Interview with Van Jones: Rebuilding the Dream in Detroit, Part 1

Posted by Tom White on May 08, 2014
Interview with Van Jones: Rebuilding the Dream in Detroit, Part 1

Van Jones delivered the opening plenary keynote speech for ACI's 2014 National Home Performance Conference in Detroit last week.  I've been aware of Van's work since he started the Green Collar Job Corps program at the Ella Baker Center in Oakland, Calif., back in 2007.  Van was the main advocate for the Green Jobs Act that was signed into law by Pres. George W. Bush in that year. 

Under the Obama administration, green job training became a key component of the Recovery Act, aka the Stimulus bill.  That bill funded a historic ramp up in weatherization programs and other energy-efficiency programs. It was fitting that Van spoke at this year's ACI conference in Detroit.  It's a city that has been on the front lines of the subprime mortgage and foreclosure crisis that precipitated the Great Recession of 2009.  As local author/reporter Charlie LeDuff wrote in his book, Detroit: An American Autopsy, "Detroit is America’s city. It was the vanguard of our way up, just as it is the vanguard of our way down. And one hopes the vanguard of our way up again.”

[I'll post this inteview with Van in three consecutive blog posts.  We plan to publish the entire interview in an article in Home Energy magazine.]

April 30, 2014, Detroit, Michigan--I’m here with Van Jones, who was a special advisor for green jobs at the Obama White House. Van is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, a senior policy advisor for Green For All, and a host on CNN’s Crossfire. He’s also the author of two New York Times best sellers: The Green Collar Economy and Rebuild the Dream.

We’re here at the Affordable Comfort 2014 National Home Performance Conference in Detroit, where we’re also speaking with Jim Gunshinan, editor of Home Energy magazine. Thank you, Van, for joining us here in Detroit, and thanks for the great keynote speech you gave this morning.

You made some points in your speech about how the home performance industry can come together to be a potential game changer in 2014 and maybe 2016. Can you talk a little more about the points you made today?

VJ: I think that right now the whole country is talking about the job crisis and income inequality. Home performance is a field that can actually create a million jobs without risking or spending a whole bunch of government money. Bill Clinton was talking about a $15 million loan guarantee fund to back up what contractors and other people want to do. We’ve got $50 billion of economic activity to create a million jobs, and that’s just one idea in this space; there are many, many others.

I think that it’s important that people understand there are some simple things that can be done that will save people a ton of money, that can create a ton of work, help the environment, help the planet, and more importantly, begin to rebuild part of what we used to call the middle class. And you have got the midterm elections coming up—this should be front and center for both parties. They should be chasing each other down the street saying, “Which one of us is going to do the most work to get the savings and the most jobs in this field?” If we don’t do that, it’s really nobody’s fault but our own.

TW: You’ve worked with a variety of organizations and different coalitions. You’ve also been a coalition builder. Do you have any tips for the folks here at ACI on how we can further our own coalition building?

VJ: You know, it’s so interesting: Solidarity is a term that is almost never used anymore, but it’s a term that built the middle class. You talk about the labor movement, civil rights, women’s rights; you talk about all these movements—the key concept was solidarity. Solidarity is a two-way street: I stand for you and you stand for me. So often we find ourselves, not just in this particular work but across the board, trying to make things better. We talk “kumbaya,” we talk “we’re all in it together,” yet we act very individualistically. I think frankly we have a lot to learn from the Tea Party. The Tea Party talks rugged individualism, but acts collectively. Often, progressives—not that everyone who is reading Home Energy magazine is a progressive—often progressives like myself talk solidarity and “let’s all cooperate,” but we act very individualistically.

The most important thing that holds a coalition together is when you’re actually making a case for the other person’s interest. That’s the key factor. If the only thing in the coalition meeting is what my group needs, that’s not a coalition—that’s a fistfight. I need to be talking about what your group needs and try to make sure that your group gets its needs met, and trust that you’re also going to talk about mine. You lead by example and by doing that. These are the principles that built the labor movement, that won civil and women’s rights, and they’re just as relevant now in the new century.

It’s the lack of solidarity among all these different energy efficiency and home performance improvers, HVAC people—the lack of solidarity that means most of us are losing out. A few simple rule changes and everybody would have more customers.

TW: Can you talk a little more about the work you’ve done on the Rebuild the Dream Innovation Fund and how you’re bringing people together with different views on jobs and student debt? These issues affect household formation in America and people’s ability to be homeowners, which is something that you emphasized is so important for the middle class.

