Five Minutes With
Not everyone makes the connection between solar panels and police brutality—but human rights activist Van Jones does. Jones founded the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights in 1996 to help victims of police brutality navigate the U.S. justice system. Since then, the organization’s mission has expanded: The center now works to reduce the San Francisco Bay Area’s prison population and to ensure that ex-inmates can find jobs that positively impact on the environment. Along with creating what he calls “green collar jobs,” Jones has received the Rockefeller Foundation’s Next Generation Leadership Fellowship and Reebok’s Human Rights Award. He serves on the boards of Social Venture Network, National Apollo Alliance, Bioneers, Rainforest Action Network, and Julia Butterfly Hill’s "Circle of Life" organization.
Campus Progress sat down with Jones to talk about the civil rights movement, the environmental movement, and how the two should be connected.
Campus Progress: Why did you found the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights?
Van Jones: While I was at Yale Law School I saw a lot of hypocrisy in the way that the law was being used. There was a lot of drug abuse in New Haven, Connecticut: Half of it was on the campus at Yale, and half of it was in the community. Kids who got caught doing drugs on the campus went to rehab, but kids who got caught in the community went to prison. I thought that was extraordinarily unfair. So I decided as a 24-year-old guy with a law degree to get out there and fix the police and prison systems in America. So I worked for three years at the Lawyer’s Committee for Civil Rights in the San Francisco Bay Area. They supported me in starting the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, which began in dealing with police misconduct issues.
Why did you choose to name the center after Ella Baker? She seems to be one of the most forgotten heroes of the civil rights movement.
We felt like the women in the civil rights movement had done a lot of the work, a lot of the strategizing, and a lot of the best thinking, but had gotten zero credit. We wanted to name the center after an unsung heroine. Now, everywhere we go people ask who Ella Baker was, and we get to tell her story: She was the person who taught Martin Luther King everything he knew; she was the godmother for the student movement, Freedom Riders, and the Mississippi Freedom Summer Project. We think it’s important to get the history right and that we can use the name of our center to help advance that restoration of women’s place in civil-rights history.
You started as an activist dealing with issues related to police brutality. How did you make the transition from those more traditional civil rights issues to social justice to environmental justice issues?
When I had just finished law school, the first thing that the [Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights] had me work on was an environmental justice case suing the Chevron refinery in Richmond, Calif. for environmental racism.
But my road back to environmental issues really came when I was trying to fix the problems of the neighborhood. If you’re successful in reducing street violence and police violence, and you’re able to get more people home from youth prisons, then the question is, “What are they going to do when they get home?” We had to make a real decision about whether or not we wanted to get involved in job creation. Then the issue became: Are we going to be cheerleading for Wal Mart jobs and pollution-based jobs? Or, are we going to call for jobs that actually honor the health of the community and the health of the planet?
We said, “We want green jobs, not jails,” which became our big slogan—four syllables that totally transformed our organization. All of a sudden we were dealing with everything from climate stabilization, new technologies, and new business models to poverty eradication and job training. We didn’t know what we were getting into.
So what were you getting into?
The birth of a new economy in the United States and the world.
And that was through the creation of green collar jobs? What is a green collar job, exactly?
A green collar job is a vocational job in a field that honors the earth. For instance, the solar industry, biofuels, building weatherization, high performance buildings, green construction, wind farms, wave farms—all the vocational jobs that add to the health of communities instead of taking away from the health of the communities, as blue collar jobs often do.
There are two great things about green collar jobs: One, with a green collar job you can’t be outsourced. You can’t take this building, ship it off to India or China to have them weatherize it, put solar panels on it, and ship it back. The work has to be done here in the United States. Two, these are new industries and they’re growing. So if you get people in on the ground floor—even as solar panel installers—and they do a good a job, in a couple of years they’ll be managers. After that they themselves can become owners. These are green pathways out of poverty. We’re fighting poverty and pollution at the same time.
How are you connecting people to these jobs?
We worked in Oakland to get a green jobs corps established to start training people. We have community colleges, vocational schools, and public schools all over the country that are training people for these pollution-based jobs already, so we’re trying to re-purpose all of that infrastructure for the clean and green jobs of the future.
How can students get involved in the work you do?
Go to GreenForAll.org and sign up.