Van Jones speaks to David Room

MediaVan Jones speaks with Global Public Media's Dave Room
Van Jones, founder and National Executive Director of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, interviewed August 23rd, 2004
 
David Room:  Can you tell us about the work of the Ella Baker Center?
 
Van Jones:  The Ella Baker Center has a few projects, one is the Bay Area Police Watch Project which monitors police misconduct in the Bay Area; we also have our Books not Bars project which is a campaign against the over-incarceration of youth, and now we have a new project called Green Jobs not Jails, which is an attempt to bring together the criminal justice movement with the environmental justice and the economic justice movements.
 
DR:  What are the underlying causes of the problems that the center deals with?
 
VJ:  I think we live in a society that’s sick, and it’s sick in that people are addicted to punishing young people but allergic to helping young people to have the lives that they want to live.  One of the big numbers or statistics you can look at that proves that, here in California, we spend more money now on prisons than we spend on universities.  Every year since 1996, the state of California put more money into locking up young people than it has put into lifting up young people through education.  So, if it’s easier for you to wind up in prison than with a scholarship in certain communities, and that’s certainly true in a number of communities in California, you’re going to wind up with over-incarceration.
 
From our point of view, the incarceration industry is just that, it’s an industry – it profiteers off of peoples’ mistakes, it’s self-dealing… the conservatives always talk about the welfare system as this sort of self-dealing bureaucracy which kind of perpetuates itself and fails with regard to social outcomes.  Well that’s the prison system if I’ve ever of it, a big failed, bloated bureaucracy that’s self-dealing.  The prison guard’s union in California gives more money to legislators to buy draconian laws than any other lobbying force in Sacramento, the state capital.  What that means is, that you literally have a trafficking in human bodies now – the prison guards union, the private prisons, all work together to get as many draconian laws on the books as possible so there are more prisoners, so therefore there are more prisons, and there can be more money made from the construction of prisons and hiring more prison guards, who pay dues to the prison guards’ union, so we have this vicious cycle now.  Who pays the cost are the communities we’re concerned about.  I live in a low-end community of color in Oakland, nobody has to tell me about the need for public safety.  The problem is that the strategy we’re pursuing, supposedly to guarantee public safety, is failing – in fact it’s backfiring.  After a twenty, almost thirty-year unbroken run of increased expenditures for prisons we have less safe communities, because so many young people have wound up going to prison as opposed to college, where they can actually contribute more to the community. 
 
The other point that we are trying to make is that those dollars that are going into prisons and creating a sort of gulag economy should be used to create a green economy.  Why should California be the world leader in gulag economics?  We spend more money in California than any of the other fifty states on prisons.  We used to be the world leader in education.  California is now the world leader in incarceration.  We think that we shouldn’t be the leader in gulag economics, we should be the leader in green economics, especially when you consider the fact that the current suicide course that we’re on, a sort of suicide economy, burns up more resources than we can possibly sustain.  We’re completely out of alignment with nature in this sort of solar economy, we’re burning through it – oil, and gas, and coal, those represent, essentially, solar energy that’s been locked away for prudent use.  We’re burning through it at a rate that’s completely unsustainable.  We are not prepared to run a planet with six, seven, eight billion people on it using non-carbon based technologies.  So what happens when we run out?  Well, those are the kinds of questions we should be asking ourselves, then saying, if we need to be getting off of oil and coal and gas, and we need to be trying to move to solar or maybe hydrogen or even experimenting with other forms, that’s very expensive.  Where’s the money going to come from?  Nobody wants to raise taxes.  Well in California alone you’re spending six billion dollars a year locking people up, eighty percent for non-violent drug offences.  I’ll say that again – eighty percent of the people who are locked up right now are locked up for non-violent drug offences.  So, eighty percent of your six billion dollars could be freed up to get the prisoners and the prison guards out of the jailhouse and back into the community helping to solve these problems.  Why aren’t we investing in green technology, sustainable energy, and the jobs – the clean energy jobs – that would actually stabilize these communities?  We could take the same dollars and instead of wasting them locking people up, you could use those same dollars to invest in clean energy, you get climate change - positive outcome, you get jobs for people – positive outcome, you’re investing in a new, high tech sector – positive economic outcome.  Those same dollars that are being used to lock people up and lock us onto the path of the same old profiteering, high consumption society could be diverted to create better outcomes for everybody.  We think that’s the future. 
 
