Environmental advocate Van Jones


The environmental advocate discusses his new American Dream Movement and explains how the progressive movement has failed to make good on the promise of change espoused by President Obama’s ’08 election campaign.

With a history of activism, Van Jones emerged as a national environmental leader, calling for green economic development in urban America. He founded the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights and was founding president of Green for All. A best-selling author and former green jobs advisor in the White House in '09, Jones is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and has a joint appointment at Princeton. He also helped launch the new grassroots organization Rebuild the Dream. He's a Yale Law grad and has been a journalist and an independent publisher.


Tavis: Tonight we begin with someone else known for his work with the environment and social causes – Van Jones. He, of course, served in the Obama White House as an adviser on green jobs and is now the driving force behind the new progressive movement called Rebuild the Dream.

Next week in Washington he will be hosting a forum of ideas around this movement called Take Back the American Dream. Van, good to have you on this program.

Van Jones: Honored to be here, brother. Very good.

Tavis: Did you know Wangari Maathai?

Jones: Not only did I know her, I named my second son Maathai after her, and the last time I saw her I got a chance to hug her and I said, “You know I named my son after you,” and we laughed and cried. I hadn’t seen her since. Expected to see her in New York, and so we’re pretty shaken up by it.

Tavis: She came on the show a few times, but the last time she was here for her book, a wonderful conversation, so we will rebroadcast again that conversation with the first African woman to win the Peace Prize on this program tomorrow night.

But again, tonight pleased to have Van Jones here.

Jones: Glad to be here.

Tavis: Let me start – you and I have been friends for a long time –

Jones: Long time.

Tavis: – and I respect and love the work that you do, but I want to challenge you –

Jones: Good.

Tavis: – on two things, because I want to just get your take on why you’re going in this direction.

Jones: Yes.

Tavis: The first is I read with interest your mission statement for the work that you’re doing.

Jones: Yes.

Tavis: And the word “poverty” doesn’t appear one time. The word “poor” doesn’t appear one time in the mission statement I read, but there is a couple references to the middle class. Tell me, am I missing something here? Is it about the middle class?

Because what’s really happening for me is that the poor are being left behind, and I saw the focus of the mission statement about the middle class.

Jones: Well first of all, the word “poor” does appear in the preamble. Sometimes people don’t look at the whole thing, but if you look at the 10-point program, that may be what you’re talking about, the word “poor” doesn’t appear directly.

Here’s what’s going on. We have the traditionally poor, the folks that you and I have worked with for years, and you know I’ve put my time in the streets of Oakland, et cetera, trying to get jobs for folks – for Pookie and Snookie and folks nobody wants to hire, trying to get those folks jobs in the solar industry, et cetera.

We have the traditionally impoverished, and then, thanks to the malfeasance of Wall Street and both parties being accomplices to the crime, we have now 20 to 30 million more people thrown out of the middle class down into poverty.

Tavis: That’s right.

Jones: So what we’ve got to be able to do now is to rebuild the middle class. Create pathways out of poverty, ladders of opportunity, so that the people who used to be in the middle class can get back in there, and people who need to be in the middle class can get up there, and the people who’ve been running away with all the benefits of America have to start paying America back.

You got the corporate elite; you have what I call the banksters on Wall Street. They are the ones who benefitted from the tax breaks and the bailouts. The bankers themselves would be homeless themselves – they would be poor, based on their performance.

But the American people bailed them out, set them back up, and now they won’t even return phone calls from homeowners who are saying, “Can you please just cut me a break on my mortgage?”

That kind of thing has got to stop. So it’s about saying that the middle class and everybody wants to be in the middle class needs a voice now, and neither party has stood up for the traditionally impoverished or the newly poor. One thing I think we’ve got to be clear about too is the Black middle class, built primarily off the public sector.

So much bias in the private sector – my parents were schoolteachers and firefighters. My dad was a cop; I’ve got an uncle who’s a cop in Memphis, Tennessee right now. The public sector is how we built our middle class.

So when they start saying “public workers,” and they start saying “We’re going to cut back and slash public workers,” that’s a double blow to our community, because you’re not only hurting the people who need those services, you’re also hurting the service-givers, who are disproportionately Black.

So we have to mount a big fight-back for the traditionally poor, the newly poor and the economically anxious to get justice from this economic system.

Tavis: I’m glad you answered it in that way, because my press was specifically if the new poor – and I think we agree on this – if the new poor are the former middle class and everybody keeps talking about the middle class and we won’t address the needs of the poor, then how do we get people back into that class?

Jones: One of the things I was so appreciative of of your poverty tour, and other leaders, Cornel West, Maxine Waters, saying, “Hold on a second, now. Let’s make sure that just because we have new people hurting we don’t forget the people who’ve been hurting the whole time.”

It really is a canary in the coal mine situation. We didn’t respond to some of the pain in some of the places where folks are hurting, whether it’s Appalachia or Watts or Detroit, and we allowed that pain to accumulate and we allowed the gain to accumulate with folks on Wall Street.

At a certain point the whole house collapsed because of that injustice and inequity. What we’re doing with this Rebuild the Dream and the American Dream movement, Dr. King, when he said he had a dream, the first thing he said, “I have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted -”

Tavis: “In the American dream.”

Jones: “- in the American dream.” Now, he wasn’t talking about consumerism.

