Events & Media: Van Jones

Van Jones

October 31, 2011

Van Jones, environmental advocate, civil rights activist, attorney, and a former member of President Barack Obama's cabinet, spent an hour Saturday in a relaxed question-and-answer discussion with approximately 35 Bren students. Dean Steve Gaines, Assistant Dean Satie Airamé, and Assistant Professor Sarah Anderson also attended.

Jones, who served for six months as the green jobs advisor to President Obama, was in town to deliver a talk titled "Green for All: The Next American Economy" at the Marjorie Luke Theater in downtown Santa Barbara Saturday evening.

The talk was a benefit for Sustainable Vocations, and as a co-sponsor, the Bren School worked with presenters Loa Tree and Quail Springs to arrange for Mr. Jones to speak with Bren students. David Fortson and Eric Cardenas from Loa Tree, and Warren Bush from Quail Springs attended the conversation at Bren Hall, as well as representatives from The Fund for Santa Barbara, the Environmental Affairs Board of UCSB, and the McCune Foundation, which also sponsored the Saturday-evening event.

In introducing Mr. Jones for the noontime discussion at Bren Hall, Professor Anderson mentioned an important new initiative.

"This is a particularly good time to have Mr. Jones here, as we are embarking on an effort in partnership with the Center for Black Studies and Environmental Studies to incorporate environmental justice into our curriculum," she said. "I hope we can engage today in a conversation about how best to do that."

Students who were present said they were inspired by Jones's remarks, which included trenchant analysis and fresh perspectives on environmental justice, working at the White House, Occupy Wall Street, and a host of topics that included or related to the environment but also went well beyond it.

He addressed the changing nature, and even the disappearance of, the "mainstream" in a United States characterized by unprecedented and growing diversity. He spoke at length about the importance of listening to that diverse nation as it actually exists rather than through the filter of any preconceived notions of what it might be.

He returned repeatedly to the theme of making policy relevant to people, and he noted the importance of generating compelling narratives as a way of opening the multiple "doors" through which people can enter the discussion of environmental sustainability in a way that matters to them. In a diverse society, he said, not everyone walks through the same door to engage with an issue.

For instance, he explained, an elderly woman who lives in the inner city and has never seen snow may not care much about a discussion of polar bears or melting ice caps, but she will care a lot if kids who used to get into trouble in the street in front of her house are instead earning a wage by installing solar panels on her roof and bringing down the cost of her electricity.

"We're not having an economic crisis, we're not having a political crisis, we're not having an environmental crisis, and we're not having a spiritual crisis," Jones said at one point. "We're having all four of those crises at the same time."

He used that as the starting point for a discussion of how important it is for leaders to make genuine contact with others by listening to them in order to understand their perspectives, their needs, and their possibly unexpected contributions to creative solutions.

In the end, he said, "No one cares how much you know until they know how much you care."