The political implications of that kind of vision are profound, because if you suddenly talk about a green jobs future, you suddenly have the basis for a new deal coalition for the new century.  Why?  Labor has a place to stand in that.  Progressive business has a place to stand in that.  Communities of color, where people need jobs and want to work and would love to work, especially in meaningful, living wage jobs, have a place to stand in that.  The environmental community has a place to stand in that.  The scientific community has a place to stand in that.  Suddenly, rather than dividing people up and having a politics of division, which keeps us throwing away kids, throwing away neighborhoods, throwing away nations, throwing away species, throwing away continents, you suddenly have the basis of a new coalition that brings people together to preserve and to protect and to enshrine that which is truly precious.  The solar gifts of energy are precious, they should be well and prudently managed, and we should diversify the way we use this gift of solar energy to benefit everybody.  We can’t do that with a gluttonous, warmongering oil industry.  You can’t do that with the military/petroleum complex running the government.  You’ve got to have a different governing coalition.  In order to have a different governing coalition, you’ve got to bring people together.  People say, you’re a criminal justice organization, why are you working on environmental issues?  From our point of view the criminal justice crisis, the economic justice crisis, and the environmental crisis are symptoms of one crisis, and that one crisis is a lack of leadership, of division, of shortsightedness, and in order to overcome that both in terms of vision and in terms of political capacity, we have to come together.
 
DR:  What do green jobs mean for urban America?
 
VJ:  One of the major jobs that we have in urban America is the lack of jobs.  When you ask young people who are “getting in trouble,” and let’s be very clear – the kind of trouble that young people are getting into in the urban environment is, on the whole, no different than the trouble young people are getting into in the suburbs.  They’re experimenting with drugs, they’re driving too fast, they’re making poor choices.  The difference is when in the suburbs, the police officer catches you and takes you home to mama with a lecture; in the urban environment, when he catches you, you go to the precinct in handcuffs and it’s called a strike.  We want to make sure it’s been shown over and over again, there’s no more drug use among poor young people of color than with affluent youth.  The difference is the way the system responds. 
 
That being said, when you go beyond those kinds of questions and ask the deeper question, what would it take the younger guy – 18, 19, 20 years old – what would it take for him, in the urban environment, to be successful in life, to get an education, to wind up in the job force, to be able to be a tax-paying citizen, all those kinds of things? Well, it’s the same thing that’s required for the suburban kid.  You’ve got to have an educational opportunity; you’ve got to have a place to go to work.  The problem is, those educational opportunities and job opportunities are not as available in low-income environments, which makes those places breeding grounds for the kinds of behaviors that lets the professional incarceration apparatus grab up those young people, throw them into machinery that cages them for profit.  What we’re saying is, very simply, we want to create jobs in both urban America and in rural America.  Why?  Because there’s a link. 
 
If you look at rural America, one of the major economic development strategies – and we’re talking about New York state, California state and every state in between – if you have a rural population, where the factories are no longer there, the military bases have been closed, they will build prisons; they will site prisons in rural America, so that there is “job creation” based on the prison there.  Why?  Because there’s not already jobs existing in that rural community.  In the urban environment where there’s joblessness, they send in the police to arrest people and over-police, over-incarcerate, draconian sentences, three strikes and you’re out, and the joblessness there results in literally human bodies being trafficked out of those neighborhoods, into the rural environment.  Why?  Because you have two failed economic strategies.  In rural America, and in urban America.  Why can’t we say to rural American and to urban America, this is the best economic strategy we have for you?  My kid’s going to be in jail all day as a prisoner and you’re kid’s going to be in jail all day as a prison guard?  This is the best we can come up with as an economic strategy, a community development strategy?  No. 
 
We know that there is on-the-shelf technology right now that is sustainable, green, environmentally positive.  They can make flashlights now that are just these tubes with this fluid and a magnet which you shake up and it glows.  Lasts forever, doesn’t poison anything.  Why aren’t they on supermarket shelves all over the country?  Because we have not created the infrastructure to mass-produce those things.  Every significant economic advance in this country, whether it’s the internet, or nuclear power (which a lot of people don’t like, for good reason,) highway infrastructure; the government, the federal government, had to get involved to give it a boost to get it started.  This government needs to jump-start a green economic revolution in this country, and it needs to do so to benefit those rural Americans who’ve been left out and left with nothing but prisons, and those urban Americans who’ve been left out and left with nothing but incarceration and an underground economy.  In other words, the people who have been left out of last century’s pollution-based economy should be locked in to the new clean and green economy.  That is a critical principle of moving forward.  Can’t do that if you don’t address rural poverty.  Can’t do that if you don’t address over-incarceration. 
 
