Bring Eco-Power to the People

Van Jones is on a mission to clean up both pollution and poverty in the inner city

  • Eros Hoagland for TIME

    Van Jones, activist and visionary.

    Annie Schumake stands outside her one-story house in the depressed city of Richmond, Calif., just north of Oakland, and watches her electric meter slow to a crawl, stop and then begin to tick backward. Schumake's solar panel, just installed on her roof and partly financed with low-cost loans from the city, is supplying free power and more. The panel was put in by a team of local workers trained by area nonprofit groups that prepare unemployed Richmondites for jobs in the burgeoning green building field. "I'm happy because I'm saving money," says Schumake. "But I'm also saving the planet, and that's the major one." Van Jones, the dynamo promoting the project, breaks into a wide smile of his own. "Power by the people, for the people," says Jones. "This is the vision of the future right here."

    A few years ago, the Oakland-based human-rights activist came to a realization. If the U.S. accelerated the transition to a cleaner economy, millions of jobs in green construction and alternative energy could be created. Those jobs--call them green collar--were exactly what unemployed residents of cities like Oakland needed. Environmental activists and inner-city minorities--two groups often segregated by race and class--had a common interest, and it could help extend the coalition against climate change beyond hard-core greenies. "Polar bears, Priuses and Ph.D.s aren't going to do it alone," says Jones, 39. "Everything our friends in the eco-élite do will vanish unless we find a way to expand green jobs to the rest of the economy."

    You couldn't create a better advocate for the green-collar movement than Jones. A Yale-educated lawyer who founded the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights in Oakland, the magnetic Jones moves easily between worlds, at home preaching to inner-city high school students or mixing with Silicon Valley entrepreneurs. But everywhere Jones goes, he repeats a simple message. "Give the work that most needs to be done to the people who most need the work," he says, and solve two pressing problems--pollution and poverty--at once.

    For the environmental movement, embracing Jones' message means recasting global warming not just as an existential threat but as an enormous economic opportunity. It's a narrative that is particularly resonant with low-income workers who are likely to bear the short-term economic burden of cutting carbon only if they believe there will be a personal payoff for them in the long run. Says Jones: "They need to see green in their pockets."

    It may be a while before many of them do. Jones successfully lobbied for a $250,000 pilot program, the Oakland Green Jobs Corps, but tepid public support elsewhere has kept green employment from taking off. Still, the promise is real. A study by the Cleantech Network, which tracks green investment, found that for every $100 million in green venture capital, 250,000 new jobs could be created. To speed that transition, Jones and Majora Carter of the Sustainable South Bronx in New York City recently launched Green for All, a campaign to secure $1 billion in government funding to train a quarter-million workers in green fields. "We're looking for an environmental Marshall Plan for the 21st century," says Carter.

    Jones has even greater ambitions, believing the green-collar movement can reshape politics in the U.S. by breaking down old barriers on the left and the right. A few hours after helping Schumake get her solar panels, Jones traveled across the bay to San Francisco's ornate city hall, where his organization received the first-ever environmental grant from the Full Circle Fund, a Bay Area philanthropic network. Jones had the tough task of following Al Gore, who had delivered the keynote speech, but he still brought the house down. "When we bring together the best of the business community and the best of the tech community and the best of the racial-justice community, we'll get the coalition we always wanted." Even better, he adds, "we'll get the country we always wanted." In his vision, that means the map won't be divided between red and blue, but will be all green.