Should Van Jones be Inside the White House?

Illustration for article titled Should Van Jones be Inside the White House?

This Earth Day, it's pretty clear that if we humans want to keep chilling on this planet, there’s a lot of work to do. The 9 billion person question: Are the right people dong it? My friend Brentin Mock has write a piece for PARLOUR magazine on Van Jones, newly tapped as a green jobs adviser at the White House Council on Environmental Quality. In it he argues that Van Jones is the new Jay-Z, the successful, popular artist who goes corporate—with mixed results:

The best-selling book Green Collar Economy that Jones wrote is a classic, and is to his repertoire what Reasonable Doubt is to Jay-Z’s. Both opuses signaled both men’s announcement to the world that they’re here and they’re about to take some shit over. Both may have exaggerated their street presence a little too much (Jay-Z could not have done half of the shit he talked about in his rhymes, while for all of Jones’ rap, in the beginning he produced not a single job for those in jail to come to) but still both had some measure of authenticity, if for no other reason than their sheer will to make their self-mythology an eventual reality.

If we use Jay-Z as a gauge for what Jones will do in office, then things don’t look so well for Jones’ future.


Leave the direct analogy with Jay-Z aside for a moment. Should Van Jones be in the White House?

I’ve known Van for a year and a half, and seen him operate in a number of different settings—opining at think tanks, exhorting a teeming mass of youth at Powershift conferences, in a quiet moment at his laptop in a Boston hotel, and, suddenly, in White House briefings. And so I am definitely of two minds about this. Because Van is such a diamond in the rough, it’s natural for the orgy of profiles and paeans to appear, for his new book to fly off the shelves, and for many powerful people to try and coopt his star power for their particular aims.

But there is reason to believe that Jones could have done better by America by staying on his breakneck pace of meetings, media hits, and collar-grabbing community activism. THE ROOT’s  “Green Collar Heroes” aside, there are obviously so few real role models of color who can travel the country and deliver “real talk,” in jazzy sound-bites (see Chad Matlin’s great profile of Jones for more on that) that connect with ordinary people—especially youth—around the urgency of radical energy action and social change. It is so important and will require so many people and so much breaking down of cultural barriers that it’s hard to accept taking Van “off the streets” to wear a suit.

Then again, it’s nice to know that someone who spent the last decade working for prison reform, job creation, civil rights protest and intercultural understanding is now sitting in the very meetings that will direct the future of the nations environmental—and economic—policy.

Cory Booker, mayor of Newark and another tremendous example of smart, savvy, and young black political leadership, spoke at a conference this week about the difference between “time tellers” and “clock-builders.” He said:

Time-tellers are charismatic people who can look up at the sun and tell everybody what times it is—but when they’re gone, we don’t know which way to go. Clock-builders are people who build systems and mechanisms that can operate without the charisma, that can operate no matter who’s at the helm. That’s what we need to do in America, is build better clocks.


What do you think?


Covers the White House and Washington for The Root. Follow her on Twitter.