So the green environmental movement has to expand its’ understanding of what it will take to really build a political, viable coalition that can accomplish its’ goals.  The Ella Baker Center for Human Rights is trying to play that role, trying to play a bridge role to say, these urban communities, these communities of color, young people of color, can be a part of a new green deal coalition, but our issues must be addressed.  You can’t ignore the fact that government dollars are already being spent on us, but not to create jobs, not to create wealth, not to clean up our environment, not to create clean energy jobs, but to lock us up.  If environmentalists want to be in coalition with us, and they want us to be in coalition with them, the mainstream environmental community, they have to address that cause, to pick up that cause.  If they are willing to do that and we are willing to reach out in the other direction, I think we have a new politics in this country.
 
DR:  What issues are most important to people of colour?
 
VJ:  I think if you talk to young people of color, the 14-25 or 18-25 demographic - schools not jails becomes a huge rallying cry.  Our project is called Books not Bars.  It’s not about alcoholic bars, it’s about prison bars, that stand between those young people and the future they want to have.  One of the things that we understand here, and what we think people in the environmental community fail to understand, is that every century has its’ moral challenge.  In the 1800s, it was the enslavement of the African American people.  There was a civil war and a major confrontation over the fundamental humanity of dark skinned people defining the whole century.  In the 1900s, it was the civil rights movement, Jim Crow, put the soul of America on trial, produced the greatest leadership the county’s ever seen, whether you’re talking about the Kennedys or Dr. King or whoever else in between.  Why?  Because the fundamental humanity of dark-skinned people on this continent was on trial.  In the new century, what is the new Jim Crow?  The mass incarceration of young people of color.  This massive prison-industrial complex, as it’s been called, this punishment industry is the new Jim Crow.  You don’t have to call someone a nigger if you can call them a felon.  This new Jim Crow, this new system, these slave ships on dry land called prisons, where Microsoft contracts for labor – prison labor - not in China, not in Cuba, here in California.  This is the new moral challenge.  Now, the environmental community can not stand silent in the face of this kind of mass deprivation of human rights.  The fact that there’s a mass media that justifies it and apologizes for it and talks about super-predators and gang members, etc., so you think that every African American or Latino kid deserves to be locked up is no excuse, because the mass media was on the side of Jim Crow.  In its’ day, the mass media was on the side of enslavement and the legal system was on the side of enslavement in its’ day.  So the fact that the law and the politicians and the media stands on the side of the incarcerators, the profiteering, for-profit-prison-building incarcerators, against the humanity of these young people is no excuse for the majority mainstream white environmental community to stand silent.
 
When it does that, when it chooses to talk about 100 years from now or 50 years from now, and imagine a world where the human species has survived but does not talk about the survival of these young kids of color three blocks away right now, it loses moral authority.  It loses the ability to really rally people to a vision that’s an inclusive vision, a vision that says again, all life is precious – we don’t have throwaway children, throwaway species, throwaway neighbourhoods, throwaway nations, we don’t have that.  This is a movement that is founded on the reverence for all life and we are going to preserve and protect through the course of this movement those people who are suffering right now and we will insist upon policies that reduces that policy over time.  That’s a movement that can win in this country, and unfortunately that’s not the movement that we have at this point.
 
DR: Are there reasons to be hopeful?
 
