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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Green Collar Revolution

Air Date: Week of

Today’s green revolution must involve people of all economic levels. That’s according to Van Jones, co-founder of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights in Oakland, California. Jones recently attended the Clinton Global Initiative conference where his “green for all” campaign - to promote green business training for people of color and low incomes - was featured. He talks with host Steve Curwood.


CURWOOD: It’s Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood. Every year former President Bill Clinton invites more than a thousand movers and shakers to his Global Initiative. And this year, once again, much of the focus was on clean water and climate change. Among those in the crowd: Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie, Alicia Keys, former Vice President Al Gore, and Van Jones.

Van Jones is the cofounder of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights in Oakland, California and has become perhaps the leading proponent of a movement to link the fight against poverty to the fight against global warming. Van Jones calls his plan ‘Green for All’ and he joins me now on the line from California. Hi Van, how are you?

JONES: How are you?

CURWOOD: Good, so tell me about Green for All.

JONES: Well, a lot of people are very excited about the transition to a cleaner, greener strategy for the U.S. But what people haven’t figured out is—there aren’t going to be any magical green fairies to go around and put up all these solar panels or build all these wind farms. There are going to have to be U.S. workers and right now we do not have a national strategy to train the millions of people who are going to be needed to work in a green, clean economy.

For instance in northern California there’s already a labor shortage for putting up solar panels. People want them, the technology’s there, the capital is there, and they don’t have the trained workers. So we say, ‘well, hold on a minute.’ We’ve got all these people in low-income communities who need jobs and now we’ve got all these new green-collared jobs that are opening up. And we came up with a plan and we called it ‘Green for All.’ It’s a billion dollars from the federal government over a four-year period to infuse all of our community colleges, public schools, vocational schools, with the dollars to be able to start training people to meet this coming labor demand.

CURWOOD: So, let’s say for a kid who’s growing up in a tough neighborhood, say right there in Oakland, you know, surrounded by some polluting industry. How does installing solar panels sound as a career path?

Van Jones (Photo: The Ella Baker Center for Human Rights)

JONES: Well, you know, it’s amazing. Most people would assume that it’s something that you would have to really convince someone to want to do or that it would be so outside their frame of reference. But, you know, these young people are really smart. And it only takes about, you know, 90 seconds, to say: ‘a billion dollars are moving into a new industry, they don’t have enough workers, if you get in now, do a good job, you can move up relatively quickly and you could be making anywhere from $21-$30-$35 an hour.’ People say, ‘Hey—sign me up.’ It’s not a hard sell.

There’s a wonderful program, which I just can’t stop bragging on, called ‘Solar Richment,’ where they got a modest amount of money, got 20 guys—you know low-income African American, Latino, Phillipino, one African-American woman. For nine weeks these guys got up, this young woman got up, every morning. They had to be there at nine o’clock. They had to learn these skills. Nine weeks later they did their first installation. There were local TV cameras there, solar employers were there saying, ‘hey, we need workers.’ And you know, the look on these young people’s faces. Often these are the young men who are always seen as the villains and yet here they are, nine weeks later, African American, Latino, with the baggy pants, the hair or whatever, but they’ve got their work boots on, they’ve got their orange jerseys on, and they’re doing this work. And they are the ecological heroes.

This is the new base of the environmental movement. The next step for the environmental movement will be to embrace a social uplift environmentalism that says: ‘the way we solve our ecological problems will be to create wealth, health, and work opportunities for people who were left out of the pollution based economy.’ We’re going to lock them into this new clean and green economy and in that way we can save the polar bears and you know, these poor kids, too.

CURWOOD: Where are they going to be doing this work? Are they going to be driving out of Oakland into Marin County to these multimillion-dollar homes to do this work, or well—where will they be working?

JONES: Well I tell you what, right now the way that the renewable energy is structured, that would be all that they’re able to do. But what you have to realize is that as we move forward, one percent of the world’s land mass is cities—and that’s where 80 percent of the global warming pollution is coming from - so the huge retrofit job that we need is an urban agenda. So the thing about it is, that we’ve got to make it possible for low-income people to fold solar into their mortgage payments, so they pay just a little bit more every month on their mortgage but those solar panels go up right away. We’ve got to come up with creative financing so that the people who most need to get their energy bills cut have the access to that technology. And their cousins, their nieces, their nephews, their children are getting trained to actually implement that technology. That’s when you actually begin to see the emergence of a fundamentally new economy.

The first industrial revolution hurt the people and the planet, too. The second industrial revolution—carbon constrained, much smarter on resources, much smarter on water, energy—the next industrial revolution has to help the people and the planet. And in order to do that, you’ve got to put people to work. And not just as workers but on their way to managers, owners, investors, inventors. You’ve got to bring people who were left out of that pollution-based economy into the heart of the green economy.

CURWOOD: Van, looking back at your experience at the Clinton Global Initiative, there were a lot of great ideas being floated there: everything from reforestation of the Brazilian Amazon to water sanitation in India, green education for Chinese mayors, and of course your notion of Green for All. What was it like being there to witness this—well, maybe we should call it a philanthropic juggernaut—in action?

JONES: (laughs) Well, you know, it was really overwhelming, I mean you’re there, and you know how it is at these conferences, you go and sit down at a panel, or not a panel but you know, a workshop and you look up. And there’s Brad Pitt, you know, making a speech about how we need to green New Orleans and green the Ninth Ward and how he’s putting millions of dollars of his own money into it. And you’re like, is this a fantasy? I mean, what is this? And you turn around and there’s Bill Clinton, you know, marching with these energy CEOs and you’re thinking, ‘oh God, these are the people I’ve been fighting my whole life.’ And they’re up there waxing eloquent and getting weepy about how they’re going to cut all this carbon out of the economy and they’ve got the power to do it.

So it’s an interesting moment because the politics of climate change have moved from the margin of science and the margin of politics to the very center. And I think those of us who have been fighting for environmental and social justice for a long time, it’s easy to get “oh wow, we’ve made it, it’s super exciting, we get invited to these things now.” I think we’ve got to say very clearly, “Any movement that goes from the margin to the center has to answer a moral question and that’s this: who will we take with us and who will we leave behind?’ And it will be very easy at this point, for the eco-elite, and I put myself in that, to say “Hey, you know, we’ve made it, you know, Bill Clinton and all these people love us.” But you still have the majority of people in America who have not been included in this environmental revolution and the next step has to be to include them, too.

CURWOOD: Van Jones is a lawyer and cofounder of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights in Oakland. Thank you so much, Van.

JONES: Well I’m happy to get a chance to be on the show again and thank you for your interest.



Green for All

Ella Baker Center for Human Rights


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