Tavis: That’s right.

Jones: He wasn’t talking about commercialism. He was just saying we’re supposed to be a country where everybody’s supposed to count, everybody’s supposed to matter, and that you shouldn’t have to be from one part of town to be able to get up in the morning and go out the front door and earn a living and bring that paycheck back to your child, give your child a better life.

Now, look – people came from around the world based on that idea, and people in our family, who didn’t choose to come here, we chose to stay because we wanted to make good on that promise. You got folks now that want to kill that off so rich folks don’t have to pay their taxes. That’s wrong.

You have people who literally are willing to have every pillar of the middle class, which we built, smashed down. You have the Tea Party movement. They want to take a wrecking ball, paint it red, white and blue, smash down every American institution – the public schools, the unions, the safety net, everything that we built to make this a great country and to build pathways of opportunity for our folks into it, they smash it down, but they’re the patriots.

So what we’re saying is if you love America and you believe that the last century was the American century, the 20th century, don’t repeal the 20th century. Don’t knock out the things that we did blood, sweat and tears to get to. That’s what the American Dream movement’s all about.

Tavis: Let me press again –

Jones: Please do.

Tavis: – because Dr. West, who you referenced earlier, and I’ve had these – we’ve had and are still having these debates about where we actually come down on this, and I’m not sure we agree on every aspect of this. But when you reference Dr. King, who my audience knows I say all the time I regard Dr. King as the greatest American this country has ever produced – that’s my own assessment.

But I sometimes wonder, as much as I love and revere Dr. King, whether or not in the early part of his life, because you know he’s dead at 39, but in the earlier part of his life, I wonder whether or not even he was too sentimental about the American dream.

By the time he is assassinated in Memphis, the sermon he was going to preach, as you know, had he made it to that Sunday, was entitled, “Why America May Go to Hell.” Not that she was going to hell, but why she may go to hell.

So I think over his own trajectory around issues of poverty and the stuff you’re working on, I think he became perhaps less sentimental and more realistic about whether or not the American dream was even all that it was crafted to be.

Jones: Here’s the thing about our country. Even at the moment of the founding there is a contradiction. The founding reality is ugly and unequal – so much that even the founders lamented. Jefferson, you go to see his memorial, it says, “I tremble when I think that God is just,” thinking about slavery.

So even the founders lament how ugly and unequal the founding reality is, but America was never just a founding reality. It was also the founding dream, which was about equality. “We hold these truths to be self-evidence, that all are created equal.”

The story of America, if you ask me, is a story of an imperfect people struggling to drag that ugly, unequal founding reality closer and closer to the beauty of the dream. That’s who we are, and I think if you reduce America only to the dream and act like you’re perfect, I think you’re wrong. If you say we’re only our failings, I think you’re wrong. I’m not just my failings; neither is my country.

That said, look at the last century. (Unintelligible) 1900. Every cause and constituency that you and I care about is in the garbage can. Women can’t vote, people of color have no rights, children are working in factories, the environment’s being trashed, there’s no weekend, there’s no middle class. It is a horror.

There are some people who look around in 1900 and say, “This is fine, I love it. Let’s conserve this. We’re conservatives, let’s conserve this.” Other people said, “No, we’re not perfect, but we can be a more perfect union,” and they fought week after week, year after year, decade after decade, to build a middle class, to build equal opportunity, to fight for it.

Not to win all of it, but to make that be the norm. Now, by the time of the year 2000, the country is different. We won the last century. Progressives won the last century, progressive patriots who fought for the dream. My concern is that now we need to win the next century, and we are letting other people define what love of country is to be something that’s about the 1900s and not about the American century.

Tavis: The president, President Obama, your former boss, invoked the civil rights movement that you referenced a moment ago. He invoked that movement in his speech days ago at the Congressional Black Caucus. What is your read on that now-infamous phrase, “Stop complaining, stop grumbling, stop crying.” How did you read what the president was saying to Black people that night?

Jones: Well, here’s what I know. The president is now starting to sound a more populist tone. He’s starting to talk different because we’re starting to walk different.

The base of the Democratic Party and Independents and folks who believe in justice first but party later, opportunity first, party later, are starting to stand up. We organized, throughout the month of August, uncovered by the national media, 10 times more protest activity by progressives than the Tea Party – 10 times.

We organized 600,000 people across the country into the American Dream movement. You go to RebuildtheDream.com if you want to see it. Six hundred thousand people joined in every congressional district and began to raise hell about the fact that D.C. is off the rails.

Us walking different and standing different and saying we don’t care who is in the White House or who’s in Washington, D.C., the American people deserve better, has now got D.C. beginning to act different, got the White House beginning to act different.

The most important thing I can say is let’s keep walking, let’s keep standing up. This is going to be a moment, this fall, this autumn, where I think you start hearing from regular people. We’re not going to wait for Washington, D.C., we’re not going to wait for the White House, we’re not going to wait for either political party. America works great when the people stand up.

Tavis: Van Jones is back where he started – not that he ever left – always organizing amongst everyday people. The organization is called Rebuild the Dream. My time with Van Jones is up tonight, but for more of my conversation with him, hit our website at PBS.org/Tavis for more of this conversation. Van, good to have you on the program.

Jones: Glad to be here, man.

Tavis: Glad to have you here.

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Last modified: October 6, 2011 at 4:31 pm