Jones grew up in western Tennessee, where he attended college. After graduating from Yale Law School in 1993, he moved from New Haven to the Bay Area and turned his energies toward the local social justice movement, surprised that a region known for its progressive public policy had such strained ties between the poor communities and law enforcement. Most pressing was the problem of police brutality, with a shoot-first impulse in urban zones that left unarmed youth murdered and police ranks closed in and defensive.
It reminded him of similar injustice in New Haven, where he saw moneyed white kids who were caught with drugs receiving judicial wrist slaps, while drug use among African-Americans was punished with prison terms. Jones co-founded the Ella Baker Center in the Bay Area, which became known for its Books Not Bars program, advocating against the imprisonment of juvenile offenders. Jones and his allies could chalk up success when they blocked a juvenile superprison and helped reduce the mass jailings. But the death toll in his community took a psychic toll on the young activist.
"In the 1990s, I probably went to a funeral of somebody under 25 if not every month then at least four times a year," he says, recounting a series of victims that remains vivid in his mind: In one incident, a white girl was merely sitting in a car with black friends when police shot up the car. He was surrounded by "the culture of funerals—the poster boards with pictures of the prom." His voice trails off. "I just couldn't take it."
Jones was confronting burnout at a make-or-break time for his coalition of Bay Area activists—the folks who had been pushing mayors and city councils and school boards to brighten the prospects of inner-city youth. California voters, however, had been exhausted by urban violence. A group of conservative reformers backed Proposition 21, a statewide referendum on juvenile crime that called for stricter penalties for gang violence, carjacking, and other felonies. The initiative would place 16-year-olds into the adult prison population. The activists Jones worked with had a common opponent, but the strains among them grew.
"In 1999, that was the year a lot of the infighting blew up," he says. When the voters went to the polls in March 2000, the proposition passed with 62 percent of the vote, and allies became enemies. "There was grantmaker rivalry, Jerry Springer–worthy escapades. It was just a train wreck. That kind of threw me on my back." He felt as if he were on one side of a battle, with seemingly everyone else on the other. It didn't help that Jones was living what he calls a balled-up-fist existence, a solitary life that involved sleeping on a mattress on a floor with stacks of books around him. His outlook involved no pleasure and no compromise. One day he found himself arguing with a government official, when it occurred to him that "this guy is being nicer to me than half the activists in Oakland."
He realized, slowly, that maybe other people weren't the problem. Maybe he was. In 2000 Jones embarked on a series of trips north to Marin County. He says he spent his time "meditating, listening to New Age lectures about self-improvement, dancing ecstatically with white people banging on drums." He delved into shamanism, Buddhist retreats, Rolfing, yoga, Landmark, you name it. "I was so desperate for healing," he says now, "I was like Frankenstein, drinking out of every vial."
He began to resolve his grief through counseling, praying, and falling in love with a law student named Jana, who is now his wife. His personal quest would begin to influence his work at Ella Baker. "I remember driving back over the bridge into Oakland," he says of one trip. "I was coming back to all the bullshit." At that moment, he noticed he was crossing a divide he hadn't realized was there, where the northern zones had healthy, greener lifestyles and the urban areas had the lethal opposite. "In Marin, they had all this stuff you never see in Oakland: Salads! Tofu! Hybrid cars!" he says. "I had this epiphany: This is eco-apartheid. If I have to move over here in order to be healthy, we're gonna have ecological haves and have-nots, and it's gonna get worse and worse and worse."
His green conversion was gradual, and his new personal interests didn't immediately translate to professional success. He knew his enthusiasm for hybrids would not spread quickly in poor neighborhoods: "No one's ever going to say, 'Yeah, pimp my Prius.'" Still, his Marin soul-searching had given Jones a vague idea of "green-jobs-not-jails," and his course was charted after he attended a workshop featuring Julia Butterfly Hill, a legend in the eco-community for having sat on a platform atop a redwood tree, protesting the clear-cutting of old-growth forests. "She was there not for two days, not for two weeks, but for two years!" Jones says, his eyes wide in disbelief. He was amazed not just by her commitment but also by her sense of peace, which enabled her to befriend hostile loggers whose company tried to literally force her to fall from the upper boughs with the blasts of air from their helicopters, and there were months when the winds of El Niño might have done it first.
"I wanna be like that!" he recalls saying to himself. "I was very good at calling people out— 'You suck!'—and Julia was good at calling people up." He befriended Hill, and together they realized that forces in the economy were clear-cutting inner-city kids in much the same way they were clear-cutting old-growth forests.