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Green Jobs, Not Jails
Joel Makower, 5 Jun 05

Joel Makower is a widely respected writer and consultant on issues of sustainable business, clean technology and green markets. His essays on environmental business and technology are a regular feature of Sustainability Sundays. Take it away, Joel:

The connection between social inequality and environmental destruction isn’t one made easily by most environmentalists. Sure, they may see a connection between a perceived lack of concern among politicians and corporations about both people and the planet. But that’s usually about it.

Van Jones tells another story. For him, the two are inextricably linked. “Both problems are reaching crisis points,” he writes in the Summer 2005 issue of Yes! magazine. “We act as if they are separate. But they are linked -- economically, politically, and morally. The solutions and strategies for each must, therefore, be one.”

Last week, during the World Environment Day festivities in San Francisco, the Ella Baker Center, the Oakland, Calif.-based nonprofit Jones heads, launched an initiative that attempts to link the two: Reclaim the Future. RTF is envisioned as a think tank and advocacy group representing and empowering ecologically sound, urban entrepreneurs and their local communities. According to the Ella Baker site:

Our goal is to push for public-private-community partnerships endorsing clean, healthy, and economically developed urban environments. The project is devoted to fostering the creation of dignified, clean-energy job opportunities for de-incarcerated individuals and those at risk of encountering the punishment industry.

Or, as Jones puts it: “Green Jobs, Not Jails.”

RTF builds on the work Jones has been doing since the early 1990s. While working as a freshly minted lawyer on an environmental case involving a Chevron refinery located in a poor section of Richmond, Calif., Jones found himself propelled into the worlds of police misconduct and juvenile justice. For him, the links between the worlds of poverty and pollution were clear.

“The way that the world works, these are interlocking problems, and we need a more holistic solution,” he told me recently. “I got tired of just running from outrage to outrage -- trying to get this cop fired, trying to get this jail from being built. We needed to be promoting a positive vision for urban America that deals with both social inequality and environmental degradation.”

The connection between environmentalism and civil rights hasn’t been made by most activists, with good reason, he says: “Right now, our movements are divided from each other. It’s not that the people who engage in the green business wave hate people who are in prison -- they just don’t know anybody who’s in prison. And it’s not that people who are working in urban America who are concerned about kids being unjustly arrested hate clean air and water. It just hasn’t been put forward as an issue that speaks directly to them often enough or powerfully enough.

“The reality is that there’s a big common ground between the folks who are concerned about environmental causes and social causes. It has to do with having a gut sense that we shouldn’t have any throwaway children, throwaway neighborhoods, throwaway species, throwaway nations, or throwaway continents.”

I reminded Van that the day after the November election last year, I heard him talk about the progressive movement’s emerging “four-wheeled vehicle,” comprising labor unions, civil rights activists, environmentalists, and progressive business owners and investors. Together, he said in November, a partnership among those four could reverse political trends and catalyze a progressive agenda. Why, I asked, haven’t we heard much about that since?

“One problem is that everyone speaks a different language, so it’s literally a house of Babel whenever you put progressives in the same room from those four worlds,” he responded. “Labor has it’s own way of doing things, the business world is entirely different, the environmental activists have their own language. When [environmentalists] say ‘organizing’ they mean totally something completely different from the civil rights people. When we talk about organizing, we talk about going door to door in our own neighborhoods. When environmentalists talk about organizing, they’re talking about sending in 100 canvassers to cover the state. So, even that one word doesn’t mean the same thing. And it takes you three meetings to even figure that out.”

Jones believes Reclaim the Future can be a positive force for supplanting confusion with cohesion. For example, he explains, “You have a lot of people who are doing research on urban economic development. They don’t necessarily have a deep green perspective. You have people who have a deep green perspective, but don’t know much about the reality of urban life.”

To begin, RTF’s goal is to catalyze a success story, partnering with one or more groups that work to employ urban youth, or formerly homeless or incarcerated people, and to connect them with progressive green businesses -- clean-technology companies, recycling operations, and the like. In other words, moving people from jail cells to solar cells.

The larger goal is to build on those successes -- “evangelize the hell out of them,” says Jones -- in other cities and statehouses, and to forge a larger network of allied initiatives around the country. “We want to create a demonstration project that gives us the opportunity to go out and build the political constituency that can multiply that by a thousand-fold,” he says.

For Jones, the essence of RTF can be found in its slogan, Green Jobs, Not Jail. “In those four words you’re talking about the environment, the economy, and the criminal justice system,” he says. “Those are the three main sources of stress for people of color. And you’re saying what you are for and not just what you’re against. That, for us, is a real breakthrough. And it will take a while before our capacity and even our understanding will catch up with that vision.”

Having a vision of a positive future will no doubt be a potent force in helping Reclaim the Future transform minds and forge powerful partnerships. That compelling vision of what's possible has been missing from much of the discourse and platforms of both the environmental and civil rights communities.

Says Jones: “One thing I’ve been saying a lot lately is that Dr. King didn’t get famous with a speech called ‘I Have a Complaint.’ At some point, we have to say what we’re for.”

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I like the scope of their vision. Best of luck to them!

Posted by: Joseph Willemssen on 5 Jun 05

This sort of holistic approach to solving many problems at once really reminds me of the book “Ecotopia”. Anyone who is interested in this sort of thing should definitely check that out. I just read it about a month ago for the first time and it now figures into my thinking just about every day!

You know you’re on to something when you take steps to solve one problem, and many more are solved as well.

Jason Trout

Posted by: Jason Trout on 5 Jun 05

~Excellent. Precisely what is needed at this point in the cultural renaissance resurfacing once again in the west. The weaving together of specialized strands of activism is vital to consolidating our power.
~I have started a related initiative which seeks to deal with ECO-nomic & social justice issues. Holistic Affordable Housing is an attempt to provide low-cost, accessible, eco-condos & apartments in the city.
~By growing our own food, generating our own electricity & sharing resources, we will create greater autonomy & community connectednedness & by lowering the cost of living, we reduce family & societal disintegration, improving personal & planetary health.
~Please contact me about speakers who could pass thru my neck o' the woods
(I.U./Bloomington, IN.) & see my website 4 further info about the green projex.

Mylo Roze, founder~H!A!H!,

Posted by: Mylo Roze on 6 Jun 05

One of the ideas that crossed my mind a while back was a training program that taught entrepreneurship and the basics of retrofitting for energy conservation. It seemed a business that could be run economically by one to four people, had relatively low startup costs, and fulfilled a need both for energy cost savings, sound shelter and community restoration.

I'm very heartened to hear other people are thinking along these lines.

Also here in the Bronx we've got an impressive guy named Omar Freilla - a great speaker by the way!

Here's some more information:

Posted by: EAM on 6 Jun 05

I'm glad to see that Van got the UNEP to incorporate a social equity track into the UNWED--congratulations to Van and the EBC. I took a great tour of the West Oakland Environmental Victories on Weds that was co-sponsored by the EBC.

I publish the Social Enterprise Reporter, an online biz journal for nonprofit entrepreneurs, and certainly hope to catalyze the success stories of social purpose businesses and evangelize the hell out them too!

Here's a recent example from the SER site Also check out the National Transitional Jobs Network at

Posted by: Tom White on 6 Jun 05



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