A Fallen Czar, One Year After

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The last time most people heard the name "Van Jones," it was as a political football. He got burned on the national scene, and he's learned a few lessons: play your cards close to the vest and keep moving forward. While his name's been less heard, Jones is still making his case in inner cities, Appalachia and think tanks.

In an interview before a speech to students at Howard University, Jones showed how much he's walled off his time, alluding to it only indirectly: "I'm glad I had 6 months in the White House. Now I'm working on the same issues in other ways."


He spends little time in the past and bounds over questions regarding his departure. Earlier this summer, though, the past seemed to repeat itself in a way that couldn't be ignored. The events surrounding the hasty termination of another black administration employee at the hands of a conservative media campaign begged Jones' analysis. The following is from his NY Times op-ed.

"Our situations aren't exactly the same. Ms. Sherrod's comments, in which she, a black woman, appeared to admit to racial discrimination against a white couple, were taken far out of context, while I truly did use a vulgarity." Jones is referring to himself using an expletive to describe Republicans 

 "Life inside the Beltway has become a combination of speed chess and Mortal Kombat: one wrong move can mean political death. In the era of YouTube, Twitter and 24-hour cable news, nobody is safe."

Nobody is safe.  And Jones knows that in a way that few do.  Even a year later, Glenn Beck continues drawing squiggly lines between Van Jones and the "New Black Panther Party" (Jones has retaliated with the L word).  But amazingly, Jones hasn't tried to burrow deep below the chalk radar. Between his visiting fellow stint at Princeton University and his senior fellowship for the Center for American Progress, he could remain largely hidden under a stack of policy papers.

Instead, Van Jones, has started to beat the drum again, a little more measured this time: "We've got to find a way to get past the food fight. On TV you have people screaming at each other.  When you have a really tough problem people should get more quiet--listen harder rather than screaming louder."

Author of the best-selling "The Green Collar Economy," Jones is still trying to convince America that "we are going into a period where the economy is melting down and the glaciers are melting down too." He promotes environmentally friendly jobs as the best way to employ the unemployed while tackling global warming. This two pronged approach, preaching environmentalism for the poor, can be an uphill battle.

But that is Jones's strength. Part of the reason he garnered a White House appointment rests in his deft, nearly poetic ability to deliver this message. 

Following Jones to his address to Howard University's incoming freshman, he acknowledged the shortcomings of our current climate nomenclature; "Let's call it global weirding," then went on to lampoon our industrial stasis; "For 100 years we've been stuck on the post whale-oil solution."  Finally, he invoked a slight of magical realism to describe the origin of our fuel supply..."That black goo that comes out of the ground is death--it is the blood and bones of our biological ancestors and we've been running our society on it. You pull death out of the ground and burn it...without ceremony. Then you've got death in the air and death on the oceans."

All his prose is in service of stretching out the corners of the environmental tent to include those who typically have been left out. He makes a special effort to engage two groups in particular: urban youth and Appalachian families. Thought not often seen at the movies together, both tend to suffer from economic hardship and environment-based illness (the highest levels of obesity, asthma and cancer). And to each their own rhetoric.

A Howard freshman hears: "If you are a young person standing in front of somebody's house, I'd rather you be on top of their house putting up a solar panel. I'd rather you put down the handgun and be able to pick up a caulking gun."

Inner-city youth seem like Jones' natural audience. He first entered the environmental debate through an Oakland-based campaign called "Green Jobs not Jails."

But Jones takes special pride in his ability to talk over the pink, bristled head of Glenn Beck, directly to his audience. At every speaking engagement, even at Howard, Jones mentions his plan for Appalachia and the heartland. "Under sane climate policy a rural farmer could get three paychecks. This is an agenda for a red state--three paychecks to bring back rural America...the first check is from deploying wind turbines. You get paid to watch those spin. The second is from growing an energy crop--hopefully an advanced energy crop, not necessarily corn. The third check comes from sequestered carbon in the soil that you can trade on the carbon markets."

Different solutions to the same problem. Which is how Jones views his own personal and political evolution as well: "Quite famously I've had a very colorful past as an activist. I've tried on lots of hats and ideas. The great thing about being an American is that you have the right to think whatever you want and you have the right to change your mind...My answers have changed as I've gotten older but my questions have stayed the same."


Video credit: Planet Harmony Producer Ebony Payne

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Ike Sriskandarajah reports for Public Radio International's Living on Earth.

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