The connection between social inequality and environmental destruction isn’t one made easily by most environmentalists. Sure, they may see a connection between a perceived lack of concern among politicians and corporations about both people and the planet. But that’s usually about it.
Van Jones tells another story. For him, the two are inextricably linked. “Both problems are reaching crisis points,” he writes in the Summer 2005 issue of Yes! magazine. “We act as if they are separate. But they are linked -- economically, politically, and morally. The solutions and strategies for each must, therefore, be one.”
Last week, during the World Environment Day festivities in San Francisco, the Ella Baker Center, the Oakland, Calif.-based nonprofit Jones heads, launched an initiative that attempts to link the two: Reclaim the Future. RTF is envisioned as a think tank and advocacy group representing and empowering ecologically sound, urban entrepreneurs and their local communities. According to the Ella Baker site:
Our goal is to push for public-private-community partnerships endorsing clean, healthy, and economically developed urban environments. The project is devoted to fostering the creation of dignified, clean-energy job opportunities for de-incarcerated individuals and those at risk of encountering the punishment industry.
Or, as Jones puts it: “Green Jobs, Not Jails.”
RTF builds on the work Jones has been doing since the early 1990s. While working as a freshly minted lawyer on an environmental case involving a Chevron refinery located in a poor section of Richmond, Calif., Jones found himself propelled into the worlds of police misconduct and juvenile justice. For him, the links between the worlds of poverty and pollution were clear.
“The way that the world works, these are interlocking problems, and we need a more holistic solution,” he told me recently. “I got tired of just running from outrage to outrage -- trying to get this cop fired, trying to get this jail from being built. We needed to be promoting a positive vision for urban America that deals with both social inequality and environmental degradation.”
The connection between environmentalism and civil rights hasn’t been made by most activists, with good reason, he says: “Right now, our movements are divided from each other. It’s not that the people who engage in the green business wave hate people who are in prison -- they just don’t know anybody who’s in prison. And it’s not that people who are working in urban America who are concerned about kids being unjustly arrested hate clean air and water. It just hasn’t been put forward as an issue that speaks directly to them often enough or powerfully enough.
“The reality is that there’s a big common ground between the folks who are concerned about environmental causes and social causes. It has to do with having a gut sense that we shouldn’t have any throwaway children, throwaway neighborhoods, throwaway species, throwaway nations, or throwaway continents.”
I reminded Van that the day after the November election last year, I heard him talk about the progressive movement’s emerging “four-wheeled vehicle,” comprised of labor unions, civil rights activists, environmentalists, and progressive business owners and investors. Together, he said in November, a partnership among those four could reverse political trends and catalyze a progressive agenda. Why, I asked, haven’t we heard much about that since?
“One problem is that everyone speaks a different language, so it’s literally a house of Babel whenever you put progressives in the same room from those four worlds,” he responded. “Labor has it’s own way of doing things, the business world is entirely different, the environmental activists have their own language. When [environmentalists] say ‘organizing’ they mean totally something completely different from the civil rights people. When we talk about organizing, we talk about going door to door in our own neighborhoods. When environmentalists talk about organizing, they’re talking about sending in 100 canvassers to cover the state. So, even that one word doesn’t mean the same thing. And it takes you three meetings to even figure that out.”
Jones believes Reclaim the Future can be a positive force for supplanting confusion with cohesion. For example, he explains, “You have a lot of people who are doing research on urban economic development. They don’t necessarily have a deep green perspective. You have people who have a deep green perspective, but don’t know much about the reality of urban life.”
To begin, RTF’s goal is to catalyze a success story, partnering with one or more groups that work to employ urban youth, or formerly homeless or incarcerated people, and to connect them with progressive green businesses -- clean-technology companies, recycling operations, and the like. In other words, moving people from jail cells to solar cells.
The larger goal is to build on those successes -- “evangelize the hell out of them,” says Jones -- in other cities and statehouses, and to forge a larger network of allied initiatives around the country. “We want to create a demonstration project that gives us the opportunity to go out and build the political constituency that can multiply that by a thousand-fold,” he says.
For Jones, the essence of RTF can be found in its slogan, Green Jobs, Not Jail. “In those four words you’re talking about the environment, the economy, and the criminal justice system,” he says. “Those are the three main sources of stress for people of color. And you’re saying what you are for and not just what you’re against. That, for us, is a real breakthrough. And it will take a while before our capacity and even our understanding will catch up with that vision.”
Having a vision of a positive future will no doubt be a potent force in helping Reclaim the Future transform minds and forge powerful partnerships. That compelling vision of what's possible has been missing from much of the discourse and platforms of both the environmental and civil rights communities.
Says Jones: “One thing I’ve been saying a lot lately is that Dr. King didn’t get famous with a speech called ‘I Have a Complaint.’ At some point, we have to say what we’re for.”