Photo: Art Streiber
Putting two at-risk entities together—the environment and inner-city kids—activist Van Jones has come up with a plan to save both. And now that he's got some friends in high places, his ideas are about to take off.
Van Jones is shouting from a rooftop, asking the folks below him to agree on one thing, which he issues in his Tennessee drawl: "If I fall, y'all cannot laugh. We got a deal?"
The shingled slope is not really sheltering anyone or anything from the elements; it's a facsimile of a building—an unfinished house inside a cavernous warehouse. The whole setup looks like an art project but is really an inner-city green-jobs training site in Richmond, California. In yellow construction helmets, Jones and two trainees have just hoisted a solar panel into place and secured it with power tools. And they do so over and over, as a camera crew from Dan Rather's HDNet television program keeps asking for retakes. Jones, in a dark blazer, black jeans, and street shoes, is game, masking his discomfort about the danger and the artifice of all this. He has, above all, a message to get out.
At 40, Jones is busier than he's ever been. His best-selling manifesto, The Green Collar Economy, came out in October. It broadcasts his goal of bringing environmental principles to the rescue of urban communities. His theory of economic empowerment is not, as he says, some "eco-chic thing or eco-freak thing for those of us who live close to Berkeley." His organization, Green for All, advocates for green-worker training, counsels local governments on how to set and meet energy-saving goals, and mentors leaders in poor communities to become front-runners in this emerging economic field. He thinks the unemployed during this downturn could be paid by the government to put their communities' houses in ecological order. Green workers could turn roofs into solar fields and fix leaks in windows, doors, and poorly insulated walls.
"Our vision is that people will be able to be continually up-skilled: from laborer to installer to licensed electrician," says Jones, who believes, with his characteristic optimism, that as workers climb the job ladder, they might discover new applications for existing technology. "Tilt the panel this way or that way, and you could conceivably come up with a real breakthrough and start your own company," he explains. "Managers, then owners, then inventors." The most important job a person gets is their first job, says Jones, noting that many folks without employment history can't get hired, even for positions where the company will have to train all its recruits. "It's like Jack and the beanstalk," he says. "We just want people to get in on the ground floor to grow with the industry." In one of Jones's favorite sayings, inner-city kids would realize the real ways to get rich if they would "put down the handgun and pick up a caulk gun."
Launched at the 2007 Clinton Global Initiative, Green for All has a $5 million annual budget and a staff of more than 30, and a growing list of foundation grants and individual donations. Although Green for All is officially a little more than a year old, Jones' involvement in environmental causes has its roots in his work at a nonprofit group that he co-founded in 1996, the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights. Green for All partners with groups in other cities—a green-job-corps group in Pittsburgh, another in Atlanta, and one in Newark—some of which have been around longer and some of which began with different missions, but all now laboring toward the Green for All objective of a surge in new workers creating a surge in cleaner, more sustainable energy practices.
At the training facility, Jones is eager for cameras to spotlight his organization and its partners at Solar Richmond, a nonprofit that has a goal of helping the city produce five megawatts of electricity from solar sources by 2010. Jones has an easy and encouraging manner with the trainees and gives his full concentration to one who is telling him how to climb down from the ladder. The instructions require him to stand to one side of it and configure his hands so they will hold him up as he does a twisting move to put his feet on the rungs. The bookish man in rimless spectacles hoists his 6'2" frame into place. There's a three-second flash of anxiety visible just before he pushes forth a big smile. The dozen colleagues and spectators below him start clapping.