Van Jones, a Yale law school graduate from rural Tennessee, spent years trying to help troubled inner-city youths get out of jail and into the real world, but he was repeatedly disheartened when kids wound up back in prison because they couldn't find jobs.
"On a personal level I just got burned out," said Jones, who founded the Ella Baker Center in Oakland, Calif., a nonprofit that advocates social justice. "You put your face to the furnace all the time, going to a lot of funerals, a lot of court hearings, things not working out the way you wanted them to."
And then it clicked for Jones. As the United States pursues renewable energy technologies and becomes more environmentally responsible, there will be a need for workers with green skills.
"I just had this epiphany in mind and said, you know, these kids in America need green jobs, not jails, that's what they need," he said. "We want to lift a quarter million people out of poverty into the green economy by creating green-collared job training, employer incentives and entrepreneur opportunities."
In this "green-collared" world that Jones envisions, inner-city youth would climb out of poverty by installing solar panels, retrofitting buildings to become more sustainable and taking on green construction jobs with hefty pay checks. He said this could all be achieved through training in high schools and community colleges, giving disadvantaged young people a "pathway out of poverty."
"If you teach a young person how to put up solar panels, that kid is on their way to becoming an electrical engineer," he said. "They could join the United Electrical Workers Union. If you teach a kid how to weatherize a building, double-pane the glass so that it doesn't leak so much energy, that kid is on his way to becoming a glazer that can join a union."
Launching the Campaign
Because Jones knew setting his plan in motion would be a huge undertaking, he reached out to other environmental groups to build a green coalition.
The Green for All Campaign, along with its strategic partners Sustainable South Bronx, 1 Sky, Color of Change, Apollo Alliance, Center for American Progress, Workforce Alliance, Applied Research Center, Solar Richmond, COWS/Center of Wisconsin Strategy, Center for State Innovation and Energy Action Coalition, works to educate everyday Americans about the "work, health, and wealth benefits" of a "green economy."
"The next step in the green movement is about social uplift in environmentalism & that is less about the Birkenstocks and tofu," he said. "It's more about our hard hat and our lunch bucket, roll up our sleeves, get a little dirt under our fingernails and let's fix America kind of environmentalism."
The campaign continued to spread its message and gained an influential ally, former President Bill Clinton.
On Sept. 26, 2007, the Green for All Campaign was officially launched at the Clinton Global Initiative in New York.
"He highlighted our initiative," Jones said. "I am very happy and proud I've got Bill Clinton's signature on a piece of paper. He put his arms around us & I would have never thought that would happen, but it did and it just shows that miracles are possible."
Poverty, Pollution and Politics
But Green for All did not stop there: It took its message to Congress.
In 2007, the United States Senate and House of Representatives approved the Green Jobs Act (H.R. 2847) and in December, President George W. Bush signed the bill into law. It gives $125 million to workforce training programs that target veterans, displaced workers, at-risk youth and individual families who fall 200 percent under the poverty line. Jones' Green for All campaign will receive part of that funding.
"We can save the polar bears and we can save these low income kids with green-collared jobs," Jones said. "We can put a whole generation to work & and save this country for the future."
Carrie McGourty contributed to this report.
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