Why is the green movement so white? â€œIt used to be the more committed you were to the environment, the further away you were from regular people,â€ Van Jones tells me. â€œIt was tofu and Birkenstocks and all that.â€
Jones, a 39-year-old African-American civil rights activist with an impressive track record, intends to change that. He wants to marry the issue of economic justice with the opportunities created by green technology. â€œWeâ€™ve got to start talking the language of work, wealth and health, which is the language of everyday Americans,â€ he says.
Today, Jones went to the Clinton Global Initiative to announce the formation of a group called Green for All, which wants to secure job training for 250,000 workers from urban communities for jobs in green businesses.
â€œYou can save the polar bears and the poor kids, too,â€ he says.
Of course, anyone can form a new group. The reason that this one deserves a look is that Jones has enjoyed considerable success building his first NGO, a civil rights organization called the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights. Headquartered in Oakland, Ca., the center works on issues of police brutality and alternatives to jail. Jones has been recognized for his work with an Ashoka fellowship and a Reebok human rights award. A Yale law school grad, heâ€™s good at raising money, getting media attention and working with progressive business leaders. Heâ€™s already enlisted the backing of dozens of small business for Green for All.
Why his new interest in green jobs?
â€œItâ€™s hard to keep banging your head against the wall, trying to bring violence down in the community, when a real driver for the violence is economic deprivation and a lack of hope,â€ Jones says. “I got burned out, frankly.”
He started looking at job opportunities for young people, and learned that there was a shortage of skilled workers in the fast-growing solar energy industry in California. He began looking for ways to deliver training for green technology jobs in urban communities, and worked with allies in Congress to get a provision in the energy bill to authorize $125 million for training more than 30,000 green-collar workers a year.
â€œGreen collar jobs cannot be exported overseas,â€ Jones notes. â€œIf you want to take a building and weatherize it, you canâ€™t put that building on a boat and send it to India. If you want to build a wind farm, you canâ€™t carve out a piece of Kansas and ship it over to China.â€
His group wonâ€™t do job training. Instead, it will work with business, governments and community colleges to promote the idea and try to organize African-Americans around environmental issues.
â€œWe want to be the Sierra Club of this issueâ€”to unite people and gets the government to engage in helping people find green pathways out of poverty.â€ So youâ€™ll mostly be advocating, I say. Laughing, he says, â€œI want to be the black Al Gore.â€
Heâ€™s joking, but heâ€™s got a point. Some African-Americans have worked on the issue of environmental justice, which mostly focuses on protecting poor people from pollution. Iâ€™m thinking of the work done by Majora Carter and her group, Sustainable South Bronx, in New York. But few talk about economic opportunity. Itâ€™s not exactly clear how to get that conversation started, but Iâ€™m glad Jones is going to give it a try.