In March, when the Obama administration hired author and activist Van Jones to be a special adviser for green jobs, enterprise and innovation, few people knew about him. Today, he has become almost ubiquitous on television, not just as a cheerleader for environmental conservation, but also as a key player in the administration’s efforts to restore the economy to its footing through the creation of green jobs.
Jones, a gregarious African-American, has been described in the media as the guy who holds the most envious job in the Obama White House. The first green jobs czar in White House history, his is a path less traveled.
The 40-year-old Tennessean was an advocate for green jobs long before that phrase became a buzzword. After graduating from Yale Law School in 1993, he moved to California and worked as a community activist in Oakland.
He started Bay Area Police Watch, a hotline and lawyer-referral for victims of police abuse and one of the programs funded by New York-based Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights. That project evolved into the Ella Barker Center for Human Rights in the late 1990s.
A few years ago, he saw an opportunity to combine his commitment to racial and economic parity with work to resolve the environmental crisis. In 2005, he produced a social equality sound track for the United Nation’s World Environment Day celebrations, and soon he became a hero of the green movement as he talked about “greening the ghetto.”
There was no turning back. In 2007, Jones launched a “Green-Collar Jobs” campaign, which led to the formation of Green for All, a non-profit organization to help create and find jobs in the green economy for poor and disadvantaged people living mostly in inner city neighborhoods. People need to have the opportunity to be a part of industries that are going somewhere, he argues, explaining that environmentally friendly jobs are more secure than traditional service jobs because energy and the environment are the growth industries of the future.
He wrote a New York Times best-selling book, The Green Collar Economy, and was a panelist at the Feb. 27 green jobs summit organized by the White House task force on middle-class issues. In discussing green jobs, he gave the example of Newark, N.J., where the local government, business and labor are pioneering a public-private partnership to get everyday people quality jobs doing green retrofits on low-income seniors’ homes, keeping them warm and saving them money. In Pennsylvania, urban farming is producing cheap, clean biofuels, while wind-power giant Gamesa is providing hundreds of green jobs, he added.
At the White House, Jones has defended the use of federal economic stimulus funds for green jobs. Making buildings more energy efficient creates jobs, reduces energy consumption and pollution and saves people money on energy bills, he contends. Those savings more than pay for the efficiency improvements, so taxpayers get their investment back in full.
Jones feels it is just a matter of time before weatherization and other energy improvements become common in America. The administration has allocated as much as $80 billion to create more than 6 million green jobs. That money includes a budget for the Bureau of Labor Statistics to work with other agencies to define the green economy and produce data on green-collar jobs by 2011.