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Essential Shifts Interview: Van Jones

Essential Shifts Interview: Van Jones

Visionary: Van Jones

Van shares intimately about his formative years and his journey into becoming a social activist, as well as the story of Ella Baker, the "secret godmother" of the civil rights movement and mentor to Dr. King. Van advocates a "third way" between Islamic and corporate fundamentalisms and towards a vibrant, global pro-democracy movement that supports "green-collar jobs." Ultimately, he believes that the 21st century will be judged on its ability to rise to the challenges of radical social inequality and radical environmental destruction. Doing so will require great heart, a blend of inner growth and outer action, and an ability to heal the wounds of the past with loving presence. We cannot simply "om our way out" but spiritual practice and prayer prove to be essential ingredients in real social change. Finally, Van believes that today’s leaders need to become great listeners to help in the healing rather than simply great speakers, as the 20th century often favored.

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Institute of Noetic Sciences: Good morning. I am really excited this morning about having Van Jones as our guest for a conversation about some of the essential shifts required in the world. Van Jones is Executive Director of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, amongst other things. Welcome, Van, and thank you so much.

Van Jones: Thank you; thank you so much.

IONS: I thought we could just open up with...I mentioned, of course, your title, Executive Director of the Ella Baker Center...but what is it that you do in the world?

VJ: I am an activist in Oakland, California, mainly working, at this point, to try to bring living-wage jobs and environmentally sustainable and responsible enterprises to urban America. That is really my passion, if that is what you want to call it: green collar jobs. I think it is time to move past the blue collar jobs and start talking about green collar jobs on our Earth, and that is a real passion.

IONS: How long actually have you been doing this work? What is the impetus for that passion?

VJ: I was born in rural west Tennessee. Both of my parents were public school teachers, African American, and I was born in 1968. So a lot of what I saw my parents dealing with was integration, desegregation—not the big marches and the big speeches, but just the day-to-day questions: "Is coach so-and-so going to keep his job if we merge and have only one high school?", "Are these students going to be physically in the same building with white students, but tracked as 'special education' so that most of the black kids don't ever see any white students?", like, How are we actually going to implement this thing? What I really saw was the importance of being involved actively in the community and how important it was that people get basic rights, basic opportunities, basic access. There was never any big sermonizing about it in the household, it was just what was happening at the time, but it made me very committed to opportunity. Also I grew up on the edge of a small town in rural west Tennessee and so nature was all around, and I grew up playing in the woods. So those two commitments to people and to the planet were just in the water for me growing up

IONS: You were born in 1968, so you're a post-civil rights child in a lot of ways?

VJ: Yes. When I was conceived, Dr. King was alive and Bobby Kennedy was also alive, and by the time I was born they had both been assassinated, and the Democratic convention in Chicago, the bloody early revolution in France—while I was in utero there was a lot of stuff going on! My earliest memory is when I was 4 yrs old: Shirley Chisholm was speaking at the Democratic convention in her first run for President—she was the first Black woman to seriously run for the Presidency—and I remember being a little kid watching on the TV, and all of my family looking, and I had one question, which was, "Why does she talk so funny?" And my Uncle Chester told me, "She has a lisp." And that is my earliest memory of trying to figure out what was going on with presidential politics.

IONS: You grew up in Tennessee in the midst of this huge social upheaval, and then you left the South. How did that come about?

VJ: I did well in college. I was trying to impress my girlfriend's parents. They were college professors in Knoxville, Tennessee, and their daughter was attending Vanderbilt, and I felt like they were the Huxtables, in a way, and I wanted to make sure that they thought I was worthy of their daughter. So I worked hard and got good grades and wound up with good LSAT scores and got accepted into Yale Law School and Harvard Law School and all of those kinds of place. So I got into my car and drove over the Appalachian Mountains, hit the ocean, took a left, and drove up the Eastern seaboard, and I enrolled in Yale Law School in 1990.

IONS: What was going on the country or in your own personal life that made you want to be an attorney?

