Van Jones Talks The Green Collar Economy at Home in Oakland | Civil Eats

Van Jones Talks The Green Collar Economy at Home in Oakland

Van Jones was at the First Congregational Church in Oakland last Tuesday, ostensibly to talk about his green-for-all campaign, the subject of his recent bestseller The Green Collar Economy. But seeing as how he was back home, in the heart of his own congregation and community, he reveled in the show he put on and it was like we all had backstage passes. With his wife and two children in the audience and surrounded by old friends, including Ada de Leon (who read some of her poetry) and Alice Walker (who didn’t), he took us from bouts of hilarity to sober reflection and back again with memories of how this extended East Bay family had braved the last few decades and especially the last eight years.  “Barack Obama didn’t create this movement,” he said at one point, “this movement created the opportunity for Barack Obama!” He noted that joy over the Obama victory was twinned with outrage over the passage of Prop 8, adding that it “has an expiration date,” since voters 35 and younger overwhelmingly opposed it. But no one in this group is going to sit by passively and wait for justice to be served up to them.

Jones eventually got around to his green stump speech, proposing to create jobs and address myriad environmental problems by essentially retrofitting the country – “weatherize millions of buildings; use clean, non-toxic insulation; double-pane that glass; tighten the energy envelope. Put Detroit back to work, not making SUVs but wind turbines. Now we get a chance to bail out the people and the planet.” He pointed out Bobby Seale, who was standing in the back: “He was doing a green job when we didn’t know what to call it.” I think he was referring to Seale’s environmental renovation youth jobs project and not the barbecuing.

The book includes access to healthy food, particularly in urban areas, as among the big issues in need of a new form of coalition-building. Jones highlights the work of Brahm Ahmadi at the People’s Grocery in Oakland and two Chicago-based activists, LaDonna Redmond at the Institute for Community Resource Development and Orrin Williams of the Center for Urban Transformation, and concludes that “The political and economic ramifications of localized food systems operating in harmony with nature can be as lucrative as it is beautiful.”

Jones gave us the back-story on the making of The Green Collar Economy, which, as we were reminded several times, was on sale in the lobby. (I already had my signed copy, with a smiley face.) Probably everyone in the audience had been tapped in Team Green’s viral marketing push – pretty much everyone I know got an email asking us to buy the book and spread the word; they had also set up an easy way for you to buy a copy and have it sent directly to your elected official of choice. Given that Jones is a well-known intellectual and activist who’s been amply graced with mainstream media coverage, I’d assumed this was merely the extra effort of the diligent scribe to combat the standard ineptitude of publishing PR departments. But it turned out that his team had in fact taken a page from Obama’s book – organizing an extraordinarily efficient, Net-based workaround of the system. “Nobody wanted this book,” he said. No one would come out and say so, he quickly added. “Publishers are always very polite. They show you a lot of teeth” – he bared his in an enormous grimace of a smile. But bottom line: “ ‘Black people don’t buy green books, and white people don’t buy black books, so nobody is going to buy his book.’ ” He said he’d told his agent, “ ‘I have two words for anyone who talks that way: Ba…rack.’ We sent out email to you, our friends – ‘Can you help me?’ – and you said, Yes.” He estimated that the virtual network had sent five million emails. The book debuted at No. 12 on The New York Times bestseller list – and is hanging in there, at No. 34 [as of Sunday]. The publisher, HarperOne, now compares The Green Collar Economy to Silent Spring – I wonder if the PR folks are referring to the fact that Rachel Carson had a hell of a time finding a publisher for her book.

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Danny Glover (along with Congresswoman Barbara Lee) had opened the evening, reading Langston Hughes’ 1935 poem “Let America Be America Again, a riveting performance in its own right. I had noticed Jones standing offstage, scribbling notes as he listened to the stanzas unfold. Maybe it was then that he jotted down one of his own best lines. “America is back,” he said in closing, “for the very first time.”

Today’s food system is complex.

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Katrina Heron is Newsweek/The Daily Beast's Editor-at-Large, has been Editor-in-Chief of Wired, Senior Editor at The New Yorker and Vanity Fair, and Story Editor at The New York Times Magazine. Her articles have been published in Vogue, Dwell, and The New York Times. She is a co-author of Safe: The Race to Protect Ourselves In A Newly Dangerous World (HarperCollins, 2005), co-founder of Civil Eats and an adviser to the Atavist. Read more >

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