Merging social justice and the environment

By Dogtown Commoner | Posted at 1:58 am, October 17th, 2007 | Topic: environment, cities, oakland

Thomas Friedman devotes his entire New York Times Op-Ed column on Wednesday to Van Jones of Oakland’s Ella Baker Center:

The Green-Collar Solution

By THOMAS L. FRIEDMAN

Van Jones is a rare bird. He’s a black social activist in Oakland, Calif., and as green an environmentalist as they come. He really gets passionate, and funny, when he talks about what it’s like to be black and green:

“Try this experiment. Go knock on someone’s door in West Oakland, Watts or Newark and say: ‘We gotta really big problem!’ They say: ‘We do? We do?’ ‘Yeah, we gotta really big problem!’ ‘We do? We do?’ ‘Yeah, we gotta save the polar bears! You may not make it out of this neighborhood alive, but we gotta save the polar bears!’ ”

Mr. Jones then just shakes his head. You try that approach on people without jobs who live in neighborhoods where they’ve got a lot better chance of getting killed by a passing shooter than a melting glacier, you’re going to get nowhere — and without bringing America’s underclass into the green movement, it’s going to get nowhere, too.

“We need a different on-ramp” for people from disadvantaged communities, says Mr. Jones. “The leaders of the climate establishment came in through one door and now they want to squeeze everyone through that same door. It’s not going to work. If we want to have a broad-based environmental movement, we need more entry points.”

Mr. Jones, who heads the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights in Oakland, which helps kids avoid jail and secure jobs, has an idea how to change that — a “green-collar” jobs program that focuses on underprivileged youth. I would not underestimate him. Mr. Jones, age 39 and a Yale Law School grad, exudes enough energy to light a few buildings on his own.

The rest can be read here (for free, but registration is required). Most of the column consists of quotations from Jones spelling out his vision of how smart environmental policy can be used to foster economic development in our beleaguered cities. Jones has been getting a lot of attention lately in the environmental and mainstream press for his efforts to reframe the way people think about social justice activism and the environmental movement. It’s nice to see that powerful policy-shapers like Friedman are starting to pay attention.

Jones is one of several young, energetic and charismatic leaders who are reinvigorating and redefining urban environmentalism, among them Majora Carter of Sustainable South Bronx, the winner of a MacArthur Foundation “genius” award who is also mentioned briefly in Friedman’s column. And along with stars like Jones and Carter, there are growing numbers of less prominent activists and citizens who are combining environmentalism with urban activism, the urban agriculture movement being one example. Silly politicians aren’t doing very much these days, so it’s good that others are taking the initiative to deal with some of the problems of Oakland residents.

Environmentalism and urban activism are usually seen as being distinct movements, and even in conflict with each other. Sometimes they can be. Unfortunately, we don’t have the luxury of picking and choosing what problems we are going to address — neither the environment nor the desperate state of large swaths of our cities can be ignored, and these efforts to tackle problems holistically are promising steps in the right direction.