The cheering would begin soon enough. Dressed in a slim-cut gray suit and green tie, Van Jones ascended to the stage grinning and blowing kisses to the crowd. Jones, 39, a 6-foot-1-inch Yale Law grad, was appearing at a summit in San Francisco called "Advancing a New Energy Economy in California." The city's charismatic mayor, Gavin Newsom, was among the presenters, along with corporate bigwigs such as PG&E chief executive Peter Darbee. But no one would outshine Jones.
"What is considered green is usually for the eco-elite," he preached to the assembled solar entrepreneurs, environmental activists, and community leaders (including more than a dozen black clergymen). "But if we are actually going to meet the challenge of global warming, we are going to have to weatherize millions of homes and install millions of solar panels. That's millions of new jobs. We need to connect the people who most need the work with the work that most needs to be done." It's one of his favorite themes: the need to expand the green movement beyond "lifestyle environmentalists," with their hybrid cars and other eco-status symbols. The audience cheered. "Van Jones, he's a rock star," says Tim Rainey, director of economic development at the California Labor Federation.
But Jones is not just a performer. More than any other single figure, he has ushered the phrase "green-collar jobs" into the political lexicon — and economic reality. Last year, Jones led a coalition of business, labor, and environmental groups that persuaded the Oakland City Council to provide $250,000 in seed money for the country's first green-collar-jobs corps, which will train low-income youth in the renewable-energy, organic-food, and green-construction industries. The organization he founded and heads, the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, also helped draft the Pathways out of Poverty legislation for the federal Green Jobs Act of 2007, which pledged $125 million to train 35,000 people a year in green-collar jobs. And in February, Jones launched Green for All, a national advocacy organization whose goal is to procure $1 billion in federal funding by 2012 for green-collar programs, and lift as many as 250,000 Americans out of poverty. "We speak for the least empowered folks, the people who didn't finish high school, the people with criminal convictions, the victims of Hurricane Katrina," Jones says.
A self-described "bridge builder, catalyst, and evangelist," Jones is of the Martin Luther King oral tradition. "We dream of rust-belt cities blossoming as Silicon Valleys of green capital ... of dying blue-collar towns blooming as green-collar meccas," he said in remarks to the House Select Committee on Energy and Global Warming last year. Comparisons with Barack Obama are inevitable. But Jones says, "The person I'm really patterning my life after is Ralph Nader." Not Nader the election spoiler, but Nader the lifelong consumer advocate, whose policy triumphs include the creation of OSHA and the EPA. "Hey," Jones says, "Nader got more legislation passed than almost any president."
"TOTALLY LEFT OUT"
Jones is balancing on the roof of a hilltop duplex in the hardscrabble East Bay suburb of Richmond, California. "It takes all kinds of people to build a green economy," he says. "From the PhDs to the PhDudes." Mount Tamalpais juts up on the horizon, not far beyond the smokestacks of a nearby Chevron oil refinery. Jones is wearing stonewashed jeans and a button-down wool shirt — his "proletarian" outfit, as he calls it. He has come roofside to check out two graduates of a local nonprofit program that trains low-income workers to mount photovoltaic panels. The installers, including 47-year-old Angela Greene, who says she "fell on extremely hard times" after the printing company she worked for shut down, are cracking up listening to Jones, and he takes the cue to keep the momentum going: "From the PhDs to the PhDudes — I just made that up! I'm bad! I'm slick! That's what makes me the spokesperson!"
Jones doesn't lack for confidence. But he is careful to point out that he didn't invent the phrase "green-collar jobs" — Alan Durning, the director of the Sightline Institute in Seattle, wrote a book by that name in 1999 — and he didn't set out to be an eco-evangelist, either. He was "nerdly" and bullied as a child in rural Tennessee, the son of a junior high school assistant principal. After attending the University of Tennessee, he went on to Yale Law (where he says he was "radicalized politically with my dreadlocks and Black Panther book bag") and eventually landed a job with San Francisco civil rights attorney Eva Paterson, the legendary founder of the Equal Justice Society. In 1997, he set out on his own, founding the Ella Baker Center, to litigate against police brutality and for prison reform. Five years in, needing respite from endless "funerals, prisons, and court cases coming out the wrong way," he started attending spirituality retreats in nearby Marin County, where solar panels were sprouting like trees. "There was a green economy growing right across from Oakland," he remembers, "and we were totally left out of it." The idea to link the green movement with issues of race and class came to him as an epiphany.