VJ: Well I spent the first four years sort of my post-high school years working as a student journalist. I was the head of my student paper on campus, and we started an underground paper on my campus, and we started an underground paper on my girlfriend's campus at Vanderbilt. I was really an active, outspoken student journalist and got some jobs working in real newsrooms back during the days when they had minority internships and that kind of stuff, when they were still trying to desegregate the newsrooms (which they didn't finish doing—they finished trying, I guess). I just ran up against the limits of journalism, and I felt like I saw a lot of racism in the newsroom, and I saw of lot of racially biased coverage. I knew what was going on in communities, and I knew there was a lot of positive stuff, a lot hopeful stuff, but that never got in the papers, even the papers that I worked for. So I decided I'd rather make news then write news, and I just didn't know anything else to do, and so I said, Well I want to go to law school. I didn't know any lawyers, had never met a lawyer, but it just seemed like the right thing to do. I got some encouragement from professors at my undergraduate, black and white professors, and we worked hard at it, and lo and behold I got accepted into the number-one law school in the world.

IONS: You are the founding director of the Ella Baker Center, some years later after law school. What was the impetus for that creation?

VJ: You know, we started the Ella Baker Center actually ten years ago tomorrow—September the 1st, 1996—and by then I had done three years of law school in New Haven Connecticut, and I had been a civil rights attorney for three years in the Bay Area, and I had gotten a chance to see homelessness right up close, and environmental racism, from the Chevron refinery that was dumping toxins and pollution on poor people and black people, and right next door I would see police brutality. I litigated some of those issues, or would help the other attorneys litigate those issues. And I was really, really clear that in that period—again, the mid-'90s, with Newt Gingrich taking over the Congress, Proposition 187 passing to attack immigrants, "three strikes you're out" law—it was really clear that it was time for my generation of civil rights activists to step into our own. I really wanted for us to be able to have a platform that would utilize hip-hop music, that would utilize our particular kind of culture and politics of outspokenness, to see if we could make a difference. And so we created the Ella Baker Center ten years ago. We started out working on police brutality issues, and then youth justice issues, and youth prison issues, and we've just continued to grow this organization.

IONS: Who was Ella Baker?

VJ: We named our organization after Ella Baker because we felt that she's an unsung civil rights heroine, she really is this skinny kid with this famous dad named Martin Luther King, Jr.—emphasis on "Jr."—and kind of stumbled into a leadership role in Montgomery. Ella Baker was a woman who as a seasoned organizer—she had been a labor organizer—she was way ahead of her time in Harlem, and she came down South and helped Dr. Martin Luther King create the Southern Christian Leadership Organization. She was his first executive director, and she really taught him much of what he knew about organizing. By 1960 she was getting frustrated with some of the sexism in the Civil Rights Movement as it was beginning to develop, with all of these young male preachers doing their thing. She helped the students in 1960 in February—When the students started spontaneously sitting in, Ella Baker was the veteran who helped them organize their efforts and helped them become the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee. She is kind of the secret godmother of SNCC, and we wanted to honor her and honor the contribution of women and young people and poor people (like the sharecroppers) in our movement.

IONS: I love the way so many things come together just in the naming and the selecting of elders and lineages, and hers is a critically important and often-ignored lineage within the civil rights movement, so I really love the fact of your honoring that lineage and that legacy in that way. You have talked about what led you to the creation the Ella Baker Center and that some of the issues you saw and you were involved in litigating—homelessness, environmental racism, police brutality—and one of the things that I have been really struck by is that your vision is local and global—that you are comfortable and that you do on-the-ground work in Oakland, and at the same time you are one of the people responsible for this current issue of race poverty and environment, focusing on climate justice, climate change, New Orleans, and green economics—and at the same time you are active globally. What...? [laughs]

VJ: And I have a two-year-old son! And a wife, and all that stuff.

IONS: How do all these things interconnect for you?

