Tonight’s NAACP Image Awards telecast isn’t just about recognizing black Hollywood. The group is giving its President’s Award to Van Jones, the erstwhile national “green jobs czar” who was forced out of the Obama administration last year after he became a lightning rod for right-wing ire.
Jones, 41, may be “the most misunderstood man in America,” said NAACP president Benjamin Jealous in an op-ed released to media outlets earlier this week. In it, Jealous cited Jones’ instrumental role in passing the 2007 Green Jobs Act, and his help initiating the Oakland Green Jobs Corp. targeting low-income Californians.
“The real Van Jones story is about how a young leader became the father of the green jobs movement …. Far from the divisive caricature painted by some cable news outlets, Van has been one of America's most effective and inspiring bridge-builders.” Jealous also said.
For Jones, getting the award is the latest step that he has taken to kick off the next phase of his career. “I am looking forward to reintroducing myself to the American people and that’s exciting to have that opportunity,” he told The Root in an exclusive interview. Another step will be leading the Green Opportunity Initiative for the Center for American Progress. He’ll also be a distinguished visiting fellow at Princeton University's Center for African American Studies at its Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.
The world will find that although Van Jones is looking for a second chance at public service, he’ll vehemently defend his record to date against all comers. Here’s what he told The Root on the eve of accepting the NAACP President’s Award:
The Root: How do you feel about the honor?
Van Jones: It’s a big deal for me. It’s a lot to live up to, given that Muhammad Ali and Bill Clinton got this award, so I see it as a challenge to live up to.
TR: When Ben Jealous says you “may be the most misunderstood man in America,” what comes to mind?
VJ: Well, anytime you apply a superlative to yourself, you’re probably off the mark … I am looking forward to reintroducing myself to the American people and that’s exciting to have that opportunity. The whole country is built on second chances and comebacks, and all that, so I’m proud to have a chance to do that going forward.
TR: The NAACP Image Award represents support from a leading voice in the black community. Have you felt supported by the black community in this transitional year?
VJ: I felt support from many directions. Certainly, in the African-American community, Rev. Jesse Jackson called my mother after I resigned and prayed with her on the phone. I also found the mainstream environmental community was very, very concerned and supportive. Also labor. I got a lot of people calling me, wanting to know what they should do. It was very overwhelming. Business leaders, labor leaders, civil rights leaders, environmentalists, elected officials, icons from across the American spectrum and that helped a lot.
TR: What would you say to people who criticize the NAACP for giving you this award?
VJ: First, I would say that in a time when we have double-digit unemployment and China is leapfrogging over us in creating the clean energy jobs of tomorrow, and we have all this wacky weather due to climate disruption, then honoring someone who’s made real progress trying to solve all three problems makes sense. I’ve actually made real progress on stuff that’s important to black Americans and all Americans.
Second, I would say that the fact of the award may be a signal that there may be more to the story that they haven’t heard yet, and it might be an invitation to inquire more deeply about the kind of coalitions that I’ve built and the passion that I have for our nation and for making America stronger.
I am probably the biggest champion for free-market solutions, at this point in my life, where I’ve evolved to over the past decade. I was probably the biggest champion for free-market solutions to the questions of poverty, energy and the environment. I’ve been one of the loudest champions for American jobs and American politics. I’ve been called the green Jack Kemp over my passion for innovation and market-based solutions for these problems for poor people and for all Americans. That may surprise people, some of these achievements.
If you look at what I’ve actually been fighting for, I have a best-selling book that lays out exactly what the agenda is. I wrote the definitive book on green jobs, got the first [green jobs] legislation passed, got the first global accord passed through the United Nations. I’ve initiated a pretty important global conversation. If you look at what I’m saying, progressives and conservatives should applaud my work because I’m focusing on low-income people and the environment.
And I’m not calling for more welfare; I’m calling for more work. I’m not calling for more entitlement programs; I’m calling for enterprise. I’m not calling for redistributing wealth; I’m calling for reinvigorating our energy sector and creating new wealth, so I would say to people who might be surprised about the [NAACP] award to see if there’s more to story. I think when people see what I’ve actually done, the red states, the blue states, will be supportive of the agenda.
TR: What are the biggest challenges you see to getting the message to black people that the green jobs movement affects them?
VJ: I think people need to see concrete results. When their cousin or auntie has a green job, it’s not going to be so academic. I think the next step is to move aggressively from inspiration to implementation.
TR: What are you planning to say when you receive the NAACP President's Award?
VJ: Where’s Beyoncé?
Sheryl Huggins Salomon is deputy editor of The Root.
Sheryl Huggins Salomon is senior editor-at-large of The Root and a Brooklyn, N.Y.-based editorial consultant. Follow her on Twitter.