Will Van Jones Work in the White House?

It took less than five years for Van Jones to rise from Oakland community-based activist with a plan for bringing green jobs to the hood to national leader of a broad-based "green-growth alliance" movement. While Jones is often cited as originating the idea, green jobs -- even "for the ghetto" -- are not new. This kind of work-force training and development through private-federal partnerships has been around since at least 1995, when the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences started the Minority Worker Training Program, which focuses on employment that in current parlance would be labeled "green." And so Jones' appointment as special adviser on green jobs, enterprise, and innovation to Nancy Sutley, the chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, actually represents a coming of age for issues that begged attention long before last year’s release of Jones’ book, The Green Collar Economy.

It would be difficult to argue that there is a better pick for "green-jobs czar" than Van Jones. He has emerged as a populist voice for environmental justice -- similar to Al Gore for global warming. However, whether Jones, whose experience is mainly in law and directing nonprofits, will be able to work effectively within the notoriously byzantine world of federal policy is another matter.

Jones first dove into environmental advocacy in 2004, when he adapted the slogan "Green Jobs, Not Jail" for his nonprofit Ella Baker Center for Human Rights in Oakland. The Ella Baker Center was started in 1996 to create better alternatives for at-risk and imprisoned youth. The neighborhoods that produce the unemployed and over-imprisoned are usually the same ones that suffer from industrial pollution and its accompanying public-health maladies. Jones took a lesson from other community initiatives that linked employment and environmental advocacy. Chicago had two successful programs -- Greencorps, started in 1994, and Growing Home, started in 1992 -- that put disadvantaged youth to work cleaning up their neighborhoods through brownfield remediation, urban gardening, and other eco-urban employment projects.

But Jones' first experiments with green jobs were failures. After squandering almost half a million dollars in 2004 on promoting green jobs in Oakland without actually producing any employment, he realized this was no easy beginner's challenge. "We still didn't know what we were doing," Jones told the New Yorker 's Elizabeth Kolbert this January.

With billions in bailout and stimulus money already sunk into the banking and auto industries, the $500 million in stimulus funds from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act that will be Jones' arsenal will be closely watched. It's not yet clear if Jones will be merely a hype-man for green jobs or an actual policy-pusher for agencies, but he reportedly will have a focus on "vulnerable communities."

Championing relief for the vulnerable has been Jones' modus operandi all along. And while he fought for that cause mostly at the local level from 1996 until the founding of his national nonprofit Green for All in 2007, he's made plenty of important national connections along the way. One of his more notable is with the Apollo Alliance, formed after September 11, which brings together some of the best minds and most iron-fisted leadership from the sectors of labor, environmentalism, and government. So while Jones has no significant experience working inside government (and some wonder if he'd effect change stronger from the outside) his Apollo connections with, for one, Kathleen McGinty, former chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, let’s hope, have supplied him with wisdom on surviving Capitol Hill.

But Jones doesn't want to just survive, he wants to be the solution. What will make his task even harder is the expansion of the unemployed population to the tune of five million turned jobless in the last year and 12.5 million without work overall. Minority unemployment rates, meanwhile, have hit historic highs: the unemployment rate for black men is a hair shy of 15 percent, while the Hispanic unemployment rate overall is 10.9 percent. Jones' advocacy has always been about providing jobs for minorities as priority No. 1. But can Jones make the case that investing in America's neglected will solve the country's economic crisis?

Jones' faithful are many. "We here at [American Federation of Teachers, AFL-CIO] have tremendous respect for Van Jones," Daryl Alexander, program director for AFT health and safety, told the Prospect. "Obviously he is one of the most qualified candidates for the job. He is as much a listener as he is an advocate, and I believe that he would work well with those of us in the health and safety community to ensure that green jobs are safe jobs."