VJ: For me it is just so simple and basic. I just don't think we have any throw-away species or resources or neighborhoods or children or nations or continents. I think it is all sacred, and I think that we should conduct ourselves as if it is all sacred. And that is one of the big challenges that we have right now, is that there is a disposability consciousness about people, about relationships, about resources, our species, and that is really the root of all of this stuff. What all of my work is about is restoring and redeeming and honoring those things that might be cast aside, and so once you start pulling on that little thread, it turns out it's connected to stuff all over the place! I have been to the Middle East, I have been in South Africa, I have been in Mozambique, I've been in human rights conferences in Switzerland—and wherever I go I find that, when you get down to it, it is the same basic need that we have: we take a breath, and remember what is important, help each other, hold each other, and it will work out—and I feel called to do that, to do that work.

IONS: In the context of what you just said, how do you see the current global situation?

VJ: This century is going to be defined by two big facts, which are radical social inequality and radical environmental destruction. Those are the two big problems.

IONS: Radical social inequality...

VJ: ...and radical environmental destruction. Those are the two big problems. At the other end of the century people will look back, and the West in particular will be judged by how well it deals with those two core issues. And so I think that we ought to line all of our work up so that we are addressing those things. Clearly, on the world stage, it is easy to miss some of that because of the big surface-level conflicts between these two big fundamentalisms: the Islamic fundamentalism on the one side and corporate fundamentalism on the other—Bush versus bin Laden, symbolically. That particular struggle is an unfortunate one because it's really King Kong versus Godzilla—it's like, Whoever wins, the villagers are going to lose! And so we really need a third way out of that log jam, and unfortunately the military petroleum complex, in alliance with the Christian fundamentalists that are now running the national government in the US, makes it difficult for us. But the real hope comes from the fact that there is beginning to emerge a third way out of this clash of fundamentalisms. You see it in Latin America with various populist movements beginning to sprout up and flower. You see it in the United States, though we don't often celebrate it—there is a really strong pro-democracy movement that is building in the United States. It got 47% of the vote—not for Kerry, necessarily, but for a different course, a change of direction. It was decentralized, it was beautiful, it was hip hop, it was anarchist kids, it was folks who'd never voted before, it was Black folks, it was White folks, it was Latinos, it was Asians, it was multi-generational—that huge flowering that came within a hair's breadth of unseating a very wily President and strategist, Carl Rove. Most of them are still here; they didn't go anywhere. And I think the challenge now is for this pro-democracy movement that is developing in the United States, through its ups and its downs, to worry less about winning elections and worry more about winning every day. Let's try to win every day; let's be good to each other every day; let's add one person every day; let's learn about a different cause or constituency every day; let's keep expanding ourselves. Just like yoga: when you first start doing it your muscles are all tight, and over a while you find you are able do things that you couldn't do before. I say a lot of times, "The heart is a muscle"—You've got to constantly be working it, stretching it, expanding it, and soon you have a big, heartful movement that's magnetic—and then you get a chance to run the country and to fix some of these problems as a movement. When I see the world, that's what I see.

IONS: When you think about the kinds of essential shifts and consciousness in action required, it sounds like you are saying that this wholesale flowering of kind of democratic process that is on the ground is an important part of that?—bringing about that shift, bringing about the next stage or the next level.

VJ: Yeah, I agree with that 100%. You know, there is the inner and there is the outer—there are the internal shifts and there are the external shifts—and I think we get into trouble when we miss that balance. And so on the one hand I think that is really critical that individual people, especially people who are leaders and servant-leaders, continue to deepen our practice, continue to take time to reflect, to try to transform the hurt and the pain in our past, and to have strengthen and promise and optimism going forward. However, I don't think that we can just pray our way of this thing. I think prayer is a part of it, I think meditation is a part of it, but I don't think that we will be able to om our way out of the kinds of crises that are coming now—Katrina, these kinds of issues.

IONS: What did you say? [laughs] "Om our way out of this"?

