Published on
the San Jose Mercury News (California)

Green-Jobs Evangelist Sells Obama's Ambitious Plans

Frank Davies

Jones has joked that the prospect of clean energy from coal is as likely as "unicorns pulling our cars," while the president has taken a more flexible approach to ventures in clean-coal technology. (photo: Green for All)

WASHINGTON - When Van Jones - Oakland activist, best-selling author and "green jobs" proselytizer - spoke to online political organizers last fall, he couldn't resist kidding them: "You've really messed up. You're about to win this election."

Their favorite candidate, Barack Obama, was going to inherit a mess, Jones predicted: "It will be like cleaning out the barn with a straw. I don't know why he even wants the job."

Now Jones has signed on to help clean out the barn.

Obama has lured the 40-year-old Jones into his administration to work on clean-energy issues and become a major spokesman for the president's energy policies. Jones was given the unwieldy title "special adviser for green jobs, enterprise and innovation."

In the Bay Area, Jones gained a reputation as a fierce advocate for racial and economic justice. He shed a spotlight on police abuse in Oakland and San Francisco, successfully fought a "super-jail" for juveniles and became adept at mixing cajolery with confrontation.

Then he launched Green for All, an effort to bring green-energy jobs to poor areas that is now run by Phaedra Ellis-Lamkins, former head of the South Bay Labor Council.

Jones' book, "The Green Collar Economy," came out in October. Jones emerged as an activist who could bridge the gap between the inner city and the environmental movement.

Then came the call from Obama. Two months into his new job, Jones said he is adjusting to life as a government insider.

"It's like playing a new video game. It's simple when you're an advocate. You have a paddle with two buttons - 'please, please' and 'protest, protest,' " Jones said during a recent interview. "Now it's a much more complex keyboard, and I'm still learning how to read the music sheet."

But he added that his work as a community organizer was "invaluable experience" and not that different from his new job. In both cases, it's all about getting "people to talk with each other and trust each other,'' whether it's community groups or federal agencies.

Environmental groups see Jones as a key ally. "He's a terrific leader," said Fred Krupp, president of Environmental Defense Fund. "Having him in the White House means we can expect more rapid progress in creating clean-energy jobs."


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Jones will coordinate efforts inside government to promote "green jobs" - work in renewable fuels and energy efficiency. He will also be a highly visible point person for Obama's energy plans, including a mandatory cap on carbon emissions.

A dynamic speaker, Jones is equally at home on a black radio station, "The Larry King Show" or the Comedy Channel's "Colbert Report," where he disputed Stephen Colbert's notion that pursuing green jobs was as realistic as "herding unicorns."

He doesn't think it's a pipe dream to combine "greening the ghetto" with fighting global warming. He rejects warnings from some economists that new jobs in the solar and wind industries won't be enough to make up for losses in a declining coal industry.

Jones said he is optimistic because another former community organizer, Obama, is determined to revamp the economy and reduce the nation's reliance on fossil fuels. He also thinks the country, traumatized by the severe recession, is ready for real change.

Jones and Obama aren't always on the same page. Jones has joked that the prospect of clean energy from coal is as likely as "unicorns pulling our cars," while the president has taken a more flexible approach to ventures in clean-coal technology.

Two years ago, Jones wrote that "we are witnessing the slow death of the Earth-devouring, suicidal version of capitalism," and the birth of "eco-capitalism." Now he meets with leaders of major industries, "not just the usual liberal suspects," and listens to their "special needs."

The federal government's task, Jones said, is to invest wisely in clean energy and set the right rules, such as putting a price on carbon emissions. "Then the private sector is going to solve the problems," he added.

Jones also sees a crucial role for information technology and venture capital: "I hope folks in Silicon Valley understand how much the president is counting on them. This whole thing - the idea we can have a clean-energy economy - is a huge bet on the kinds of thinkers and innovators concentrated in the valley."

And while he focuses on his new work in Washington, he still thinks about "the economic desperation" in Oakland, and ways to link fighting climate change and urban poverty:

"Maybe we can not only cool the Earth down, but cool the block down, too."

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