THE BLOG

Hey Van, It's Nancy Polosky on the Phone...

08/15/2007 07:24 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

On Saturday August 4th, the House passed the Clean Energy Bill. Contained in that bill was the Green Jobs Act of 2007: $125 million dollars to train 35,000 people a year in Green collar jobs.

No cadre of lobbyists was on the payroll to achieve this. No expensive advertising campaign was mounted to "raise awareness" and pressure the leadership to do the right thing. What we did have was a prayer, and Van Jones.

For those of you who don't know Van, he is president of The Ella Baker Center for Human Rights. The Center's Books not Bars program is dedicated to shutting down California's Youth prisons and instead, housing juvenile offenders in smaller community-based facilities that focus on education and treatment.

In 2003 the Center's campaign helped block the construction of a costly and controversial "Super-Jail For Youth" near Oakland. Since that victory, Books Not Bars has helped reduce California's overall youth prison population by more than 30 percent.

In the aftermath of 2005's Hurricane Katrina, Van helped to found ColorOfChange.org, an online advocacy organization. With more than 100,000 members, Color Of Change is now the nation's biggest e-advocacy organization tackling Black issues.

A few days after the Energy Bill passed, I received an email from Van with the word EGO in the subject line. The email was a long apology for, in his words "getting a little carried away with the self-praise..." over the bill's passage. He went on to say "We have fought so long, been whupped so often and won so rarely, all these years. Now we are finally enjoying some successes, and I guess I just don't know how to act. :)"

I thought a few things as I read this email: First, it made me laugh -- not just because I didn't believe that Van had anything to apologize for, but because it reminded me that "our side" is so unaccustomed to success we aren't quite sure what the etiquette is for jumping for joy. I was also filled with pride for my friend who, like so many others I know and continue to have the privilege to meet, is committed to changing this country and often has to work so hard and for so long toward goals that seem so distant. The last thing I felt when reading Van's retraction of his "bragging" was the part of it that is unique to him and the way he views his work and his place in the progressive movement; he always thinks he's blown it, missed the opportunity, but he seldom does.

I have often wondered about this quality he has. The cynic in me used to think that this was some kind of false modesty -- since I had trouble believing that anyone as gifted, passionate and -- let's be completely honest here -- GORGEOUS as Van could also carry with him such palpable fear of failure and be that self-effacing. I have grown so accustomed -- having been born and raised in Los Angeles -- to people trying on personas (often in front of a 3-way mirror) to find one that works, that I rarely trust this kind of almost old-fashioned self -consciousness (in the positive sense of the phrase).

But then I had the privilege to listen to Van tell his story last weekend at the Ions conference in Palm Springs -- from the beginning. I have known Van for several years but have never heard him start from the beginning and tell the story of how he traveled to where he is today. And like the great Tim O'Brien book The Things They Carried, the painfully beautiful introspective look at Viet Nam through the examination and meaning of the things a soldier "humps" on his back -- I began to understand where Van comes by his awareness of his strange and complicated relationship to his successes and to his place in the world. Like Tim O'Brien's meditations -- on war and memory, on darkness and light -- as he examines the value and the meaning of the tangibles -- the weapons and good-luck charms carried by U.S. soldiers in Vietnam and the intangibles -- the emotional baggage, grief, terror love, longing and memories, Van, too, seems to carry with him his deep ties to rural Tennessee where he was born...and an even deeper sense of genuine humility in the face of the mountains he has chosen to climb in his life.

Van begins his story by saying that he is a "2nd hand affirmative action recipient." It is his sister, he tells us that has the brains in his family and was the one that all the universities wanted. She received a scholarship to college and insisted that they admit her brother instead. Van stands in the middle of the stage and openly cries at the memory of this moment -- both grateful and seeming to think he didn't entirely deserve it. And as he continues to speak he doesn't wipe his tears away; he talks with his tears and through them and maybe even because of them...

After his undergraduate work he decided that he wanted to go to Yale Law School. But the first time he took the entrance exam he, well, blew it. As he puts it, he then lived his own academic Rocky, studying from six in the morning till after dark to master the material in the test. When the day to take the test again arrived he was terrified that he would fail again. Crying in a bathroom stall before the test he prayed: "God, if you just let me go to law school, any law school, I promise when I get out I will do something to help somebody..."

Van passed the test and placed in the 96th percentile and went to Yale law school.

While there Van discovered how he would fulfill that promise to God he made in that bathroom stall. New Haven is a study in opposites. It is a place where from a single vantage point you can see the elegant and toney Yale campus to one side and the housing projects on the other. Van was struck by how much drug use was going on in both worlds. The difference was that with the Yale students people referred to them as "experimenting" with drugs and they would be sent to rehab or to "study abroad" to help them kick this nasty habit, while the kids from the projects were just called drug addicts and sent to prison. He knew then that he had to do something...

"Hello my name is Van Jones. I work at the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights and we help keep kids out of prison and find jobs"... This is how Van introduced himself at a meeting convened by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi several months ago. A meeting he almost didn't make because one of the interns in his office had taken several messages from one Nancy Polosky -- and Van couldn't figure out who this could be and had not yet gotten around to returning the call.

As the others sitting around the conference table began to introduce themselves, each of them -- despite being told to be brief -- talked at some length about who they were and what they had accomplished. Van sat there realizing that he had blown it: the meeting was coming to an end as the last person was "introducing" themselves and Van became painfully aware that the introductions was the meeting. And then he saw that someone on Pelosi's staff was taking copious notes as each person spoke and that his name had no notes next to it because he hadn't really said anything.

At the end of the meeting the Speaker asked, perfunctorily, if anyone had questions. Van decided that this was his second chance and raised his hand. Pelosi turned toward him with a stiff smile and he said, "I want you to say these four words and I want you to repeat them several times..." The room went quiet. "CLEAN. ENERGY. JOBS. BILL. Repeat after me. CLEAN. ENERGY. JOBS. BILL." This got everyone's attention, so Van went on. "We need more fairgrounds than funerals. No one has told these kids in Oakland, 'I've got a Nation to retrofit and I want to put the tools in your hands...'" At this point you could hear a pin drop. And then the interns and staff in the room -- the ones standing because there was no seat for them at the table -- began to applaud. And Nancy Pelosi looked at Van and said: "CLEAN. ENERGY. JOBS. BILL."

As I sit and listen to Van tell this story I have tears streaming down my face and I am thinking that it is a shame we live in a culture where hyperbole is used so promiscuously that when someone truly is great, truly does possess the kinds of qualities that can change a country -- you feel stupid adding to the meaningless cacophony of superlatives. I try to save mine up like rabbits feet or lucky coins or the messages my daughter leaves for me on my cell phone telling me she loves me. But I felt like spending them all in that moment; Van's power and passion arise out of his own struggle. Like most great leaders the road he has traveled mirrors the potential journey of so many people -- both people of poverty and of privilege -- who are aware of the things they carry. In that moment in Nancy Pelosi's office, Van brought New Haven and Oakland together -- just like he promised God he would in that bathroom stall.

What Van Jones did in that moment with those 4 words was the culmination of the history of his life so far. And at only 38 years old we can all thank God or Van's mother and most of all his sister, for giving us Van Jones. For giving us someone who can bring together issues of race, poverty, economic and social justice and the environment in service of lifting us all up.

At the end of his speech in Palm Springs the room erupted in applause and many voices called out "Van Jones for president!"

Van stopped and looked out at the crowd and said "What have I done to make you so angry that you would wish that on me?"

Hey Van, you might have to rethink that one....

In the meantime, please visit ellabakercenter.org for more on Van Jones and the Center's work.