What Can We Learn from Van Jones" Resignation? Don't Sign Petitions Without Reading Them First, and If Mistake-Prone, Stay Out of Politics
"If the road to social transformation can be paved only by saints who never make mistakes, the road will never be built." —Van Jones, 2007
Apparently the saints-that-be viewed his mistakes as large enough—or politically distracting enough, at any rate—for his removal from the Obama administration"s road-building project (talk about a green-collar job!). Following a dogged effort by conservative talk radio and TV host Glenn Beck to portray Jones as a 9/11 conspiracy theorist, racist and Communist, Jones resigned—with no protest from his higher-ups—from his six-month stint as an advisor on the White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ). That he did so in the middle of Labor Day weekend was an irony not lost on those who"ve been heartened by Jones" commitment these last few years to the green jobs movement.
He had just been appointed to the position in March, as announced by Nancy Sutley, chair of the CEQ: "Van Jones has been a strong voice for green jobs and we look forward to having him work with departments and agencies to advance the President"s agenda of creating 21st-century jobs that improve energy efficiency and utilize renewable resources. Jones will also help to shape and advance the administration"s energy and climate initiatives with a specific interest in improvements and opportunities for vulnerable communities," Sutley wrote.
The Yale Law School grad turned inner-city organizer founded Green for All, whose mission is "to build an inclusive green economy strong enough to lift people out of poverty," and cofounded social justice organizations Color of Change and the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights. As outlined in his bestselling book The Green Collar Economy: How One Solution Can Fix Our Two Biggest Problems (HarperOne), Jones defines green-collar jobs as "family supporting, career-track job[s] that directly contribute to preserving or enhancing environmental quality." (See E"s review, November/December 2008).
Here he lays out not a utopian scheme but a middle-road, market-based and undeniably capitalist approach—especially for a Commie. Yes, Jones told reporter Eliza Strickland of the East Bay Express in 2005 that he was politicized in the wake of the Rodney King riots and was for a time, as he put it, "trying to be a revolutionary." But the article"s subtitle says it all: "Van Jones renounced his rowdy black nationalism on the way toward becoming an influential leader of the new progressive politics." A profile of Jones from 2007 on www.myhero.com depicts how he had a major turning point in his political thinking in 2000, akin to a spiritual awakening, away from divisiveness and more in search of solidarity, because, to put it simply, it was more effective, and was personally more rewarding as well. Isn"t this what we want more of in our government—people who have had shifts in consciousness? People whose belief systems evolve as they gain life experience and maturity? Jones" onetime-boss, Eva Paterson, who has known Jones since he came to work for her in 1992 as a legal intern at the Lawyers" Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area, also made this point and vouched for Jones" character—and the evolution of his character (The Huffington Post). Even Bill O"Reilly seemed, on September 8, to roll his eyes at Glenn Beck"s crusade to get Jones canned (Fox News).
A point is made in O’Reilly and Beck’s conversation with which E agrees: Jones may well be more effective outside the administration than within it (I think Beck put it as "dangerous." Semantics.) As Ariana Huffington opined in a post September 7 called "Thank You, Glenn Beck!" (The Huffington Post), Van Jones was undeniably the best person for this job, but the job wasn’t best for him. Van Jones is not someone who ought to be stuck behind a desk, calculating tax credits and guarding his opinions from the 24-hour news-culture vultures.
A clarifying and comical commentary on the brouhaha surrounding Beck and Jones was written for Grist by David Roberts . This was September 2, three days before Jones resigned. Sadly, Roberts predicted that "this too shall pass." Perhaps it would have, but now that Jones has left the White House to its saints in residence, he will undoubtedly continue his consensus-building, sensible approach to a new-and-improved green economy.
We are sorry to see Van Jones go. But at least now the self-described "green jobs handyman" can get back to work.
See also: E"s November/December 2007 cover story, "Welcome to Green-Collar America."
JESSICA RAE PATTON is a contributing editor at E.