Green Energy Meets Jobs

Even activists can stun themselves by speaking up. For a decade, Van Jones, a Yale-trained attorney and cofounder of Oakland's Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, was mostly known in the Bay Area for fighting to reform police and youth prisons.

In recent years he and other activists have pushed for inner-city job training in the solar, wind, and other energy-saving industries. In June, Oakland became the first city in the nation to create a "Green Jobs Corps" program. A green coalition in nearby Richmond recently installed solar panels on a home, employing at-risk trainees.

That pioneering landed him an invitation last February to a climate change round table in San Francisco hosted by the city's representative in Congress, Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Jones was in the room with Silicon Valley venture capitalists and Sierra Club executive director Carl Pope. But the round table did not go as Jones hoped.

Jones introduced himself briefly, as he thought he was supposed to do. Everyone else gave speeches. The session nearly ended with Jones saying nothing.

"I was feeling terrible," he said over dinner in August. "I was nearly in tears. I thought I had blown it. I'm here with the third most powerful person in the United States, someone who can help our cause . . . and I didn't take advantage of it."

Just before Pelosi adjourned the round table for a press conference, she asked for last questions.

Jones threw up his hand and said, "My question is, at the press conference, will you say four words?" He said he asked her to say, "Green Energy Jobs Bill."

Jones said Pelosi let him continue. "Everybody comes to the neighborhood and tells these kids don't shoot anybody, don't do drugs, don't get pregnant, then they drive away. . . . You tell them you can help fix this country, you're not going to solve just global warming, you are going to solve a bunch of problems in this community."

At the press conference, Pelosi said there was something said at the round table everyone agreed with. In a video clip on the Ella Baker website, Pelosi said, "Where is Van? OK, you say it for yourself. We'll say it together. 'Green Energy Jobs Bill.' "

"I was totally floored," Jones said. "After it was over, her chief of staff says it looks like we'll be working together. I was blown away. Does this really happen to people?"

By May, Jones was telling a House committee, "We imagine formerly incarcerated people moving from jail cells to solar cells." In the summer, the energy bill passed by the House included the Green Jobs Act, authorizing up to $125 million to train up to 30,000 people in "green industries."

One of the bill's sponsors, Representative John Tierney of Salem said in a press release that Jones's "personal 'energy' greatly advanced this idea."

Over the phone this week, the Massachusetts Democrat added, "When I originally thought about job training, I was going in the direction of families who used to work at Sylvania and GE and retool them. Van convinced us there has to a significant carve-out to other people. . . . There is a justice and equity side to this."

Just as the larger energy bill is being bitterly debated over fuel economy, tax breaks, and renewable energy, there is some resistance to green jobs training that might involve nonviolent offenders.

A recent editorial in Investor's Business Daily called it "foolishness" and "waste." Tierney said some Republicans questioned, "Why should we be doing anything for them?"

Jones knows why he is doing something for "them." Several years ago, burned out from police and juvenile justice issues, he attended a retreat. He met Julia "Butterfly" Hill, the woman who lived for two years in a redwood to save if from logging.

In their discussions, Jones said, "I agree with you that there aren't any throwaway species or resources, but you agree with me there aren't any throwaway children or neighborhoods, right? So we need to get these movements working together."

The need is as clear as a drive across the Bay.

"In Marin County, they got organic this and hybrid cars and solar panels and organic denim jeans and 20 minutes later in a car here in Oakland, 1 in 5 kids have asthma because the air quality's so bad from the ports and people are struggling to get the last entry-level pollution-based jobs," Jones said. "We've already seen this one time before. We've already seen a big growth in the dot-com thing and no one benefits in the neighborhood."

Derrick Z. Jackson's e-mail address is

(c) 2007 The Boston Globe

© 2023 Boston Globe