From: Issue 40

Van of Action

18 September, 2012

The White House's former green jobs advisor says the social contract is broken and in need of serious fixing. Van Jones's mission is to do just that, and in the process rebuild the dream that made America great.

Written by Tyler Hamilton, Editor-In-Chief

Illustration by David Murray

When environmental and social activist Van Jones was recruited in spring 2009 by the Obama administration to serve as the White House’s special advisor on green jobs, many saw it as a clear sign that the President was committed to building a low-carbon economy, both to tackle climate change and boost employment. Jones, who had just published the New York Times bestseller The Green Collar Economy, believed the move to a clean energy economy was a way to “green the ghetto” and lift millions of Americans out of poverty. California Congresswoman Barbara Lee called the appointment a “wonderful addition” to the White House’s Council on Environmental Quality and credited Jones for being at the forefront of the green jobs movement. But less than six months into the job Jones found himself the target of what he called a “vicious smear campaign.” Considering it a distraction he resigned from his position, telling media his mission is to “fight for others, not for myself.” And fight for others he is. In 2011 Jones launched his Rebuild the Dream campaign (, a “people-powered” initiative with 600,000 members aimed at fixing all that’s wrong with the American economy. Corporate Knights had an opportunity to chat with Jones, 44, about the campaign, the failures of the political left, and the role that clean capitalism can play to mend a broken social contract.

CK: What will the Rebuild the Dream campaign be focusing on in the lead-up to and immediately following the election? It seems so far that tuition fees and home ownership have been two big issues for you.

JONES: A college education is part of the springboard out of poverty and into the middle class, just like home ownership. But these days, getting a college education and buying a house seem more like trap doors into poverty for the middle class, and we’ve got to change that. So we launched two very aggressive campaigns to keep the interest rate on student loans from doubling, and also to get relief for homeowners with underwater mortgages. That effort is building credibility in the media. We will then be pivoting at the end of the year when the big budget battle goes down. We’ll be fighting a major war to prevent the Bush tax cuts for the rich from being extended, and to protect essential programs from the meat cleaver.

CK: You’ve said you see potential for creating a Tea Party for the left, and that the left has to start playing hardball. Can you explain that?

JONES: The Tea Party is a brilliant invention because it took previously existing donors and activists and ideas, repackaged them, and positioned them both inside and outside the Republican Party. The Tea Party now has all the benefits of being a third party in America with none of the downside. They can present their own ideas. They can make electoral challenges to Republicans they don’t like in the primary season. And they can even chip into certain pieces of legislation. But when it comes to a general election they’re able to walk back into the Republican Party as it is, and essentially have their cake and eat it too.

CK: And this is lacking on the left?

JONES: For progressives, who make up the majority of the Democratic Party, we have no such mechanism. So even though many of our ideas are quite popular as far as tax fairness for all Americans and concern about income inequality and big money and politics, we have not yet evolved a mechanism to push Democrats to stick up for that agenda. We think that is a weakness for progressives, but also a weakness for the party overall because the spine is not visible all too often. Therefore it’s a weakness for the country, because we think our ideas are good. Take strong private-sector initiative, balance it off with smart tax policy and intelligent regulation, and you get a great country.

CK: That all sounds like common sense.

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