Why Van Jones is Going to Washington

04/11/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Van Jones, founder and head of Green for All and a YES! magazine contributing editor, is joining the Obama administration as a special advisor on green jobs.

At YES!, we were a bit startled when the rumors started to fly about this appointment. We had just gone to press with the Spring issue of YES! which included an interview I did with Van shortly after the election; in that interview, he actually laughed out loud when I asked him if he would join the Obama administration.

"No, no!" he assured me. "Even though we have a great president, we also need a great popular movement to support that president. ... We've got a lot of work to do out in these communities, and that's what I plan to do."

So why did Van Jones change his mind and accept this appointment?

It took three requests from the Obama administration to get him to agree, his colleague Alli Chagi-Starr told me this week. On Tuesday, the day the announcement became official, YES! managing editor Doug Pibel interviewed Van Jones about what had changed his mind. Excerpts from the interview follow. The full interview, plus his earlier interview in which he assured me he would not be going to Washington, can be found here.

Doug: The last time YES! readers heard from you was in an interview right after the election. In that interview you said that you had no intention of going to work for the Obama administration. What changed your mind?

Van: Not only did I say I had no intention of going, when they asked the question, I burst out laughing because at the time it seemed completely ludicrous that it would even be an option.

I think what changed my mind was interacting with the administration during the transition process and during the whole process of getting the recovery package pulled together. I began to see that there was an important role at the table, inside the process, to do make sure all the great things the president wants to do can get done well.

Doug: In your November interview, you pointed to the experience of Nelson Mandela and the ANC as a cautionary tale for movement people thinking about going into government. Why is your situation different?

Van: I think that certainly is a big cautionary tale. When Nelson Mandela came out and the ANC took over, people left the townships and went into parliament and the movement politics and the township politics really suffered. I think that it had a negative impact. You know, the overwhelming rush from the townships into parliament, I think had a negative impact on the ability of the ANC to govern well.

The reality is that the grassroots movement in this country is not shrinking, it's expanding. People got a taste of engagement. People are actually looking for new ways to get involved--the Obama organization is still active, Green for All is growing, and other organizations are growing.

So my initial concerns--again, this is before Obama was even sworn in--that we would stop, that somehow the grassroots movement would stop--those concerns are not strong for me. 70,000 people were marching in New York City last week. 12,000 students went to the Power Shift conference, there was a major civil disobedience action--or planned civil disobedience action--that resulted in a huge change. You know, there's all kinds of great stuff that's happening across the country, so I'm not as concerned about the grassroots movements sputtering out. And that also creates more options.

Doug: While you're in DC, what can folks who have been following Green for All and working with you or on your initiatives, what can folks do to keep the movement going?

Van: Continue doing the things we have planned. We're working to implement the green recovery in a just way. We need to get those recovery dollars out fast and fair. Anybody who's interested can got to the website and you'll see lots of opportunities to get involved and also lots of information about how to get those recovery dollars working in your own community. And that's going to be an important part of what Green for All does going forward.

Doug: You have two young sons. How does your family feel about moving across the country?

Van: They're on board. They're excited. It's always a big effort, but they're excited, and I'm excited too. I appreciate the opportunity to talk with you. YES! Magazine has played such a huge role in my life. In fact the essay that I wrote right after the 2004 election about how we were going to rise again actually was one of my first commentaries on national politics. I'd always focused on local stuff. And that actually started, in some ways, this whole journey toward my having a more national role. So I wanted to make sure--I'm not giving a lot of interviews--but I wanted to make sure that, since you guys were running an interview that I'd just given you, and the facts had changed, I just wanted to make sure that you had the information that you needed to be current and fair to your readers and to your listeners, and I appreciate the opportunity.

Doug Pibel is YES! managing editor. You can find video, audio, and more from Van Jones here.