness through solidarity, has come
to embody the reaction against the two heretics, even as he embodies
the approach they recommended. "It's not that we've had a lack of
debates and controversy, that hasn't been the problem," he said. "Do
we really want to do this with this much divisiveness? Isn't there
another way we could make the same points?"

He described the Shellenberger and Nordhaus method as "diesel," and
said it's characterized by outrage, sharp critique, and the desire to
come up with the best ideas. He said his own approach is more "solar-
powered," and is distinguished by compassion. "People need to have
their higher selves reflected back at them, the part of them that's
already aspiring to greatness and deep service," he said.

Jones regrets having ever spoken up about Shellenberger and Nordhaus'
work, particularly since his comments have embroiled him in exactly
the kind of dispute that he thinks fractures the left. "I don't think
people want to read an article where we say mean things about each
other," he said. "I think it depresses people." Jones added that his
own personal goal is to be "a voice calling for unity and respect,"
and said he hopes to work with the two authors again in the future.

But in the short term, expect to see Jones more often on the national
stage. And expect Shellenberger and Nordhaus' book, now scheduled for
publication in fall 2006, to be greeted with a new round of dismissal
and outrage. The two authors have a knack for getting people to think,
but only the least defensive activists seem ready to receive their
message. Meanwhile, Jones' warm-as-sunshine style is winning him far
more friends. The progressive movement probably needs all three men:
the two apostates nailing their criticisms to the door to the church,
and the preacher inside the tent. Hallelujah.

Copyright 2005 New Times, Inc.