Q and A

Grassroots beginnings
Image: courtesy van jones publicity

The environmental and civil rights activist will speak at a “pop-up” dinner.

In March 2009, Van Jones was appointed by President Barack Obama to the newly created position of Special Advisor for Green Jobs at the White House Council on Environmental Quality. Since stepping down in 2009 amidst some controversy, Jones has reemerged as a champion of the middle class. On March 20, Faith Action for Community Equity (FACE), Kanu, Rebuild the Dream, UNITE HERE Local 5, Blue Planet, Sierra Club, Surfrider and UH will cohost a Rebuild the Dream dinner event at the State Capitol featuring Jones, slam poet Kealoha and musicians Jive Nene and Kupa’aina.

What can we do to grow the availability of green jobs in Hawaii?

At the local level, there are many things that can be done. There is a solar tax credit in Hawaii that is in danger of expiring, which would knock out a lot of jobs here Just having that tax credit on the books is keeping a lot of people working and helping Hawaii–which has such incredibly high energy costs–enjoy some cost savings over the long term. You definitely don’t want to go backwards by letting that solar tax credit elapse.

Can you talk a bit about Rebuild the Dream, what you aim to accomplish?

The basic idea is to try to save the middle class in America and tap into the middle class for people who aren’t there yet. It used to be when you talked about someone being poor you knew exactly the kind of person that came to mind. You would think about maybe someone from Appalachia or maybe someone from the inner city. Now you have people who used to be firmly in the middle class who have fallen into poverty. It’s not just the poor that have to worry about poverty, the middle class is shrinking and being demolished. So what organization exists for folks like that? Rebuild the Dream is an organization to give a home to the people who engage in the new economic fights in America–the long term unemployed, homeowners, students graduating with tons of debt, public employees being downsized–and giving them a chance to fight back.

Sounds similar to Occupy Wall Street. How long have you been doing Rebuild the Dream?

We launched it in June of 2011 and then in September of 2011 the Occupy Wall Street movement started. There are a lot of similarities in the concerns about the economy and the themes. Of course we have more of a legislative focus, while they have more of a direct-action protest focus. But we admire their spirit and desire to see the economy work for everybody.

What is it about Hawaii’s state-run bank proposal that appeals to Rebuild the Dream?

You have a state bank proposal which is very interesting to people across the county who are looking at how can you have some of the money that is in every state and community stick around a little bit longer and create more jobs and help more people as opposed to just zipping out into the coffers of the big global corporations–the big global banks that may not care as much about Hawaii. A state bank is going to be looking very closely at opportunities to invest in Hawaii that a global bank may overlook. I think that if it can happen in Hawaii it can start to happen in other states. One of the big problems that we have is not enough capitol flowing at the local level. One of the reasons I’m coming out to Hawaii is because I’m very interested in learning from the legislators and community people who have come up with this innovative and interesting proposal.

It seems so boring. It’s like, who cares if a bank is a state bank or a big, global corporate bank? The thing is a big global corporate bank will get money from people in Hawaii and then look at the whole globe as to where they may make their next loan. They’ve got the whole world to play with. That state bank is going to be looking a lot closer to home. You can create this situation where one dollar in Hawaii ’s economy could literally just walk all around the island going in and out of the revolving door of that state bank and feed, clothe and house a lot of people. Or that same dollar could just go zipping out to some big corporate bank and end up on the other side of the world.

You been known mostly for your environmental activism as White House Advisor on Green Jobs. Rebuild the Dream seems to be a lot more politically broad in nature. Why the change in focus?

When I started working on Green Jobs 10 years ago, we had a functioning economy. So you could think about maintaining the economy that we had and then adding on a new section of green jobs. Obviously, in the past three or four years the economy has collapsed across the board. Even if we could implement every green job I could design in my mind, we probably would only (create) three to four million jobs. Then we would be close to 10 million jobs short in America , because people are out of work. I’m still focused on green jobs, but I think we have to get the whole economy going–and also add as many green jobs as we can.

In the future, do you see yourself pursuing any sort of elected official career in politics?

People ask me that a lot (but) I’ve seen that job up close. God bless anybody who wants to run for office. I think my job is to make it possible for thousands of people to run for office based on good ideas that will uplift ordinary people. That’s what I’m focused on. Running for office has no appeal to me, it never has. I worked at the grassroots level and the policy level for a very long time before my six months in the White House, which I loved and enjoyed, but I’m in the right role for me now.