As if high unemployment, an economically depressed state and a shrunken stock market didn’t turn your Labor Day weekend into a downer, look no further than Saturday night’s resignation of Green Jobs icon Van Jones from President Obama’s Council on Environmental Quality.
Van is one of the most charismatic and outspoken speakers I’ve ever seen. He has seized on the idea to transform the American civil rights movement into a green jobs movement through his extraordinary work at the Ella Baker Center and Green for All. His reward for this leadership was an appointment to CEQ to be the administration’s public voice on its green jobs push. Van’s efforts on environmental protection and job creation should be celebrated on Labor Day. And I’m disappointed that the Obama administration didn’t appear to have Van’s back during the successful barrage from the right for events that occurred long before his appointment.
The first time I met Van was at the Aspen Environmental Forum in March 2008. Of course I had heard of his work years before then, but I never actually saw him speak until that moment.
The Forum, sponsored by the non-partisan Aspen Institute and National Geographic, is a three-day dialogue that includes speakers ranging from Majora Carter (the founder and former executive director of Sustainable South Bronx) and famed oceanographer Sylvia Earle to Gale Norton, former President W Secretary of Interior, and Jim Rogers, CEO of Duke Energy.
Van keynoted the event and the crowd offered a standing ovation for his speech, which passionately argued for the need to transform our petroleum-based economy to a renewables-based one. His message of optimism and putting unemployed people from America’s urban core to spur energy and water conservation efforts and provide the workforce engine to move to renewable was beyond inspirational. He is the person that has blown up the tired jobs vs. environment argument and replaced it with the environment = jobs declaration.
A few months later in November, I sent Van an e-mail asking if he was gearing up for an appointment in the Obama administration. His response was pretty funny. He said that he wasn’t going anywhere because no president would appoint an outspoken activist with such a colorful and public past. In March 2009, Van got the call to work for the administration in the CEQ under Nancy Sutley. Fewer than six months later, Van is gone.
What changed? Van’s history was the same. He is and was an outspoken, highly successful, civil rights and environmental justice activist with a past, a past that was very public. But Van was incredibly effective as demonstrated by his reception of the Aspen Institute Energy and Environment Award this year along with Wal-Mart and others. In fact, Time Magazine named him as one of its environmental heroes and one of the 100 most influential people on the planet.
If Van was such a lightning rod for members of the Obama administration, then maybe they shouldn’t have appointed him. But President Obama did appoint Van because renewable energy and green jobs were a major part of his platform, and there is no more articulate advocate for those needs than Van Jones. I hope that Van’s return to activism isn’t tarnished by his resignation.
His friends and supporters like Speaker Nancy Pelosi need to be there to vigorously support the green jobs movement. America must aggressively move towards green energy and green jobs to protect the environment, make us less reliant on imported oil, and to restart a growing economy. And even if there’s no place for Van Jones in the Obama administration, we still need him to be the face and voice of this growing, critical movement.