Greening the American Dream
When Van Jones accepted a position as the Obama administration’s Special Advisor for Green Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, it was a dream come true. The 44-year-old attorney, activist and author had made a name for himself as a national leader in the green jobs movement, after years of experience as a lawyer fighting for social and economic justice. He was the author of the best-selling “The Green Collar Economy” and founder of the nonprofit organization Green for All, which works to bring innovative green jobs to disadvantaged communities. A position at the White House would provide Jones with the opportunity to take his vision of a green economy to the next level, developing policies and programs that could make that vision a reality for millions of struggling workers across the country.
But the dream quickly turned into a nightmare as Jones became the target of a vehement and sensationalist smear campaign by the right wing media, most notably by Glenn Beck, who labeled him a communist, a felon and a 9/11 conspiracy theorist. Although these fabrications were all subsequently refuted, Jones resigned from his position after six months amid the media frenzy, for fear of becoming a harmful distraction during the Obama administration’s battle over health care reform.
Following his resignation, Jones turned his attention to the realization of another dream: the American dream itself, which he believes has grown unattainable for millions of middle- and lower-class Americans as a result of the economic crisis. Returning to his grassroots origins, Jones founded the organization Rebuild the Dream, which advocates for a new national jobs agenda that would “put the country back to work without hurting essential programs such as Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.” As a leader in the 99 Percent Spring movement, Jones is currently working with a coalition of progressive organizations and labor unions to train 100,000 people in nonviolent civil disobedience. His recently published “New York Times” best-seller “Rebuild the Dream,” offers a clear strategy for restoring the promise of the American dream through a combination of grassroots activism and political action. And as the first book written by a (former) member of the Obama White House staff, it also offers a unique perspective into the successes and failures of the administration thus far.
In your book, you describe how your relationship with your father helped to shape your own understanding of the American dream.
My dad was the original bootstrapper. My dad was the bootstrapper’s boot-strapper in that he was born in abject poverty in the segregated South. He joined the military to get out of his situation and then went back to his home state, put himself through college, put his little brother through college, helped his cousin through college and then put me and my sister through college. So he was always very clear that people have to advance through their own efforts, but he was also very clear that there needs to be a ladder for people to climb and that it was the community’s responsibility to make sure each child had a ladder that they could climb. That combination of a belief in individual effort—but in a context where family, community and government were all cooperating to make progress more possible—is my family’s story, and so I come by my own commitment to preserving that in our country fairly honestly.
In many ways, the history of America is the history of a struggle over who has access to the promise of the American dream. How would you characterize our contemporary moment as it relates to this struggle?
It feels like more people are losing access to the American dream of “opportunity for all” than are gaining access to it. In fact, most of the economic fights of the last century were about trying to move people from poverty into the middle class. The economic fights of today are largely about trying to keep people from falling out of the middle class and into poverty. So I think the American dream is in danger of being killed off. It used to be the way that you got out of poverty and into the middle class was you went to college, and you bought a home. Now, with the incredible amount of student loan debt in the country and underwater mortgages, getting an education and buying a home is a trapdoor from the middle class into poverty. We think that’s wrong, and so we’re fighting that.
You have described the need for a green-collar economy that would address both the economic and environmental crises that we face as a nation. What are some specific examples of green industries and technologies that could play this role?
The two big systems that need a positive intervention are our fuel system and our food system. If we change the way we power our buildings and our machines, that’s the clean energy revolution, and if we change the way we power our bodies, that’s the local and organic food revolution. Those two transformations can create more work, more wealth and better health for low-income communities.
On the food side, there are plenty of jobs and entrepreneurial opportunities there with community gardening, community-supported agriculture, aquaponics [the combination of aquaculture, the raising of fish and shellfish, with hydroponics, growing plants in water] and supporting organic food. On the energy side, there’s everything from installing solar panels to manufacturing wind turbines to refitting homes so they waste less energy. People forget that everything that is good for the environment is a job. Solar panels don’t put themselves up, wind turbines don’t manufacture themselves, community gardens don’t plant and tend themselves.
