Green Streets: O Interviews Van Jones
To date, Green for All has led to the training of only "several hundred" green workers, by Jones' count, but that could soon change. He advised House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on the creation of a clean energy jobs bill, which passed the House and became law in 2007. Its principal sponsor, Hilda Solis, was President Obama's top choice for Secretary of Labor, and the Jones agenda is moving forward faster than he could push it on his own, with green-worker training an important part of the Obama stimulus package. The new administration, in its opening weeks, requested a staggering $500 million for these programs, which could train as many as 120,000 workers. At press time, Congress was still negotiating the final number, but the green-collar movement, in all its permutations, is likely to see some of its most industrious dreams come true.
Jones is determined to take advantage of this moment. Keeping up with him over two days in December demands stamina; his life is spent sprinting from panel discussion to community meeting, from a job-training site to a baby shower in the Green for All break room. In the backseat of a borrowed hybrid SUV hurtling down a Los Angeles freeway, he fields a phone query from a congressional aide, scans an agenda for his next meeting with East L.A. church leaders who want to go green, and edits a piece that is about to go live on The Huffington Post . At an activist confab held in the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, Jones quickly warms up the crowd. "How many of you people made a fool of yourself on election night? Crying all over the place, flying snot everywhere, traumatizing your children?" With a practiced ear, he lets the laughter build and then pushes it with what his 4-year-old son—he has an 8-month-old son, too—asked that night: "Mama, what is history and why does it make Daddy cry?"
During the question-and-answer session, a Sierra Club veteran offers broad support of green-collar goals, though the audience feels a "but" is coming. Sure enough, the man wallops the panelists with vehement criticism of one small aspect of the day's talk. Jones offers that he isn't easily discouraged. "Luckily, I've had a lot of therapy," he says, and repurposes the man's negative energy into something vaguely positive that everyone can agree with: "There are no disposable resources. There are no disposable species. There are no disposable children." His remarks create long lines of folks who want their books signed, their business cards pocketed, their related ideas absorbed, until it's time for Jones to literally close the door of the SUV and speed off to the next meeting.
If Jones began his green quest by communicating with outsider radicals like Hill, he's now solidly on the inside. Brainiacs in the environmental community, überlobbyists in Washington, Al Gore and other heavy hitters are not only supporting Jones but asking him what's next and what they can give him to get there. "He really understands that there is a lot of work that needs to be done and that there are a lot of folks who need work. He's been able to figure out how to connect those twin needs," says Fred Krupp, president of the Environmental Defense Fund.
Jones acknowledges that his race provides more opportunities for his voice to be heard. "I'm just a friendly black guy," he says, and does an old-white-man voice, "Let's put him on the board." His new contacts have taken him to familiar left-leaning places—for instance, a Ben & Jerry's–sponsored get-together—and then to some more unexpected ones, like the Arctic trek the Aspen Institute and the National Geographic Society organized that had him gabbing with Jimmy Carter, Tom Daschle, Ted Turner, and executives from Google, Monsanto, and DuPont. The purpose of the expedition when it was planned the year before was to show power brokers the Great Melt up close, but when the hard-to-book guests flew north last summer, that awareness-first goal had basically become obsolete. As Jones says, "By the time we got up there, the conversation had pretty much moved on nationally." Still, he found inspiration just by looking around. "Every 10 feet there would be some chunk of whale bone. You know, our forebears should have left us a bay full of whales and all they left us with was bones. They overfished the whales practically to extinction; that just rang in my head in terms of what we're leaving our kids. We'll be lucky if my grandkids can find a zoo with a tiger in it."
Despite his packed schedule—his talks, trips, and solar panel demos for Dan Rather—and his seemingly innate storytelling talents, Jones isn't a natural power broker. "I'm an extreme introvert in an extrovert's job," he says. "I'm most comfortable reading or in small groups." It becomes clear after the events of the past two days that he would prefer to retreat from any crowded room and instead to hole up with a biography of John Muir or a podcast of Ronald Reagan, whom Jones admires for "making it look so easy and telling a lot of stories." Reagan's example shows that as a president, you need to "plant your pole and let the country come to it," Jones says. "Actually, Reagan gave me comfort because he spent a lot of time in the wilderness."
Today the country is moving toward the ideas Jones has planted. He realizes there's a lot of communal goodwill for his goals right now and—he's learned this the hard way—a lot of conflict ahead too. But he's clear about what he wants: hundreds of thousands of green-collar workers trained and deployed, returning energy to the power companies' grids, and finding roles for workers and investors in poor communities—all as this green economy recharges the nation's gross domestic product. "I'll work with anybody to get that," he says. "And I'll work against anybody to get that."