Van Jones says he isn’t bitter that he’s no longer President Obama’s environmental adviser and green-jobs guru.
Jones, who will be speaking in Portland on Jan. 25, has certainly moved on since leaving his administration post in 2009. For those who don’t remember, Jones resigned after Fox News and the right wing relentlessly spotlighted his earlier role in activist groups, and highlighted both his calling Republicans “assholes” and the fact a group he founded was urging a boycott of Fox News host Glenn Beck.
Jones is now a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, a progressive think tank; senior policy adviser at Green For All, a nonprofit creating jobs for poor people that he founded in 2007; and on the faculty at Princeton University teaching a course, appropriately enough, on environmental politics.
Before joining the Obama administration as a self-dubbed “green-jobs handyman,” the 42-year-old Jones was known for founding two other nonprofits—the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, which campaigns for civil rights in Oakland, and Color of Change, which aims to empower African-American political voices.
Jones, who wrote the 2008 award-winning book on green jobs, The Green-Collar Economy, will speak at the University of Oregon’s Portland campus. His lecture topic is “Beyond Green Jobs: the Next American Economy,” and how Portland can be a leader in that shift.
WW talked to Jones by telephone.
WW: How did the Fox imbroglio last year change the way you do activism?
Van Jones: Politics at that level is a contact sport. The agenda hasn’t changed. If anything, it’s just gotten more urgent. I got a chance to work for six months in the White House, which was the biggest honor of my life. It would be in very poor form to leave that experience and be anything but grateful. I came out more committed and convinced than ever.
What will your lecture be about?
My basic point is that the next economy [moving out of the crash] needs to go back to production rather than consumption, building rather than borrowing, thrift and conservation. People keep gambling on their future with bust-and-bailout cycles, a casino-based economy. Green jobs will be the cornerstone for a much broader economic revival. It’s a doorway that most communities are going to have to pass through to come out of the economic crisis. We have whole new constituencies of people who fall into categories that did not exist four years ago. We have millions of foreclosure victims. We have veterans returning from overseas who need jobs. Green jobs will have to take even more responsibility than we thought they would in a functional economy.
Why do you think Portland will be a leader in that movement?
The whole West Coast has groundwork that has already been laid because of public policy. But the thing in particular I’m excited by is the weatherization and energy-rescue work in the Portland area. Portland’s leading the way and really solving a lot of problems through job training and financing that’s really stimulated a lot of communities, and that’s really good. The great thing about green jobs is you force people to work together who have never been in the same room—the utility company, the mayor’s office, the anti-poverty activist—and then you get successes like the ones in Portland that start getting addictive.
What would you say to Portland’s unemployed who argue they just need any old job, regardless of whether it’s green?
Very understandable. The question I always ask is: What sector do you think the next round of jobs is going to come from? New sources of energy will be one of the big global industries in the future. These are the solutions to bet on if you’re someone who’s looking for work or if you’re a civic leader looking for ways to revitalize communities. If you don’t have a pole planted [in green jobs], you’re going to miss a lot coming down the pike in the new century.
If we shift away from the thousand-mile salad to secure local food, we’re also securing local jobs. The hydroponics right now being used to grow illegal herbs...I would argue that we could be growing vegetables in our cities and creating local greenspace. People forget the federal government didn’t even recognize the concept of green jobs until 2007. Now you’ve got 80,000 people working in the wind industry, and that’s the same as the coal industry. You’ve got 46,000 people working in the solar industry. That’s what Congress is missing. There was a time when the U.S. automakers were a huge part of driving prosperity in America, but that didn’t mean everyone worked at a car plant. It just means that one part of the economy was humming and that moved everything else along. The green-jobs engine is not a magic bullet. It’s not a cure-all. But it’s doing tremendous things for the country.
SEE IT: Jones’ “Beyond Green Jobs: The Next American Economy” lecture takes place Tuesday, Jan. 25, at 5:45 pm at University of Oregon’s White Stag Block, 70 NW Couch St. Free, no tickets or reservations required.