What do you think the role of the government should be in establishing this green economy?
Right now the government is playing a great role in disestablishing the green economy because of all the subsidies and support that the pollution-based industries get. The agricultural bill supports the industrial model of farming, which is heavy on pollution and poison. The most recent energy bill delivers massive subsidies to big oil and big coal. We think that the government should stop being a partner to the problem makers in the energy system and should start being a partner to the problem solvers—the pioneers in renewable energy. And we’re often accused by people saying that we should keep the government out of our energy system. That’s like saying we should keep the government out of Medicare. The government in every country in the world is intimately involved with energy, because energy is the lifeblood of every economy. Our subsidies and regulation and even our foreign policy is geared toward protecting the private, for-profit imports of global corporations. So it’s not like—Why are you guys trying to mess up the free market? I happen to like free markets a lot. I like them so much I’d like to see a free market in our energy system, and right now the polluters get all the support.
You describe the election of Barack Obama as one event within a larger social movement for hope and change that has been growing for years. What are some of the goals of that movement?
I think the goals of the movement are to deliver on Dr. King’s dream and the American dream in a new century. I think that’s pretty much what it comes down to: The idea that we can have liberty and justice for all. And that ordinary people, no matter what the color of their skin is, or who they love, or where their family comes from, can work hard and get somewhere in our country. That basic idea is one of the reasons that so many amazing people have come here from all over the world for centuries now. That promise that if you work hard and play by the rules, you can give your kids a better life. You may not be rich, you may not be famous, but you can give your kids a better life here. That has been taken away from people. You have honest, hard-working folks who are falling further behind every day. And you have some of the most corrupt people in the country, especially on Wall Street, who continue to take a disproportionate share of the national wealth for themselves.
There’s something wrong in America when the hard-working middle-class and working-class people can’t succeed, and the very unworthy and corrupt elites can’t fail because they’ve already been declared too big to fail. And that’s something that we’ve got to fix. So in terms of what the movement for hope and change is about, I think it’s about peace and prosperity, not war and austerity. I think that’s one way to sum up what we’re about. I think Dr. King’s dream and the American dream should be relevant and defended in the new century to honor the work of our parents and our grandparents who achieved so much in the last century. And we certainly should not let Dr. King’s dream and the American dream be thrown in the garbage can just so the richest people who were ever born don’t have to pay their taxes. That should be off the table.
Why do you think the Obama presidency has turned out to be a disappointment for many people within the grassroots movement?
I think the White House has the wrong theory of a grassroots movement, and I think the grassroots movement has the wrong theory of the White House. I think the White House thought the movement was something they could put in a jar and stick in the refrigerator, and take it out and microwave it when they needed something from it, and then stick it back in the refrigerator—and that’s not how movements work.
At the same time, I think that too many progressives thought that Obama was going to be a social movement leader like Dr. King, as opposed to a head of state like, say, LBJ. LBJ did not lead the civil rights movement, he reacted favorably to it, but only with hundreds of thousands of people on the streets, in this very high risk, dramatic, forward motion at the grassroots level, and we did not do our part in terms of putting forward a ferocious grassroots opposition. Instead, the tea party dominated all the street heat, and they reaped a great reward. It wasn’t supposed to be “Yes, he can,” it was supposed to be “Yes, we can.” And I’m not sure the “we” showed up for work most days.
The Occupy movement has brought issues of economic justice and the role of corporate money in politics to the forefront of national debate. You propose a new movement for the 99 percent that would work to turn these ideas into actions. Why do you draw this distinction?