VJ:  The reason you can be hopeful at this point is that we’re entering a fourth wave of environmentalism in the United States.  First, obviously, you had the Native Americans who were great stewards here, and you didn’t need environmentalism when they were in charge for thousands of years.  But, there was an invasion and suddenly, you need environmentalism.  The opening advent of environmentalism is conservationism, it’s Teddy Roosevelt, you have that wave.  Then you have a second wave, which was Rachel Carson and Silent Spring, it was conservation plus regulation of those toxics and things that would harm human species as well as non-human species.  It wasn’t just conserving what we have but also regulating this new industrialism.  The problem with that second wave of environmentalism, for all its’ heroic accomplishments, it had a negative outcome.  That negative outcome was that, at the end of the day there was no outcome because there was no racial analysis.  White environmentalists and white polluters eventually wound up steering toxics into communities of color and increasing the toxic burden for people of color, which created a third wave of environmentalism, the environmental justice movement.  This says, we don’t think that we need to have an environmentalism that forces people of color to bear the burden, that there should be either no toxic burden or at least an equally shared toxic burden.  That became a powerful cry in the mid-80s.  Now we’re entering a fourth wave of environmentalism.  That fourth wave says, conservation – yes, plus regulating the bad – yes, plus investing in the good.  There’s a new environmentalism now that’s solution-based, market-driven, that says, let’s invest in solar, let’s invest in hydrogen, let’s invest in permaculture, let’s invest in organic, let’s invest in high-performance buildings, let’s invest in the solution side of environmental consciousness.
 
Once you start investing, once you put yourself on the solution side, that’s job creation, that’s wealth creation, the question is, who’s going to get the jobs.  In what communities will that wealth be created?  Where we’re saying is this new fourth wave of environmentalism, which is the most important wave, can be one of two things.  It can be ego apartheid, it can be more cool solar toys for rich people, more hydrogen stuff in Marin, while Oakland falls further behind, choking on the fumes of the last century’s production models.  That is quite possible.  Or, you could have the principle that says, those who have been left out of the last century’s pollution-based economy have to be locked in to the new clean and green economy.  Suddenly for the first time, you have social uplift environmentalism.  It’s rainbow from the beginning, it talks about job creation, wealth creation, as well as environmental clean-ups and environmental health restoration that can unite business, people of color, and environmentalists, that can be pro-markets but pro-markets that are healing markets not pro-markets that destroy life and destroy capital and destroy the environment, that can say – most importantly – we’re pro-US government. 
 
Pro-US government leading, not in wars, not in incarcerations, not in pollution, but the US leading in green economic development, human rights for all, a rainbow country showing a rainbow planet how go get along, how to come together, how to solve problems.  We’re for US leadership, but in a different direction than the military-petroleum complex and the way it wants to be a US-world dominating leader.  So, there is potential in this new fourth wave of environmentalism for ego apartheid or for a social uplift environmentalism, rainbow from the beginning, solution driven, market-friendly, pro-US government, that can rally a majority of Americans to a new way of thinking, of a new way of working together, and it’s up to us to make the changes in our own thinking, whether we are people of color, who are suspicious of white environmentalists, or we are white environmentalists who don’t know any people of color and are afraid, whether we’re labor who doesn’t want to partner with progressive business, whether we’re progressive business people who want the wealth but don’t want to create jobs on a living wage basis, all of us have to make a change.  But in each of us adjusting our worldviews and sense of our own self-interests just slightly, you get an alignment, and in that alignment you get so much more than the sum of its parts – you can lift all boats.  The big challenge is, we have the green wave.  The green wave is coming – will the green wave lift all boats?  If the green wave fails to lift all boats, can it be successful?  Can you have eco-utopia in Marin and ego-apartheid and dystopia in Oakland and have an ecologically whole Bay Area?  No you can’t.
 
So, the success of one part of this potential coalition requires the success of every other part.  This is the potential new politics of hope, the new politics of liberation for the new century.  So, a criminal justice organization has an important role to play in that because so much of the money and so much of the imagination, so many of the people who are needed to make this new green economic revolution happen are being wasted down the rat hole of mass incarceration.  So we have to stand up, we have to oppose on moral grounds certainly, but also on the pure practical grounds of, how can you make successful any of the green economic revolution if you are trying to make a green economy co-exist alongside a massively expensive gulag economy.  You cannot have a green economy side by side with a gulag economy.  One will eat the resources required by the other.  What we’re saying to Americans as a whole, and certainly to progressive whites, and to the environmentalists is, you have to choose between a gulag economy and a green economy – between the military/petroleum complex on the one side and the potential new deal on the other, and you cannot have it both ways.  You must take a principled stand.  We believe that the majority, the center of gravity for the progressive, white community will be on the side of a social uplift environmentalism and that will bend history in a new direction.
 
DR:  What is urban America’s role in a post-petroleum world?
 
