The Oregonian, November 16, 2006


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

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 systems.

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 poor.

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 development.

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.