There are probably about 200,000 to a quarter million people who participated in Occupy at its height last year, but the polls say that a third of Americans agree with that quarter million people. That means that there’s a hundred million people out there who agree but have not been mobilized to go from anger to answers. So there has to be an opportunity for those people who are not as interested in experiments in direct action and direct democracy to participate in this change movement. By definition the 99 percent is a large number of people, and, by observation, the number of people who are willing to occupy in any given city is relatively small. But they’re still the leading force. I think we should support Occupy but not speak for Occupy. But we also shouldn’t expect Occupy to be able to solve all of the problems of the country without the rest of us doing anything. That would be the same mistake that was made with Obama. The idea that, “Well, Obama will fix it.” No, we all have to fix it. And so, that’s why we have the 99 Percent Spring that’s going on this week. Rebuild the Dream is working with groups like the SEIU, AFL-CIO, moveon.org, some of the big grasstops organizations, to train a hundred thousand people in nonviolent civil disobedience, all under the basic framework of analysis that Occupy has popularized, but bringing the infrastructure of the rest of the progressive movement into play to train up more people and to get more people prepared to take an even broader range of action.
Can you discuss Rebuild the Dream’s “Contract for the American Dream” as a strategy for implementing progressive social change?
It’s a very important document. One hundred thirty-one thousand people worked together online and offline to come up with a jobs agenda that wouldn’t require decimating Medicare, Medicaid and other essential programs. What’s been missing is an affirmative, positive program that says: Here’s how we’re going to create jobs, and here’s where the money’s going to come from. The great thing about the Contract for the American Dream that has not been largely discussed is that the congressional progressive caucus went and used it as the basis for its legislative proposal “Rebuild the Dream for the 99%.” It turns most of those ideas into legislative language, so not only was it something that 131,000 community members worked on to create, then 70-plus congress-people turned it into legislative language.
America is the richest country in the history of the world, and we can do a whole lot better than we’ve done. One key insight to that contract is that America didn’t go broke helping grandma too much with Medicare. When Clinton left office, we had surpluses as far as the eye could see. The reason that the government is now in a deficit is because of the Bush tax cuts and the Bush wars. The money went to the super rich and to military contractors, and so the first thing you’ve got to do if you say you’re concerned about the deficit is just eliminate the Bush tax cuts and roll back military expenditures to where they were when Clinton left office, when we still had a pretty big military. This contract takes that seriously, that we’re not broke, we can fix our infrastructure, educate our young people and take care of people who are sick and elderly.
What else is Rebuild the Dream working on at the moment?
Right now, Rebuild the Dream has two very serious campaigns. One to push to more aggressively reassess America’s mortgages so that people whose mortgages are underwater can get some relief. We’re also fighting to get relief to people whose prospects have been decimated by excessive student loans. If people are interested, they can go to rebuildthedream.com and sign up and help us fight these two campaigns. We think the best way to save what’s left of the American dream is to put money into people’s pockets through jobs creation. But that takes a while, so in the meantime, we can at least stop the financial elites from sucking the money out of people’s pockets with student debt and underwater mortgages. I’ve been a little frustrated that I have not been able to get the media to understand that we’ve got these two big campaigns up. We have 600,000 online members, we’re in every congressional district. We’re really one of the few organizations out here that are fighting the new economic justice fights.
With the old economic justice fights, you knew who the constituency was. It was poor folks in places like Appalachia, black and brown folks in the inner cities and Native American folks on the reservation. The entire economic justice fight for decades was about how do you get those people out of poverty and into the middle class. What has changed is, those people we still have to fight for, but now there’s about 20 million people who used to be in the middle class who have been thrown overboard themselves into poverty or into economic anxiety that feels like poverty. For them, it’s about trying to keep them in the middle class. That’s a very different kind of fight, and if we don’t win that fight, then there’s no middle class to get those other folks into.
So the economic justice fight is now a much bigger fight; it includes a much bigger cross section of America. It includes the millennial generation who are graduating with massive debt into the worst job market since the Great Depression. It includes our young veterans who are coming home to no jobs and no hope. It includes the everyday heroes of America: the teachers, the cops and firefighters who are being laid off everyday in large numbers. It includes all the people who are being victimized by excessive debt while the financial sector that got bailed out continues to hold our heads underwater with student loans and mortgages. And it includes the long-term unemployed people who have employment history, have skills, but got laid off two, three, four years ago and have just simply not been able to get back in the job market. When you put all those people together, they don’t have an organization to join. Rebuild the Dream is their organization, and its focal point is to give the new economic casualties a place to gather and something to fight for.
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