Heartland: A Leader Is Born

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image of Van Jones

Van Jones. Even his name has charisma–and it is a name you will be hearing more and more. In his work as a cofounder of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights in Oakland, he has been an effective advocate for changing California’s criminal justice system. But it is his eloquent articulation of a national strategy combining social justice and environmentalism that is bringing him broader attention.

Van was instrumental in promoting the passage of the federal Green Jobs Act of 2007, which authorizes $125 million to train 30,000 people a year in “green-collar” jobs, and he is launching a national campaign to employ 250,000 low-income job seekers. He has been featured in Time magazine and the New York Times, and his ideas have found favor in the Obama, Clinton, and Edwards campaigns.

I first encountered Van seven years ago. We were both going to be at a Social Venture Network conference, and a mutual friend told me I had to meet him. At lunch the first day, I sat across a table from a handsome, quick-witted African American man with a dazzling smile, but I didn’t catch his name. Later that day, I was chatting with Michael Kieschnick, the president of Working Assets, when the man I had met at lunch came in, flanked by two burly white men. He called out, “Michael, you’ve got to help me–they’re taking me away.”

Both Michael and I initially thought he was joking, but it quickly became apparent that he wasn’t. Van, a Yale-educated lawyer, had been out taking a walk and, on account of his dark skin and his lack of a conference name tag, was now being hauled off.

The evening agenda was scrapped in favor of examining the issues raised by Van’s racial profiling. The owner of the conference center apologized and committed to making several organizational changes to address discrimination. Social Venture Network embarked on some serious self-reflection and initiated policies that have since led to a more diverse membership–because, as another African American pointed out that night, change will really happen when dark skin is no longer a novelty in places of power.

Van could have been angry and vindictive after that episode, but he wasn’t. He emanated passion, clarity, and a resolute commitment to truth, and he displayed compassion for the humanness of everyone involved, including the conference center owner and the guards themselves.

In the intervening years, Van has consistently brought those qualities to the fore, whether he’s coaching a young staffer on how to run a more effective meeting or delivering keynote speeches or cavorting on the playground with his son Cabral, who is named after the African freedom fighter Amílcar Cabral.

In every e-mail Van sends, he includes this quote from Amílcar Cabral: “Hide nothing from the masses of our people. Tell no lies. Expose lies whenever they are told. Mask no difficulties, mistakes, failures. Claim no easy victories. . . . Our experience has shown us that in the general framework of daily struggle this battle against ourselves, this struggle against our own weaknesses . . . is the most difficult of all.”

Van has struggled to come to terms with the magnitude of his charisma and leadership skills. He has schooled himself on speeches by people from Gandhi to Reagan and is continually educating himself on a vast array of topics ranging from politics to mythology to pop culture. He says he has never smoked or done drugs or drunk, though he is remarkably candid about his shortcomings and quick to say that just because his demons aren’t in a bottle doesn’t mean that he is a saint. I have never met anyone with a more single-minded dedication to service.

I have also never met anyone who is more adept at gently but relentlessly inspiring others to step up to their own leadership capacities. The Tao Te Ching characterizes leadership this way: “When the true leader leads, the people say, ‘We did it ourselves.’ “

We desperately need leaders with the courage and vulnerability to show us how to struggle against our own weakness, leaders who embody truth and compassion. I participated in a leadership training program with Van in which we were asked to distill our core mission and to deliver it with our full presence. I still get shivers when I recall Van declaring, “I am fire, bringing water.”

For more information, go to www.vanjones.net or www.greenforall.org.

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