The Oregonian  [Printer-friendly version]
November 16, 2006


[Rachel's introduction: Van Jones is redefining environmentalism. He
sees environmental solutions as job-creating opportunities for the

By Darren Freeman

When Van Jones thinks about building an environmentally sustainable
economy, he pictures lots of new jobs -- workers installing renewable-
energy infrastructure, growing organic food or running mass transit

And Jones, who has spent the past 10 years working on criminal justice
reform, wants at-risk urban youths to get those jobs. He's calling on
environmentalists and human rights activists to join in a national
drive to save the environment and improve the lives of the working

Jones, 38, is working with politicians, business leaders, educators
and community activists to develop such cooperation in Oakland,
Calif., where he founded the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights in
1996 to tackle criminal justice issues.

He spoke recently in Portland during a visit organized by the Oregon
Natural Step Network, which promotes environmentally sustainable
business practices. The following was edited for brevity and clarity.

Q What is the message you bring to Portland?

A We need to expand and transform our definition of environmentalism.
... Rather than talking about environmental solutions as business
opportunities for the rich or consumer choices for the affluent, we
should be talking about them as job-creating, wealth-creating, health-
enhancing opportunities for poor people.

For example, one solution for global warming is renewable energy. Not
only could it save polar bears in the Arctic Circle, it could create
jobs for urban youths who are putting up solar panels. It could also
offer wealth-building opportunities for middle-class, working-class
people who could invest in those companies.

Q Why aren't environmentalists and social justice activists already
working together?

A We live in a society that has a lot of social walls. When things are
divided like that, it is harder to combine the wisdom.

What I'm trying to do is to point out that we might have different
issues or problems on the surface, but the solution to all our
problems is one thing: It is a green economy with shared prosperity as
a key value....

The only reason we haven't done it is we don't know each other, we
speak different languages, have different slang and different jargon,
and we're afraid of each other.

Q How would such a partnership work?

A In Oakland, we are building... a green enterprise zone to bring eco-
friendly businesses and industries to Oakland, to urban America.

We are working with community colleges and labor unions and prison re-
entry organizations to create a green job corps, where urban youths
and workers will be taught to install solar panels, do organic
gardening or retrofit buildings so they don't leak energy.

With our green enterprise zone and green job corps, we will align...
business and economic development with work-force training and

Q How does this project connect with the social justice issues you
have worked on in Oakland

The safest communities are not the communities with the most police
and prisons. The safest communities have the best education and jobs
for young people.

The same kids that we are throwing in the garbage can of failed
schools and prisons could be the kids who are putting up the solar
panels, inventing the new clean-burning diesel fuel or selling organic
produce. They are so creative and energetic, but nobody has given them
a grand call or a high mission.

Frankly, nobody has given the country a grand call or high mission.
There is a hole in the heart and soul of America right now. People
want to be brought together and do something great and noble again.
And building a green economy with shared prosperity as a key value is
something everybody in the country could feel good about.