The new role as green-jobs czar will test his ability to allocate resources that will meet the needs of both the historically and the newly jobless. If Jones is to be effective in this role, here's what he'll need to do:

Define "green jobs"
If the White House is going to take the lead on creating green jobs, it will have to establish sound criteria for how government funds are allocated. Right now, a "clean coal" company can argue it has green jobs and likely will lobby for funds that would be better suited for a vertical organic-farming business.

"In my research, claims for green jobs have been thrown around too casually and nonchalantly, and we find that these jobs are either adding pollution to the environment or adding risk to its workers," said David Pellow, a University of Minnesota sociology professor who specializes in environmental justice, racial inequality, and labor studies.

A proper definition of green jobs would exclude positions that produce environmental and labor hazards in the production end, even if the products, such as solar panels, being produced are greener choices for consumers. Also, a comprehensive index of government-certified green jobs will help ensure benefits won't just fall to the usual suspects in wind and solar energy. Majora Carter, founder of Sustainable South Bronx and currently head of her own private green-consulting group, argues that jobs in horticulture should supersede those in renewable energy. "I don't see why [horticulture] is not given the same weight, especially since it's much cheaper," Carter told the Prospect. "It's much lower hanging fruit, but it's not as sexy as building a wind-power plant." Instead of putting all resources in a couple of baskets, Jones should make sure funds are available for a variety of employment opportunities.

Decide who gets priority on these jobs
Should Jones focus first on the five million people who lost their jobs in the recession? Or, does he address the 2.2 million unemployed African Americans and 2.1 million unemployed Hispanic Americans? Granted, many of the new jobless are African Americans and Hispanic Americans, but both of these demographics have long suffered from high unemployment rates. The current white unemployment rate of 6.9 percent is still far lower than the average black unemployment rate of 10 percent during black America's best working era, during the Clinton years.

In deciding which workers have priority, Jones ought to consider the social costs explored in the Economic Policy Institute's brief on black unemployment: "Between 1993 and 2001, the black violent crime rate declined by 60%. Between 1990 and 2004, the black teen pregnancy rate declined by 46%. These improving trends have ended, and it is likely that the worsening economic conditions of African Americans since 2001 have played at least a partial role. ... The negative effects of these trends will hurt the poorest African Americans the most."

Jones also should state in no uncertain terms what percentage of those jobs will be available for unskilled and semi-skilled workers, such as teenagers and the ex-incarcerated, as well as acknowledge the extra training this will entail.

As Carter told the Prospect, "Many of these people have to be taught how to work on a team and be a self-starter, and also how to look at different kinds of jobs while preparing themselves for climbing career ladders."

Stay engaged with all departments, agencies, and Cabinet secretaries
When drafting his charter on green jobs, Jones "has to include the Department of Energy, the Department of the Interior, the Department of Transportation, Education, all of them," says Joseph Romm, senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and editor of climateprogress.org.

Jones will be (presumably) charged with ensuring that a green-jobs policy is on every department's and agency's agenda, and he has to penetrate the turf-protection culture that exists in these entities to do that. But before he can, he will have to come up with a compendium of policy ideas that are both translatable and custom-fitting to each agency's structure. "If you really want to provide millions of green jobs, then somebody in the White House has got to be nagging about this at every agency," Romm said.

Write in strict regulations and oversight
Jones will have to ensure funding is in place to enforce safe, sound green-jobs standards at any company that is accepting federal funds. Taxpayer money cannot go to "subsidizing the destruction of certain communities," as Robert Bullard, head of the Environmental Justice Resource Center in Atlanta, put it.

Inspectors must be dispatched to green jobs sites to make sure wind-turbine manufacturers, for example, aren't over-expending in carbon-intensive cement-production processes or that weatherization companies aren't cutting corners by paying their workers less than living wages. If there is going to be a mandate for jobs for marginalized populations, someone has to ensure that companies are doing that kind of hiring. Kevin Doyle of Green Economy and the New England Clean Energy Council Workforce Development Group told the Prospect, "Green jobs are no different than other jobs, and the green industry is no different than any other industry, and making them different is going to be an uphill battle."

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