Championing eco-equality

An interview with Van Jones

Illustration By Jed Alexander

SN&R spoke with Van Jones, founder and president of Green for All, an Oakland-based nonprofit organization that champions green economic development in urban America. He also serves as board president of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, which he co-founded in 1996, with the intent of providing alternatives to violence and incarceration for inner-city youth.

You’ve written that “More people are beginning to see that there can be no division between our concern for vulnerable people and our concern for a vulnerable planet.” What do you mean?

Hurricane Katrina showed that people who get hit first and worst by any ecological disaster are people of color, so [people of color] have a big stake in protecting the planet from further harm. At the same time, any efforts to lift vulnerable communities out of poverty could add to pollution and global warming if those economic strategies are not green. We need green pathways out of poverty to help people while we respect the planet. If you think about it from that point of view, there is no distinction between the agendas of social uplift and ecological responsibility.

Tell me about your call for “green jobs, not jails” for urban youth.

If we are going to beat global warming, we in the United States are going to have to weatherize millions of buildings, put up millions of solar panels, plant millions of trees and build thousands of wind farms. That’s thousands of contracts and millions of jobs. We have millions of low-income people who desperately need work. Let’s connect the work that most needs to be done with the people who most need the work.

Would you say this approach demonstrates a merge between racial-justice activists and environmental-justice activists?

Well, yes, but it’s also a rediscovery of the deeper roots of racial justice. You have to remember that before the colonizers came, the basic African and indigenous worldviews were very much about honoring the Earth. Our great-grandparents were called heathens they so much wanted to honor the Earth. So in some ways, it’s about merging with a white, affluent movement—and that’s long overdue—but it’s also about bringing racial-justice struggles full circle back to the kinds of ideas that were taken from our communities when we were colonized.

What’s working with the environmental movement?

Courtesy of van jones

It certainly has defended well those species and areas of wilderness that would otherwise have long since been wiped out without those efforts. It has provided some buffer against some of the worst toxins and pollutants that would have run with much more freedom without environmental advocacy.

What’s wrong with the movement?

I would say there are some opportunities to improve, transform and expand the movement. I don’t know if that makes it right or wrong. The major challenge has been to find ways for people who are neither white nor affluent to be equal partners in defining the environmental agenda. One of the great things about working for a green economy that is strong enough to lift people out of poverty is that it has a place in it for traditional environmentalists but also for anti-poverty and racial-justice forces, as well. And we can all be on equal footing working together.

Any examples where this is happening?

A woman named Majora Carter, who helped create Sustainable South Bronx, is showing that you can use a green economic agenda to rescue a whole neighborhood. Right here in the Bay Area we have a group called Solar Richmond, which is doing a great job training low-income people and people of color to become solar-panel installers and get in on the ground floor of the booming solar industry. There is a woman named Ladonna Redmond in Chicago who is focused on community gardening and urban farming and getting healthy organic food to low-income African-Americans in Chicago.

What’s your vision for the future of the environmental movement?

I don’t really have a vision for the future of the environmental movement. I do have a vision for the future of America and the world. I’d like to see the United States go from the world leader in environmental pollution to the world leader in environmental solution. I would like for us to build a green economy that focuses on more than reclaiming thrown-away stuff. We need a green economy that is also focused on rescuing thrown-away people. The United States has 4 percent of the world’s population, but we produce 25 percent of the world’s greenhouse gasses and have 25 percent of the world’s prisoners—mostly black and brown and poor. What’s the connection? The connection is that in our country we believe we have throwaway species, throwaway resources and throwaway people. The U.S. economy hurts poor people and the planet. My vision is we create a U.S. and global economy that lifts up poor people and helps the planet.