by Michael Oko
This was a tough weekend for environmental advocates, as Van Jones, one of the newer heroes of the environmental community, was forced to resign from his post as the "green jobs" advisor in the White House Council on Environmental Quality.
Jones burst on the environmental scene around 2007 backed by charismatic flare and the power of a strong idea-- that environmental policies could lift-up people across the economic spectrum largely through new clean energy jobs. The organization he founded, Green For All, and his best-selling book, the Green Collar Economy, are a reflection of this idea, which has become a driving force behind action on clean energy and global warming.
I happened to cross paths with Jones nearly 10 years ago, in my former career in documentary films. In 2000, I was working for Witness, a human rights organization (then headed by Gillian Caldwell, coincidentally another convert to the issue of climate change, who is now leading the environmental group 1Sky) on a juvenile justice project, called Books Not Bars. The project was the brainchild of Jones, who was then an influential advocate for human rights and poverty issues in Oakland, CA. The goal was to encourage the promotion of education to overcome our national epidemic of over-incarceration of young people. I remember meeting him once or twice, but, mostly, I remember seeing videos of him at rallies, where his confidence, strong ideas and passion fired-up the crowds. He is one of those charismatic speakers who is able to connect with youth, activists and policy-makers alike.
When I arrived at NRDC in 2008, I was not surprised to find that Jones was working in the environmental community-- redefining the connection between environmental action and poverty.
As I soon found out, Jones's ideas had already taken power-- he had influenced policymakers like Nancy Pelosi, written a best-seller, and was soon tapped to join the Obama administration. To me, it was an exciting choice that represented President Obama's commitment to bring-in fresh voices to advance his clean energy and climate agenda.
Now, just 6 months later, Jones's star has-- at least for the moment-- been dimmed.
In his words, Jones was taken down by a "vicious smear campaign" by those who are "using lies and distortions to distract and divide." These include far right-wingers, especially Glenn Beck of Fox News, who launched a vicious campaign against him, labeling him as a socialist and worse. This is the type of nasty politics that the opponents of change have been using for years, tying together loose rhetoric, misinformation and fear to block change for America. This clearly goes beyond any one action or individual-- and speaks to the worst aspects of our current political culture.
There is a cautionary note here, especially since Jones has many similarities with Obama. He's a smart, driven, 21st Century, African-American leader. Both have a rare combination of intelligence, bold ideas and charismatic personalities. And, of course, Jones, like Obama, was a progressive "community organizer," who suddenly found himself in the center of the D.C. political scene.
This combination of qualities is extremely threatening to many on the far-right, where bold ideas and action stand in contrast with stasis and incrementalism that is commonplace inside and outside of beltway. Sadly, the Glenn Beck-crowd used their own extremist, fiery rhetoric and big media platforms to take down Jones.
If there's a silver lining, it's that, as the blogger Kate Shepperd has argued, Jones may now be liberated by working from the outside, where he can return to mobilizing and exciting young people and activists, who need his energy and strong voice. Interestingly, in August, I was at the Netroots Nation conference (where Jones was the keynote speaker in 2008) and at one roundtable discussion I attended, Jones was picked as the runaway favorite as most people's environmental hero. His heroic status should only grow greater now that he's been pushed to the outside.
This is an important moment. Congress is returning from a volatile August recess, and the Senate will soon take up energy and climate legislation. Now is the time for people who care about jobs, clean energy and the climate to come together and focus on these serious issues. We need leaders who are willing to present big ideas and take tough action for America's future. We know that the opposition will take their shots -- but our leaders cannot back down. The opposition is out of solutions and their only recourse is to try to block progress for our country.
As our elected officials come back to Washington this week, they will have one less champion. But, at this moment, we need even more leaders, like Van, to continue to push-- from inside and out-- for action that will move America in a new direction by shifting to clean energy that will create jobs and protect our planet.
Read an OpposingView from the CEI, "Racist, Communist, Van Jones Resigns."