VJ: [laughs] Yes, om the walls down, or something. Well, maybe—I don't think that we should leave the om-ing out—but I think we have to put some feet out of our prayers. We really need to be engaged as people of faith and consciousness, and I also think that it is not just all about political calculation and logical reasoning and rationality—these are also traps. There has to be a balance, and I think one of big shifts now I think is that we are beginning to evolve the human technologies that will give us that ability to serve well and to lead well and to listen well. In the last century the model leader was the powerful speaker, and in the new century I think the model will be the powerful listener. That's a big shift. But because there are so many constituencies, there is so much pain, there is so much complexity, that the real opportunity and the real challenge to lead now is to become as powerful a listener as Dr. King was a speaker.

IONS: That's really an exciting way to think about leadership, as opposed to always thinking about the model of leadership as being the person out front, the out-front spokesperson—this idea of model listening and trying to really embody the complexity, hear the suffering and honor it. It is really calling for a new kind of leadership.

VJ: I think that is right. And the good thing about it is that it's a discipline: really trying to be present, really trying to understand, really trying to put yourself in the shoes of other folks. "If I were Israeli...", "If I were Palestinian...", "If I were George Bush...", "If I were some kid in some high school that doesn't have any toilet paper or any would I feel? What would I do? What would I need to hear from somebody who wants me to do something that I am not doing right now first?" How can we signal very early in a conversation, "I got you", "I understand", "I love you", "I want you to be successful", "There are things that are happening to you that are wrong, and at the same time there is a cycle here and that there are things that you can stop doing and start doing that can get us out of this mess; let's do it together; how do we get there?" That kind of conversation is something that I found to be welcome in all parts of society, so that gives me a lot of hope.

IONS: It is interesting—You mentioned earlier about the need for, and actually the emergence of, a third way, and the critical need for that. I was thinking the other day of when I was in Cypress a couple of years ago, in circle with people from all over the world doing human rights work. Two of the people there—one was an Israeli psychiatrist who was a peace activist, and a Palestinian attorney who had been working together across that divide for some twenty years or so—and one of the most painful parts of the gathering was the fact that their work was so unacknowledged, the fact that in the midst of chaos and madness and fundamentalism on both sides in that situation, there was a third way—but that we didn't even know that it existed, and that there were people working across that divide.

VJ: I saw that when I was in Palestine and Israel. One of the things that used to drive folks my Palestinian friends crazy, and I was guilty of it myself, was this American shows up and is like, "I think there should be a nonviolence movement here!"

IONS: [laughs] As if there wasn't one.

VJ: [laughs] Yeah, as if there wasn’t one, there isn't one, as if no one thought of that before you opened your mouth. I heard story after story of beautiful marches that had people on both sides marching for peace, calling for peace—sometimes the state of emergency or whatever wouldn't allow the marches to meet up so they would be simultaneous—and that there would be CNN cameras, all kinds of global media would be there, they would come, they would interview people, they would film it—but if there wasn't a rock thrown or there wasn't anything set on fire it would never air. And that is a kind of complicity, I think, that folks who don't blamed often in these complex.... We have to point out, and I think we have to understand this: It is very difficult, if you feel that you have been mistreated, to rise above that and to do the kinds of things that we saw in South Africa, and we saw in the United States in the Civil Rights Movement—it is very difficult to have that nobility when everybody is saying that you in fact are not a victim, you in fact are a villain. That is part of the problem in some of the logjams we are seeing in the Middle East. You have hurt people who are hurting people on both sides, and part of what we have to be able to do to have a breakthrough is that we have to honor the pain, acknowledge the pain on both sides, and then we have to say, "Let's not let the pain have the last word; let's not let the pain have the last word."

IONS: That is really important. It's one of the things Bishop Tutu talks a lot about in South Africa: how often we really want to get to the reconciliation part without sitting with the wound and the suffering and the woundedness, and often when people talk about that reconciliation process there is a tendency not to honor the wounding, the woundedness and the suffering—and that often what is required is…in the absence of attention being paid to the wound, it gets covered over by a scab…and that one of things you had said that often it is important to break off the scab and pour on some balm of understanding, and "I see you, I hear you, and I feel you", so that there can be genuine healing.

