Van Jones: Creating a Green-Collar Workforce
Credit: Peter Hoey
The way you "create a green pathway out of poverty is, you line up your green-job seekers with your green-job trainers with your green-job creators," Van Jones says. It is, Jones believes, not merely the key to a sustainable future but also the future, and a highly worthwhile one, for the many underprivileged young people entering the workforce without college degrees.
The future is something Jones, a 1993 Yale Law School graduate, thinks about a lot. He's also been doing something about it for much of his adult life. He's the founding president of Green for All, an organization in Oakland, California, focused on building what he calls "a green economy strong enough to lift people out of poverty." In 1996, Jones cofounded Oakland's Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, and for years he has been a key figure in battling social inequality and environmental destruction through an array of advocacy organizations. His work has been acknowledged with a Reebok Human Rights Award, his selection as a World Economic Forum Young Global Leader, and a Rockefeller Foundation Next Generation Leadership Fellowship.
"From the point of view of planetary survival, every job needs to be a green job," Jones says. In the twenty-first century, he adds, "there will be a need to focus much more on math and science and the need for technological innovation and invention. We're focused on those young people who may not have college in their future. We want to make sure that we bring back vocational arts. We see a need for vocational skills training, a need for a well-paid green-collar workforce in the United States that can install solar panels, weatherize, retrofit buildings, do rainwater management, and construct buildings that are smarter with regard to energy and water. We think that the sooner those values get inculcated in young people, the better off we'll be."
Not surprisingly, Jones's views have been getting the recognition they deserve. In 2007, the Ella Baker Center and the Oakland Apollo Alliance proposed a youth-training program -- the Green Jobs Corps -- the City of Oakland adopted.
But what role does public education play in Jones's vision for green-collar jobs? "We've been using our school systems, all the way through college, to train people for the pollution-based jobs of the last century," he explains. "There needs to be a sea change in our educational system to get people prepared for a world where, frankly, there's going to be a lot more resource competition and resource scarcity, and we're going to have to be much smarter and more conscious about how we produce and consume."
Jones sees a future in which high schools play a central role in getting students to consider green jobs as viable, rewarding career options in terms of both satisfaction and salary. Kids are leaving high school, Jones says, "sometimes prematurely without those vocational skills." He wants to see schools make available what he calls "a menu of options of good, dignified work."
Once you get Jones talking about this subject, which takes little coaxing, his passion kicks in. "If you look at these extreme weather events, at the coming water shortages, at the lack of investment in our infrastructure over the past thirty years, you see there's going to be an enormous labor demand for skilled vocational work, and the people doing it are going to be the heroes who build, rebuild, retrofit, and reboot this country," he says. "We should tell students this from the beginning: 'It's a huge opportunity to make a good living, but also to make a big difference in your country.'
"I'm a civil rights lawyer -- I come out of that background -- and Martin Luther King Jr. fought and died to racially integrate a pollution-based economy," Jones continues. "I think we have a moral obligation in the new century to make sure that the new clean, green economy includes everybody from the beginning." Jones cites three achievements in the Bay Area he's especially proud of: the Oakland City Council's unanimous approval of the Green Jobs Corps proposal, Green for All's work with Solar Richmond doing direct vocational training and job placement with primarily low-income African Americans, Latinos, and Asian Americans, and working with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
"She believes in the vision," Jones says of meeting with Pelosi. "She helped us get into Title X of an energy bill, a provision called the Green Jobs Act of 2007. President George W. Bush signed it into law in December." The provision appropriates $125 million, Jones explains, "enough money to train about 30,000 people a year every year in the green trades, and 20 percent of those dollars are to be directed toward at-risk folks, people with barriers to employment."
Asked to sum up his vision for kids, education, and careers, Jones thinks for a moment, then displays his gift for explaining complexity in simple, concise language: "All across the country, you have all this work that needs to be done, and you have all these people who need work. Why don't we connect the people who most need work with the work that most needs to get done?"
How do you use the Web or other technology in your work?
The question that we're asking is very simple: How do you connect the people who most need work with the work that most needs to be done? But the answer is going to be relatively complex. So our challenge is to create a network that can teach itself how to get this done.
We see this green revolution happening, and we also see this technology revolution happening. We want to bring the two together to solve this problem. We want to create what we call a community of practice and a clearinghouse of information so people can talk to each other about what we're doing in Milwaukee, what we're doing in Philadelphia, what we're doing in Newark.
We have this problem; does anybody have any curriculum? What policies can our city pass that will actually create more jobs, and how do we get our vocational high school students lined up with those jobs faster? We feel that the greatest service we can do is to give this conversation a home. We're going to bring in a top-notch design team to help us come up with the best possible platform for massive collaboration on this problem.
Which resources have inspired you and informed your work?
Martin Luther King Jr., obviously. Going to the Bioneers conferences and seeing all the ecological solutions, and charting the distance between those solutions and my community. Certainly, having been a part of the Apollo Alliance [a coalition of business, labor, environmental, and community leaders working to catalyze a clean-energy revolution] has inspired me. I'm still a member of the board and want to do everything I can to make that agenda come through.
Who are your role models?
Paul Hawken and Julia Butterfly Hill, on the ecology side. Paul Hawken is probably the bravest intellectual in terms of what he's willing to challenge from his position of being a wealthy, white business guy. Julia Butterfly is probably the bravest activist -- sitting in the tree for two years. They inspire me.
And obviously Nelson Mandela and King, and Amilcar Cabral, who nobody talks about anymore, but who was a great freedom fighter in Guinea-Bissau, Africa. I think he's just fascinating. He was an anti-Portuguese freedom fighter, but he absolutely refused to dehumanize the Portuguese. Even though they were fighting, he held this beautiful vision of reconciliation. They would capture Portuguese soldiers and feed them, give them medicine, and turn them loose.
What advice would you give those who consider you a role model?
The main thing is to not be afraid to fail. People say I have a good education, and I say, "Yes, I have the best education in the world: disastrous failure at trying to get stuff done." I learned a lot more from my failures than my successes. It's good to be able to say I went to Yale Law School, but honestly, when I look back, what I've learned the most from is being here in Oakland, trying to make a not-for-profit work.
What fundamental beliefs have guided your work?
You have to stand up to bullies. And it's more important to know what you're for than to know what you're against. I spent a lot of my young adult life being against a whole bunch of stuff: antiracism, antiwar. I was this anti person. And you can really burn yourself out with that. So, for me, knowing what I'm for is really the most important thing.
What is your mantra in the face of adversity?
Believe and prevail, and prevail implies that you're going to have to overcome a lot -- mainly yourself.
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