VJ: Rebuild the Dream is three years old, and we have about a half a million members online. We’re in every congressional district, and we are fighting to save the American middle class. And part of that is to try to put money in people’s pockets through job creation, things like energy efficiency and computer literacy and other things that help people get jobs. But we’re also fighting to keep nefarious forces from taking money out of people’s pockets. Because that’s the other thing that’s going on: you have mortgages that are high, student loan debt that’s too high. When we bailed out the Wall Street guys, we should have been doing that to help young people, and others who want an education, get some relief; people who want to stay in their homes get some relief, and we haven’t done that.

Rebuild the Dream has led a couple of big campaigns, one of which saved indebted students $6 billion about a year and half ago, by preventing the interest rate from going up on those [student] loans. We can’t take all the credit, but we’ll take our fair share of it. Those are the kinds of fights that we need to get involved in, but this home mortgage mess, which we’re still dealing with the aftershocks of, should have been resolved in a way that kept more people in their homes, and gave people the ability to stay in their homes. We should have been bailing out American homeowners and the environment, not just the Wall Street bankers.

TW: One of the focus audiences for Rebuild the Dream is Millennials—getting young people excited about these issues and participating in a green-collar economy. A lot of the guys here at ACI are trying to fill green jobs: crawling in attics and in crawl spaces, doing the dirty work. They may not be putting solar panel on roofs, but it’s really critical to lower carbon emissions and earning a good salary. How can we get Millennials interested in HVAC or weatherization jobs?

VJ: Well, I think that different people have different skills and interests. Some people are making apps that are environmentally related, and that’s their idea of a green job and a green career, and that’s good. Other people are putting up solar panels, gardening, and others are doing energy efficiency—I count all of it. At some point the rubber’s gotta meet the road—we have almost half of our energy being consumed by buildings, and frankly, all the apps and smart phones are plugged into the wall someplace. We‘ve got to think about how to make all those buildings more energy efficient.

People always ask, “How do you get people excited about this or that?” There’s no one size fits all answer. But I think what’s key is when you have good employers who have real opportunities for people to get to work and come home with a paycheck; that’s what’s key. And right now, we don’t have enough policies in place for our employers—there are three people chasing every one job opening in America right now, and more than that in other neighborhoods. In some ways it’s not so much about making a strong sales pitch, but having something to pitch as an employer. I want to create more demand for these [home performance] services so that you have more employers who are doing better, and they’ll figure out a way. I trust them to fill those jobs as they come open.

TW: Green For All has been working on the MPower pilot project in Portland, Oregon. Some aspects of that pilot involve High Road Standards, financing, and assessing cost-effectiveness. Have you been involved recently with Green For All, or do you know more about the High Road Standards or other elements of the MPower pilot in Oregon?

VJ: I just got back on the board of Green For All this past year, getting reacquainted with their great work. I can’t tell you how proud I am of Phaedra Ellis-Lamkins, who just recently stepped down as CEO—she was my successor, she’s brilliant. Green For All has worked in 50 cities and helped to create about 10,000 jobs total over the course of the past five or six years. I can’t comment specifically on the great work that Jeremy Hayes lead for us in Oregon, but it was really innovative and impactful. I’m looking forward to learning more as I get integrated back into the organization.

TW: I’ve been working with the staff at Green For All and their community of practice for residential energy efficiency. Who is the new CEO there?

VJ: Nikki Silvestri. It’s so weird that yesterday we were standing up with Bill Clinton at the 2007 Clinton Global Initiative announcing Green For All. We had this audacious goal to put $1 billion into the green sector to create jobs—that seemed outrageous in 2007. The Green Jobs Act just by itself in the stimulus bill got half a billion dollars just for job training, and in the stimulus bill overall, $80 billion was for different green and clean solutions—whether it was for smart batteries, solar, or energy efficiency, and many, many more.

2007 was seven years ago, but not that long ago in my mind—from announcing that [Green For All initiative] in 2007 to winding up in the White House in 2009. Now here we are in 2014, and my successor [at Green For All] has a successor. It just shows how dynamic this field is, and how it persists as a place where great people want to come and make a contribution, so I’m excited about Nikki Silvestri. She was my assistant when I first started and then she went off and ran her own not-for-profit organization and then came back as the boss, so she’s pretty impressive in her own right.  

[Click here to read Part 2 in this serialized interview.]

Photo credit: Eddy Haber <>

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