VJ:  Some of the wisdom that comes from urban America that can be very helpful for the rest of America is the wisdom that comes out of drug and alcohol recovery.  This question of addiction, and what it takes to kick an addiction, is something that a lot of people in urban America are quite well versed in.  This country is addicted to oil, addicted to militarism, addicted to punishment, and the process by which a society kicks those addictions and finds itself a new path and a new way of being is a process that urban leadership I think would be very helpful for.  So number one, the solution to getting rid of this oil addiction lies in people who’ve gotten rid of other addictions and battle addictions in their community every day.  The leadership will come from urban America, an important part of the leadership.
 
Number two, as we continue to consume fossil fuels, most people don’t want to talk about the fact that the climate change implications are hardest on third-world people, people of color, island nations that disappear as the polar ice caps begin to melt.  Those are people of color, on the whole.  The severe storm consequences – a severe storm comes through Florida, people in Florida have insurance, FEMA comes in, they can put their lives back together.  It comes through Honduras, and you have a completely different situation, even though you’ve only talking about a few hundred miles difference.  We can no longer, in good conscience, ask people of color to support a high-consumption, oil-based lifestyle when we know that the costs being paid are paid by people of color around the world who don’t have the resources to insure themselves out of the worst of it.
 
Number three, when the inevitable collapse of the pollution-based economy, the oil-based economy hits, the people who are able to jump off of that ship and onto whatever ship comes next, will not be the poorest people and the people of color.  They will be the rich, Northern, white elite.  The question is, are we insisting that they build a big ark for everybody to jump on, or will it just be a little, slim life raft for themselves?  That’s the question, and we know, the Pentagon knows, that the oil economy will come to an end.  The question is, are the solutions, the alternatives being created on a mass scale, so that everyone can transition to the post-oil economy, or are we going to sit back, wait until the very end, and understand that most economies will simply collapse?  There are water-treatment facilities that are petroleum-based in terms of their actual running, there are – you’re talking about massive potential global calamities as these oil reserves begin to run out and as the intensification of war, armed conflict accelerates to get these last drops of the last millennium’s solar contribution, when there’s light falling, solar energy falling on the United States and the globe right now that’s not being harnessed, when there are other fuel sources that are not being explored, when the minds that could possibly solve the fusion problem are right now locked away in prison as opposed to educated.  This is the situation that we find ourselves faced with, so as the oil production peaks and oil becomes even more scarce, you can imagine these two features again – more war for less oil, and more peace as there’s more collaboration and cooperation to find the alternative for oil.  These are fundamental choices facing humanity.  No one can take a path, no one can say ‘I work on juvenile justice issues, someone else has to make this decision.’  You can’t say, well I work on abortion rights or I’m just a high-school basketball coach, this is not my role, or ‘I don’t even have a job, I have no right to think about this.’  Fundamentally, the entire human family has to make a decision on the front end of the century that will determine what the back end of the century looks like.  I think it’s the division among progressives into these little issue Bantu stands, these issue camps, that is preventing the innovations politically, economically, scientifically, that could really make a difference to not just people in the United States but people all around the world.
 
DR:  Should people of color be particularly concerned about America’s addiction to oil?
 
VJ:  Yeah- rich people don’t fight wars.  If you look at the front lines it’s mostly working-class kids, disproportionately kids of color, from the United States that get pulled into these petro-war conflicts.  It’s critical, I think, that people of color stand up and say “We need alternatives to oil.  If our addiction to oil is going to create climate change disasters for people of color around the world, horribly unstable economics here at home, and make my kid have to go overseas and dodge bullets, maybe we could give it up.”  Maybe at some point you’ve got to say you’ve hit rock bottom on your oil addiction and it’s time to move over into something else.
 
DR:  How will the green movement become more diverse and inclusive?
 
VJ:  When you think about these conferences that are eco-this and green-that that are 99.9% white except for whoever they’ve invited to speak and that will be 95% white.  Velcro takes two sides to stick.  It’s not just the failure of the white leadership that’s convening it, it’s also a failure on the side of people of color who don’t appreciate the need.  There has to be a transformation of thinking on both sides.  I think there has to be a process by which people who first come to light around ecological issues and get passionate about ecological issues, but don’t understand the social issues, they certainly need a place where they can gather and firm up their commitment on the ecological side and then begin to be introduced to social issues.  The failure isn’t that sometimes you have over-representation of solely ecologically turned-on people who are mostly white; the problem is that there is no attempt to build that bridge into that process.  Similarly, on the other side of that equation, we have people who are passionate about social justice issues, racial justice issues who get together, who may not get the ecological issues, who may think that’s all just white stuff.  If you can even say, please come, we’ll give you a free ticket, a free bus ride, a free plane ride, jet ride, yacht ride, please come, they won’t come, because they’re not interested in that.  I’m not interested in that, my issue is police brutality, my issue is educational rights.  There has to be a bridge that begins to be built from the other side.  In other words, Velcro takes two sides to stick. 
 