As he looked into this emerging economy, Jones realized how quickly its demands would outstrip the supply of skilled labor. In 2007, investment in clean-technology companies in North America reached $4 billion, up 38% from 2006. Twenty-five states now have renewable-energy standards for utilities, requiring them to obtain a minimum percentage of their power from renewable sources. In California, there already aren't enough solar installers to keep up with demand. Wind-energy producers are having a hard time finding trained turbine technicians, says Bruce Hamilton, director of operations at PPM Energy, a subsidiary of ScottishPower with more than a dozen wind farms in operation or under construction around the country: "There's going to be a fight for labor."
Getting in on the ground floor of a growth industry is classic antipoverty strategy, says Jones. But jobs in sustainable industries also come with built-in advantages. Retrofitting buildings and constructing wind farms is not the kind of work that can be outsourced, he explains, and "during this time of economic transition," green-collar-jobs training gives people from disadvantaged backgrounds a competitive edge in the marketplace. "Say a bunch of guys in the carpenter's union don't know how to work with bamboo. Well, here are some young people who have been trained to work with bamboo. Suddenly, rather than them being in the back of the line for the less-skilled blue-collar jobs, these kids have the advantage."
"We dream of rust-belt cities blossoming as silicon valleys of green capital ... of dying blue-collar towns blooming as green-collar meccas."
"A MESSAGE OF HOPE"
Jones has a newfangled rap, but behind the exterior, he is an old-style activist — a political animal who is looking to government to fund his revolution. Jones attacks conventional environmental appeals — bemoaning the plight of polar bears and other "charismatic megafauna," as he puts it — because they don't speak to poor urban dwellers who have more pressing needs, like scraping together bus fare or keeping their kids out of gangs. The fossil-fuel industry has taken advantage of the green lobby's weaknesses, Jones says, derailing clean-energy incentives by spinning them as essentially "green taxes" on the poor. He points to the 2006 defeat of California's Proposition 87 as an example. "It was a wonderful clean-energy ballot initiative to tax oil companies to fund clean energy," he explains. "Yet despite Hollywood and Silicon Valley spending $40 million to pass it, despite Bill Clinton and Al Gore campaigning all over the state, the thing failed. The polluters were able to destroy working-class support because the law wasn't positioned as something that would benefit lower-income people. They said the cost would be passed on — you wouldn't be able to afford gas or heat your house." The only way out of that bind, he says, is to make green policy not a burden to working families but a boon. And the way to do that is with jobs.
Jones's cramped office at Ella Baker, in a ramshackle gray building in North Oakland, is littered with speaking invitations — Harvard, the Kellogg Foundation. He spoke at Davos earlier this year. He has won a string of prizes, among them the international Ashoka Fellowship. While I was visiting, four MBA students from Presidio School of Management in San Francisco dropped by to discuss partnering on a green-enterprise zone project in Oakland. Jones offers "a message of hope," one of the students told me.
With his new $1 billion Green for All initiative, Jones, who named his 3-year-old son, Cabral, after an African freedom fighter, aims to replicate on a national level the coalition of government, industry, labor, and community-activist groups responsible for passing the Oakland jobs-corps legislation. He has brought on Jeremy Hays, former national organizing director of the Apollo Alliance, the country's most powerful clean-energy lobbying group, and Jason Walsh, a former policy director for the Workforce Alliance, a national job-training organization. Next up: a new social-networking Web site intended to spur a grassroots movement.
In many ways, his timing couldn't be better. Both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama have made the phrase "green collar" a regular part of their campaign pitches. The candidates talk about growing the green economy and retraining blue-collar workers. Their emphasis is not exactly his — they don't stress how those opportunities can lift people out of poverty — but that doesn't mean the end result wouldn't be the same.
Michele McGeoy is the founder of Solar Richmond, a local nonprofit that trains solar installers. Jones's advocacy, she says, has not only sent donors her way, but the promise of federal funding from the Green Jobs Act has inspired the city to increase support for her nonprofit. A former software executive, McGeoy used to work with low-income youth addressing the digital divide. "This is different," she says, citing 30% annual growth in the photovoltaic market. "We really need the workers."
In Jones's office, alongside all the speaking invitations are Superman logos and action figures — dozens of them. They're in his car, too, and all around his house. Sometimes he feels like Clark Kent, he says, and needs to strap on a cape to get the job done. To an outside observer, the big S's might also indicate supersize hubris. But then, maybe that's what he needs.
Linda Baker is based in Portland, Oregon. She also writes for The New York Times and Salon.
A version of this article appeared in the May 2008 issue of Fast Company magazine.