Civil Rights Lawyer : b. 1968
- 2008: Publishes The Green Collar Economy, which goes on to become a bestseller.
- 2008: Named a "Hero of the Environment" by Time magazine.
- 2010: Awarded the NAACP President's Award.
- 2013: Becomes a host of the CNN television show, Crossfire.
Born in rural Tennessee, Van Jones graduated in 1990 from the University of Tennessee and, in 1993, from Yale Law School. He has worked for economic justice, both as a civil rights attorney and environmental activist, and is known for his bestselling book The Green Collar Economy, published in 2008.
Jones, who has a twin sister, Angela, and was raised in the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church, developed an early interest in journalism, which led him to intern with two newspapers and the Associated Press before entering law school. After earning his law degree, he moved to California and began his work as an activist.
At the age of 27, Jones convinced the California State Bar Association to let him provide lawyer referral services for police abuse victims, which led him to found the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights. The nonprofit agency works to reform California’s youth prison system, to create opportunities in the "green" economy for poor communities and communities of color, and to support victims and survivors of police abuse and their families.
Central to Jones’ vision for a better America is putting poor people to work in jobs that help the environment, thereby addressing two major problems at once: a faltering economy and climate change. In his book, Jones wrote, “The green economy should not be just about reclaiming thrown-away stuff. It should be about reclaiming thrown-away communities.” He told a writer for The New Yorker that the goal is “to get the greenest solutions to the poorest people…The challenge is making this an everybody movement, so … Joe Six-Pack…[becomes] Joe the Solar Guy, or that kid on the street corner [puts] down his handgun, [and picks] up a caulk gun.” Jones’ ideas led to a Green Jobs Act being passed in Congress and continue to influence organizations working for economic gains by improving the environment.
After leaving his position as the Ella Baker Center’s executive director, Jones has continued to work with other organizations dedicated to the same goals, such as Rebuild the Dream, Color of Change, Green for All, Center for American Progress, and Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.
In 2008, his innovative work caught the attention of the incoming Obama Administration. Under President Barack Obama, Jones served as Special Advisor for Green Jobs, but resigned in 2009 due to controversy over some of his past political activism. He was accused of using offensive language, defending a man convicted of killing a policeman, and supporting conspiracy theories about the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The charges were widely considered distortions, but Jones said he didn’t want his “radical Left wing Bay Area past” to affect President Obama’s programs. “I cannot in good conscience ask my colleagues to expend precious time and energy defending or explaining my past. We need all hands on deck, fighting for the future,” he said.
Jones described his leap from community organizer in Oakland, California, to Special Advisor to the president as “the best six months of my life, followed by the worst two weeks.” But Jones continues to be a consistent champion of both the environment and the poor.
In his 2014 commencement speech at Pitzer College, Jones told the graduates that resigning from the Obama Administration was a crushing experience: “It looks cool in the movies when you fall on your sword. But it hurts. I went into a depression for a year. No one was sure I was going to come out of it. It was devastating.”
He’s emerged from personal crises, though, by understanding what he calls the “Three Pieces of Wisdom”: The difference between facts and truth; how to be led by soul rather than ego; and how to embrace your destiny instead of being dragged down by fate.
Jones elaborated, telling the graduates: “You have to be the kind of person who looks at the facts, but fights for the truth and changes the facts. You’ve got to have a strong enough ego not to be pushed around, but you can’t come from ego. Ego is going to get battered and bruised. Let your soul lead the way, wherever it goes. You have to be the kind of person who says I am what I am, but somebody somewhere put something inside me that’s bigger and more beautiful than that, and I’m going to make sure the world sings that song with me—about the greatness that’s inside all of us—before I go.”
And, says Jones, it’s important to accept your fate but aspire to your destiny: “Fate is cruel, brutal—all of us have the same fate: [Life] doesn’t last forever…Your fate you can’t do anything about. But everybody also has a destiny. It’s different than fate…You have a call to greatness inside of you.”
In 2008, Time magazine named Jones one of its “Heroes of the Environment", and in 2010 he received the NAACP President’s Award. In 2013, he became a panelist on CNN’s political commentary show Crossfire. Van Jones is married and has two sons.