Van Jones on Public Service
Since watching the Kennedys and MLK as a child, Van Jones has always wanted to make a contribution.
Question: What inspired you to work in public service?Van Jones: Well, you know, people will ask me, you know, when I got started doing public service or being concerned about the community affairs, there is no beginning point that I can remember. You know, some people, you know, they played the tuba and they’re really good at it or something like that or you’re a violinist and they’re world class, and that, you know, why do you… they have no idea when it’s like there’s no origin point to it. Maybe they heard something at some point, but there’s just a calling there to be involved in art in that way or music in that way. My earliest memory has been with my dad and uncles watching some people on TV and there’s an African-American woman giving a speech and she had kind of a funny voice and I asked my Uncle Chester, I said, “Why does she talk funny?” And he said, oh, she has a lisp. Well, that woman was Shirley Chisholm who was an African-American presidential candidate 1972. I was born in ‘68 so I would’ve been even 4 years old, so here I am, a little 3-year-old kid about to turn 4 watching the Democratic Convention with my uncle and [I’m sure] my cousins were outside playing. I don’t know why but I’ve always been interested in public affairs, always been interested in politics, grow up just, you know, worshipping the Kennedy brothers and Dr. King and I wanted to make a contribution. And I don’t know if, you know, growing up the skinniest, the little nerdy kid on the block, getting pushed around, maybe you wanted to stand up to bullies and, you know, do something and be a superhero like the people I used to read about in the comic book. I don’t know the origin of it but, you know, I can’t imagine doing anything else and I hope that this millennial generation bigger than baby boomers, more diverse, more connected, has more access to data than the US government did when they put a man on the moon, just walking around with their PDAs and their laptops, I have a huge amount of faith and confidence that they’re going to step up in ways that you haven’t seen generations step up for a very long time and I want them to start out united. To take issues of race and class and gender and sexuality seriously, but not this division points as common ground points to say, [IB], you made us say this pledge of allegiance about liberty and justice for all. I want that country you promised me in kindergarten. We’re going to fight for it, we deserve it. You told us about America the beautiful, we’re going to protect that beauty from the clear cutters and the despoilers and have that kind of… I have a generation that’s willing to grab that American flag and take it back for the people who won’t only be a war flag, who won’t only be a political weapon to divide us, but use it as a common ground to say that the best in this country, we will make relevant in the new century. We’ll have equal protection for people, no more Katrina’s, no more leaving people behind in the flood. We’ll have equal opportunity for people in a green economy. We’re going to make sure that people who are left out of the last century’s pollution-based economy are brought in and have a place in this clean and green economy. Want to have green for everybody and we’re going to respect this earth and this land that we are not inheriting from our parents, but they were holding for our children and their children and their children. That kind of politics, that kind of hope, that kind of an agenda I think can unite people in this country and let America lead the world again, not in war, not in pollution, but in solutions that can help everybody.Question: How do you work past setbacks? Van Jones: Well, you know, understanding history has been very helpful. You know, whenever I start feeling sorry for myself and all of this is too hard, I mean, at the end, I think about, you know, Nelson Mandela being in jail for 27 years and, you know, 26 and a half of them, it wasn’t clear if he’s ever going to get out let alone be out and [hope lead] this country toward democracy. I think to myself, well, if you can do that, you know, what am I willing to do for my own children? So, I feel sorry for myself and think about Dr. King shot down at 39 years old and I just turned 40. So, I’m now older than my elders and he was willing to make those kinds of sacrifices, you know, attack dogs and fire hoses, keep love and peace in his heart to redeem the promise of democracy, you know. There are no attack dogs, I mean, how about, you know, [by having] a delayed flight but there is no attack dogs, no water hoses. So, you know, when you have that sense of perspective that other generations, they have been up against tougher odds and have prevailed and have delivered a better future for their children, you know, you’re looking at their future. Are you going to have apartheid forever or you going to have a free South Africa? Are you going to have Jim Crow in misogyny forever poisoning the hearts of Americans? Are you’re going to have a free society? Are you going to let Hitler run the globe or you’re going to have a world free from fascism? Other generations look down those two roads and said, “I refuse to go down that road. We will have this better future for our children.” And then when they got that better future for us, they got a better future for us not perfect but it’s so much better than it would have been. Well, that’s our obligation. There are two futures. One is a strip mined, hot planet with wars and super storms and a declining human population and declining population of life in general, a disaster. But the other is a green, thriving, verdant earth with people working in partnership, bringing forward good solutions, it won’t be perfect but it will be so much better than that nightmare scenario. When I think about the stakes of not getting this right and a promise and a beautiful outcome of winning a better future for my children, for your children, it’s hard for me to stay depressed. I get inspire.