November 3, 2013

Van Jones is the founder of the Rebuild the Dream advocacy group and author of a best-selling book by the same title, co-host of CNN’s Crossfire, and former special advisor for green jobs to president Barack Obama. Jones will be the keynote speaker at Leadership Newark’s public policy summit “Rebuilding the Dream that is Newark“, which takes place this coming Saturday, November 2, at Rutgers Newark. We spoke earlier this week about how Newark and cities like it can take advantage of green jobs and the tech economy. Here are excerpts from our conversation.

Newark isn’t an island, and a lot of the issues facing Newark are macro ones facing the entire country. How do we think of locally sourced and implemented solutions to those problems that also respect the broader context we have to contend with?

One of the things I’ve been stressing recently is that in any of our lower income communities, there’s a lot of hidden genius. If our kids were growing up in Bangladesh or India or China, they’d be very clear that we’d be doing computer coding. We haven’t been doing that in black communities. We tend to focus more on our traditional employment strategies: public sector, teaching, law degree. But the advanced degree of the new century is the MBA, not the JD. Rather than focusing so much on the humanities, we should be focusing more on math and science.

Environmental issues disproportionately affect black communities. How can we get them more on board with the environmental movement?

It’s actually a stereotype that African Americans are behind the curve. When you look at the polling data, we’re ahead of the curve. There’s now a huge section of white Americans who reject climate science and basic common sense on the environment. But if you ask African Americans, 86% would support Obama taking on climate change.

Second, we have a number of other issues we need to contend with. We need more work, more wealth, and more health.

And part of it is just continuing to create demonstrations of what the issue is about. African Americans don’t use the word “green”. We tend to say “natural”. We tend to say “healthy”. We ask questions like, “How do we eat more natural food, more healthy food?” We don’t say we want an “eco-friendly” diet. African Americans are becoming more health conscious, if nothing else because of the first lady promoting gardening, better food, and fitness. All those are quote unquote “green solutions”.

So if you take the labels away and just look at the behavior, we are very conscious and supportive of environmental initiatives. Conversations from the first lady about food have real resonance. Concerns about asthma, which is tied to pollution and indoor air quality, also have real resonance.

And how do we make the connection between environmentalism and work, wealth, and health more obvious?

We need to recognize where progress is happening. In fact, despite what we were talking about earlier, it’s probably locally where we’ll have more progress, because Washington, D.C. is so crippled by infighting and the Tea Party. Community gardening, weatherization programs, or public utility companies trying to do more wind and solar, all create more work, wealth, and health for communities.

There’s a lot happening in the economy that we need to pay attention to that’s positive, like the revolution in 3D manufacturing, where you can make stuff on your desktop that you use to have a factory for. What can that do for entrepreneurs who are creative in Newark?

In terms of an economic and jobs agenda, what areas should cities like Newark be investing in?

Computer programming is like a global mathematical language. I don’t know how to do computer coding, but I want to make sure our children do, because if you’re coding literate you can build our own companies. Coding, 3D manufacturing, robotics — that is the future. I’m working with a group teaching robotics in Africa because advanced manufacturing is the future: a robot will either put you out of job, or you can design the robot and have a job.

You don’t need the federal government, a march, or a protest to get that done. We need to just look at information available online, and make sure our children are connected to it. A lot is happening all around that we’re just not paying attention to.

I think that our community has been stuck in a politics of nostalgia and lament, looking backwards with grief over slavery and segregation, or at best a politics of critique of present disparities. This long list of stuff we don’t have. But Dr. King said, “I have a dream,” not “I have a lament.” What we don’t have is a politics of the black future. What is the black future and the urban future we’re trying to create?

Authored by:

is a graduate of Columbia University Journalism School, and the former director of content marketing at Bitly. She is the 2012 recipient of the Erik Lars-Nelson prize for excellence in reporting and writing. Andaiye is a Newark native, Newark resident, and the show runner at Email her at, and follower her on Twitter @andaiye.