Both the white ecological movement and the people of color social justice movements need to begin to seek each other out as partners.  Sometimes that will mean conferences with 99% people of color on racial justice issues and one environmental speaker, and that might be a victory.  Hopefully that same conference, if you go two or three or four years down, you see a different mix, and vice versa.  It could be that it’s a victory just to have one social justice person on the stage.  That shouldn’t be the case in two years, or three years, or in four, but I think we have to pick our victories as we find them.  We have to create new spaces, that are spaces where leaders can sit together, or where people who have a higher comfort level with difference – every person of color in a racial justice organization doesn’t need to be in a room full of white people.  They may not get along very well, they may not perform very well, they may not be able to communicate very well, the comfort level might not be there.  And vice versa, every white person who happens to go to an ecological conference may not need to go off to a racial justice group; they may misspeak, they may be misunderstood, they may not have a comfort level or knowledge level to allow her to get the best out of that experience.  I think we have to be somewhat sophisticated about how we braid together these two different movements, if we can even call these two movements – it’s sort of mulit-movements over here, multi-movements over there. 
 
But it’s a leadership question.  At the end of the day, people who are quite comfortable at the top of their own little pecking order, as is always been, are probably not going to be the people who bring the change about.  It’ll probably be the newer people, the younger people, the people less committed to the old way of doing things the way we’ve always had our conferences and we’ve always had them in this city.  Newer people may actually be the people who lead the way for the crossroads.  I believe that there’s a light at the crossroads of these movements that will be the beacon that the country can rally around.  It won’t be one or the other; it will be the intersection between social justice and ecology, and that’s what we’re trying to contribute as part of the Ella Baker Center. 
 
DR:  What is the urgency for positive change?
 
VJ:  Every minute or year that we delay putting the majority of our resources and the majority of our resources behind the solution, you don’t just lose that minute or that day, because every minute of the day you’re not there you’re also continuing to put your weight and your energy on the problem.  You can only either accelerate the problem or accelerate the solution.  At this point, the urgency is severe.  Systems do hit tipping points of breakdown.  I’m not the best person to speak about that, but I’ve read and been informed that there can be cascade effects where by one way of looking at things you’ve got fifty years or a hundred years, when in fact, when you actually work out the model, you really have ten years or fifteen years, because things do hit tipping points when you have cascade effects.  So, for once, Chicken Little is right.  I think we have to accept that the best thinking is that what we’re doing right now is not sustainable.  What’s exciting is that there’s a return even in the West, even in the North, even among white, to indigenous ways – that we are all connected.  It’s not a new idea.  It’s a newly invigorated idea by some parts of the white progressive movement and thank God, but it’s not a new idea that we’re all connected.  It’s not a new idea that we all have webs of reciprocity that we must respect.  That’s a nation idea, that’s an idea that kept this continent, North America, green, healthy, with no homeless people for thousands of years.  A return to those ideas now I think is wise and welcome.  I think we should also return to those ideas recognizing that new converts are just that, new converts to an ancient idea.
 
DR:  How do we interest urban youth in the green movement?
 
VJ:  I think we have to meet people where they are.  I think what we have to say is, the schools are failing.  The job market is failing in the urban core.  Well, how do you begin to repair that?  As you begin to repair that, you have to reinvest – let’s make sure that we’re investing, if we’re going to create jobs, to create green jobs, clean energy jobs.  If the urban cores have to be revitalized, and they do, let’s make sure that that revitalization which speaks to one part, the human dimension - “I need a job, I need a school that works, I need to send my kids to after-school programs.  I need some things that the market is not providing, either because of discrimination or because of globalization or because of some forces I can’t quite understand.  I can get in the car and go twenty minutes away and they have good schools with good teachers and computers and after-school programs but in my neighbourhood, there are better computers in the police cars than in the classrooms.  I need somebody to speak to that and address that for me.” 
 
