< The Obama Administration and the Legacy of the NAACP


Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Farai Chidaya for The Takeaway: Segregation was the key, but now it’s the 100th anniversary of the NAACP. The civil rights organization is holding its centennial celebration in New York City, but the question is, how relevant to folks from younger generations, post civil-rights generations? Are there new tasks at hand besides breaking the color line? For that, we’re turning to Van Jones. He started out as a civil rights lawyer in San Francisco and he helped jump start the green jobs movement. He’s the Special Advisor to the White House Council on Environmental Quality. How are you, Van?

Van Jones: I’m doing great. Glad to be with you.

Farai Chidaya: So, a lot of people say that President Obama was the epitome of the realization of King’s dream. Do you ever feel that you are part of the realization of that dream?

Van Jones: I think we all are. I think the whole country is. And it’s almost impossible to imagine the country that he addressed in 1963, where literally people couldn’t even sit next to each other in public restaurants. And now we have a President who is the product of a mixed race union and we have little African American children running around on the White House lawn. But I think all of us have a lot to be proud of, because it took all colors and all classes to turn that page together, and we’ve done that. And now we’ve got some more pages to turn.

Farai Chidaya: So the NAACP has certainly, in the past, been instrumental in achieving social justice and change, but some people, particularly people in their twenties and thirties, even in their teens, say it’s irrelevant. What do you say to that?

Van Jones: Well, I just think that any time you have a brand that is a hundred years old, you may have younger people who say “Oh well is this irrelevant to me.” But when you have young leadership, like you have in Ben Jealous, who is an incredible spokesperson, who’s under the age of 40, who’s bringing dynamic new vision , I think that you’ve got to look down the road and I think you’re going to see new missions and new challenges and new opportunities for all of the groups working for justice.

John Hockenberry: Well it seems like there’s been a real transformation, I mean, they weren’t talking about NAACP brands 100 years ago, that’s very Van Jonesian, but it seems to me that if we move from the leadership crisis that the NAACP was undergoing, really just a few years ago, and talk about a torch being passed to a new group of leaders, the leaders that that torch is passed to are suddenly, with an African American president, not responsible for activism. They’re responsible for deliverables: producing jobs, producing economic outcome and results. Is that part of your responsibility now, Van Jones?

Van Jones: It certainly is and I’m excited to be a part of an administration like President Obama’s administration that has put jobs front and centre. The idea of economic opportunity for all Americans. And at the same time, the way you have the jobs of tomorrow is that you make the products of tomorrow. The products of tomorrow are advanced automobiles, advanced energy, renewable energy, wind turbine, solar panels.

Farai Chidaya: At the same time though, when you talk about a promise, you also have to talk about paying for that promise and there’s a whole political term, you’re familiar with “unfunded mandate.” And although the President has said that he wanted to spend $150 billion over the next decade for issues including green jobs, other environmental issues, is that money on the table, and have you gotten any of it, and have you been able to create any jobs from it?

Van Jones: Well what’s amazing about the President is that even by mid-February in signing the recovery act, which is $787 billion, recovery act to not only jumpstart our economy but to strengthen it for the long term, there were $60 billion in the recovery package so he talked about $150 billion with $60 billion right off the bat for clean energy, for energy efficiency, for smart batteries, for a smarter grid. That probably represented the biggest single investment in clean energy technology in the history of the country.

Farai Chidaya: Has your office gotten any of that money?

Van Jones: Well, I work in the White House, so our job is to help to coordinate among the agencies and the departments that have got that money. The Department of Energy did a remarkable job this summer getting $2.5 billion out the door for energy efficiency, for weatherization, so people can start getting their energy bills cut and we can start putting people to work blowing in clean non-toxic insulation, replacing windows and doors that don’t fit.

John Hockenberry: I read your book The Green Collar Economy: How One Solution Can Fix Our Two Biggest Problems. I’m suspecting it’s not enough for Van Jones to sit there in the White House congratulating the work that’s been done already. What are the unmet needs? What are the tough problems going forward?

Van Jones: The first thing you’ve got to do, you’ve got to get the public investments right. And I think we did that in large part with the recovery package, again $60 billion, but you’ve also got to get the public rules right. And that is our next challenge. In other words, we want to change the laws in this country so that the clean forms of energy are the profitable forms.

Farai Chidaya: I mean, I do have to go back at this question of where you are in terms of achieving your vision, because you’re someone who’s very dogged. You’ve achieved just about everything that I know that you’ve set out to do. But if this climate bill doesn’t pass, will you be stuck in a position of being a cheerleader who can not actually produce the jobs that you want to produce?

Van Jones: No, no. The good thing is that we have multiple levers to move the country forward and the climate bill is central and it’s critical, but there are other opportunities to move things forward. The private sector wants to move in this direction. The last part of this economy to freeze during this recent downturn was the green part. We were still growing wind and solar companies deep into the fourth quarter of last year and the first parts likely to unthaw are the green parts.

Farai Chidaya: Just one final question. I got to know you in the Bay area when you were working with the Ella Baker centre which was transitioning into doing work with green jobs. And, as you know, a lot of people who have been denied opportunity don’t want to be stuck with false hope. Do you ever worry that by putting out a vision that has not yet been achieved, that there are going to be people who are going to say “I thought this was great, I thought I was going to get a job?” Have you ever faced having people that you trained not be able to find a job, and what happens then?

Van Jones: Well first of all, I have had that experience when I was working in Oakland. You would get a young person who did everything right, who worked really hard and got through our program and then found that they were not going to be hired. And it’s heartbreaking. But the alternative is to have no dream at all, no hope at all. You know, Dr. King, you think his knees weren’t shaking when he was standing up there saying what he wanted to see? You think there weren’t people behind him with their arms crossed saying you’re selling false hope? I think the alternative is to have no dream at all, and the great thing is that we’ve got a President who, it’s not the color of his skin, it’s the color of his dream for America: he’s got a green dream for this country. And he is willing to go to the mat to try to deliver on it, and I’m proud to be working with him.


Van Jones

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Farai Chideya


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