VJ: I think that each step along that process has to be authentic and have its breath, and so we wind up reinforcing what we don't want when we try to push past: "Okay, okay, okay, so everybody has pain here—so let's get to the kumbaya moment!" The kumbaya moment will arrive, if it does arrive, from real authentic stillness in the face of the pain. I think especially privileged people, White people, men, people from the West, people from the United States, I think we are holding a piece of the cycle by not being able to say, to the Palestinian people for instance: "The pain the you are experiencing, the losses that you are experiencing, the grief that you are experiencing everday—I honor it, and I am not going to qualify it, and I am not going to try back away from it, and I am going to be here and sit here and honor it—and at some point something will shift but I can't come here into this conversation with a divided intention—I've got to come here and be passionate". I did the same thing when I was in Israel. We visited the sites where young teenagers have lost their lives with terrorist bombings, and we shed tears there, too. And part of the thing that is so difficult for people is that we live in a society that wants to know, "What side are you on? Are you on Bush's side or are you on bin Laden's side? Are you on the Israeli defense forces side or are you on the PLO's side? Whose side are you on? And then we will deal with you based on whose side you are on." And what I say over and over again is, "I will tell you whose side I am on: I am on the side of the people who are suffering. That's whose side I am on. And I am on the side of the people who dream of something better. That is whose side I'm on." And we have got to be willing to take those kinds of positions, to take those kinds of stands, and to walk into the fire. What was so beautiful about Dr. King was…it wasn't, from my point of view, those high moments where the country was with him and the wind was somewhat to his back—it was hard work, and it was those moments when he had been defeated, set back. He lost in Albany; he lost in Chicago; and he was gunned down in Memphis, Tennessee, standing next to garbage workers, working for garbage workers; and he was sometimes beat up pretty bad in the media. But he was willing stand in the fire and to keep reaching for the stars. That is our challenge. Some people just want to squat in the fire and forget about the stars. Some people want it to only be about the stars, and they don't want to go by the way of the housing projects; they don't want to go by the way of the prisons; they don't want to go by the way of our modern-day lepers, people who have AIDS and HIV—especially in Africa that's reeling—but we have got to go by those ways, and we've got sit there. We've got to go to New Orleans, and we have go to the New Orleans in your own community, where so many evacuees are still suffering and haven't gotten one check from the insurance company and are still tied up in paperwork with the Red Cross. We have got to go by those places. And then we've got to be able to go into those communities of comfort that most of us live in, and bear witness. And that doesn't mean that there is not suffering in those communities of comfort; it doesn't mean that there's not anorexia, and people getting plastic surgery to the point where they almost are not recognizable. There is pain everywhere. And when we can reach out and continue opening up our hearts, and continuing to say to people, "You know what? There is a way out! But it's in each other's hands: I need you, I need you, I need you, and you need me; let's stand together". Then we've got a chance. Then that's when that third way out begins to open up. People say, "Van, what is the third way out?" And I say, "It will emerge—it will emerge when we don't rush past the hard work and the deep work of the breath and the presence of the beauty of each other."

IONS: My last question was going to be—and you answered it so beautifully, but I will tell you what it was going to be—it was, In the world of your dreams, a future world inhabited by your son, and your grandson, and your granddaughter, give us a glimpse of what that might look like—if not in totality then at least some aspect. I think you have just done that so beautifully.

VJ: Well, thank you. I believe that we can have a green growth agenda here in the United States, shared prosperity. I think we can be the world leaders not in war, and pollution, and incarceration, but in creating green, clean technology that we can share with the world—help Africa boot up clean, help India and China boot up with clean energy and compete and cooperate in a world that has a future. That is what I am committed to.

IONS: I want to thank you so much, Van, for what you do in the world, for who you are in the world, for how you do what you do in the world. And I just really want to say, "Thank you", for honoring always the best of who we collectively are and are striving to be.

VJ: Thank you so much.

IONS: Alright! This has been Shift in Action, and I have been talking to Van Jones, a visionary, activist, civil rights attorney, Executive Director of the Ella Baker Center, avid environmentalist, father, husband, friend. Thank you, Van.

VJ: Thank you, Belvie.

IONS: Good bye.

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