As we address that, let’s make sure that we don’t then pull that person into a toxic job, a polluting job.  Let’s not site industry and big-box companies all in the inner city, call it economic development.  What you’re really doing then is exploiting the existing workforce or adding to the environmental problem, increasing traffic congestion, adding to asthma, and calling that economic development.  What we have to be able to do is to talk about economic development to people who need economic development in ecologically sensitive terms, and we have to be able to talk to people who are interested in ecology in humanly sensitive terms.  This is a leadership challenge for which no one is prepared. 
 
It’s a leadership challenge that all of us that all of us have to begin to turn a few extra pages at night as we’re trying to read, go to some conferences and make some friends we wouldn’t have made otherwise as we’re beginning to create some leadership in the country that can begin to meet that challenge.  I don’t think that suburban America can solve all of its’ problems by itself because I don’t think suburban America has enough of a 360 perspective on what’s going on.  Suburban America’s very easily duped by right-wing populists who play the race card and fly the American flag in a hypocritical way and can vaguely dupe suburban America.  I don’t think that urban America, by itself, can solve it’s problem because questions of capital flows, zoning, economic development, ecological questions, sprawl, all these are problems that solely from the view from the housing project you don’t necessarily have within your graspability to meet and to solve and to deal with.  We need each other – rural America can’t solve its’ problems by itself, whether you’re talking about the farm workers and everything that they do, they’re affected by federal immigration laws, etc., or whether you’re talking about the family farmer, even some of the problems of agribusiness.  We need each other to reinvent an American economy that works with more people, that’s more sustainable, that is in harmony with some of the globalization dynamics, that doesn’t sacrifice the basics of fair trade.  These are big leadership challenges on the front end of the century.  Most people are watching reality TV and hoping it works out ok.  I’m not doing that.  What I’m saying is the reality TV show I want to be a part of is being filmed right here if we figure our how to deal with the problems of our community. 
 
DR:  Are jobs the key to getting urban America excited about the ecological agenda?
 
VJ:  The way to get urban America excited about the ecological agenda is to make sure that ecological agenda answers the questions around jobs and wealth creation.  If we can talk about jobs and wealth creation and public health, you can get an audience, because we have an asthma epidemic in urban America that’s off the charts, cancer clusters, birth defects, learning disorders.  People in inner cities are not unconcerned about the environment, but those concerns show up differently.  They’re not concerned so much about what’s happening around the world or to flora and fauna or fuzzy animals, they’re worried about their child who’s coughing all night long.  If we can begin to address those concerns ecologically, those will be the most staunch environmentalists we’ve ever seen.  Similarly, the people who are concerned about ecology, those people are not indifferent to human suffering.  For whatever reason their point of entry is such that they’re immediately taken care of and they can look further down field and they’re trying to make their concern about human suffering relevant on a larger timeline.  We just ask that you expand your frame back a step or two.  Don’t step over homeless people, drive past alleys right as you get on the airplane, and then fly around the world to talk about the environment when you’re leaving behind people who could use a hand and could be a part of this environmental revolution if they were invited to be and if they were spoken to in terms that address their immediate needs. 
 
It’s almost tragic, if you had the view from the moon.  The United States, every piece of the puzzle in sight is here, but they’re all missing each other.  We need not create anything new, we just need to align what we have.  That’s as much a revolution of the heart as it is a political revolution because all of us have to give up something to do that.  I can’t be the angry black guy calling you ‘cracker’ and then want you to be my partner tomorrow.  You can’t be Mr. Scientific Know-It-All and then have to say “I don’t know anything at all about what’s happening fifteen minutes away from my own home.”  You have to be able to give up something at the ego level to then reach even higher at the social level.  That’s the challenge.  From my point of view, the Ella Baker Center wants to be a part of that process.  We’re willing to give up our right to our politic of racial confrontation.  We certainly have a right to it.  Our communities have been devastated by racism, by mass incarceration.  We give it up, we check it at the door, we want a politics of racial justice that does not require politics of racial confrontation.  We seek a politics of reconciliation of partnership.  That’s not just rhetoric – we’re working with Julia Butterfly Hill to say, if you try to prevent clear-cutting of trees we’re trying to prevent clear-cutting of neighbourhoods and generations.  We should be able to work together.  We’re beginning to make those new alliances.  She has to give something to come into that door, so do I.  Labor has to give up something.  But when you give up something this small and get the world, it’s a fair trade.
MediaVan Jones speaks with Global Public Media's Dave Room