Pop!Tech: Green collar jobs

Van Jones is best known as a civil rights activist and founder of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights. But he takes the stage at Pop!Tech and introduces a new project, Green for All. He tells us that he’ll be offering “the powerpoint presentation Al Gore would do if he was black.”

He knows we’re asking, “What’s a nice black guy like this doing in a green movement like ours?” The answer: “I just got tired of going to funerals.” Jones has been working on trying to get kids out of jail and into jobs. He tells us, “You might think of California as a liberal bastion, but we could call it ‘Calabama’ in terms of how we lock up children.” One of four people in prison on the planet are in the US, and they’re mostly black, latino and poor.

When Jones was at Yale Law School, he tells us he would stand on a block and see kids at college do drugs, and kids in the housing projects do drugs. “Same block, same age, same drugs.” When Yale kids got into trouble, their grades were put on pause, and they were able to take a break. “And they went to Europe for a while, then came back and became doctors, lawyers, accountants, President of the United States.” And people in the housing projects went to prison.

“I was going to be a big hero, fix the prison system, the police. I was burned out.” So he went on a spirituality retreat. “In my neighborhood, you don’t tell people you’re going to a spirituality nothing. I said I was going for a hike.” And he went half an hour away to Marin, and discovered the emerging green movement. “People are eating this ambrosia like thing,. they call it tofu… People walking around with these tubes – are they weapons? No, they’re yoga mats… It’s a tale of two cities.”

Jones wants to know whether this new green movement is going to lift all boards, “or are we going to have eco-apartheid?” New green industries mean new jobs. Jones wonders, “Can we connect work that most needs doing with people who most need work?” He wants, “green jobs, not jails.”

“The green movement believes that we pass the right laws and then magical green fairies put up all the solar panels.” And this green movement is powerful. While Jones couldn’t get enough traction for his work on jails to jobs, he’s got an interested audience when he talks about green jobs.

He offers an interesting model which he calls “the Fourth Quadrant”. One side of a matrix is grey versus green; the other is rich versus poor. The grey side are the problems, the green are the solutions. Traditional environmentalism focused on the grey, “The polar bears are going to die, the rain forests are going to die, will you please join my group? It wasn’t working too well.”

Jones posits that rich and poor people see these problems differently. Wealthy people see the problems in terms of charismatic megafauna – the polar bears are dying. And Jones tells us, “They’re right to care about it. When the polar bears go, we’re next.” But if you knock on a door in Watts and try to get people to care about the polar bears, you might have some problems. When people there consider environmental problems, they’re talking about toxins, asthma, garbage and people drowning in hurricane Katrina. And they’re right too. “We’ve had a racially segregated environmental movement for twenty years,” where environmentalists face off against the environmental justice movement.

When we think of solutions, the wealthy think about buying a Prius, or about “solar panels on my second home.” These solutions are about jobs and consumption for rich people. When poor people think of solutions, they should think about “green collar jobs”.

“If you learn to install solar panels, you’re on your way to becoming an electrical engineer. If you learn to weatherize windows, you’re on your way to being a glazier, which is a union job.” And these jobs aren’t outsourceable.

Jones’s focus is on starting a Green Jobs Corps in Oakland, funded with $250,000 from the Oakland city counsel. And he’s working with Nancy Pelosi to introduce legislation sponsoring a national corps that will train 30,000 people a year in green trades. President Clinton has signed onto the “Green for All” campaign to help spread this idea further.

(I’m glad Van Jones is working on these issues, but I hope he’s working with amazing people like Majora Carter, who has been promoting the idea that “black is the new green” for some time now, pushing forward environmental justice in her community.)

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