What can one person do?
For Van Jones, a civil rights leader, former White House adviser under Barack Obama and current CNN political commentator, the answer is a lot.
On Sunday afternoon in the Anderson Center, Jones spoke to Binghamton University students, faculty and local community members about his career, current issues facing society and what it means to be a patriot.
Born in Jackson, Tennessee, Jones received a law degree from Yale University, but his career quickly turned toward helping those in need. While working on prison reform in Oakland, California, Jones had an “epiphany” regarding what he calls one of the biggest threats to humanity: climate change.
“I realized we could fight poverty and pollution at the same time if we took the people who most needed work and trained them to do the work that most needs to be done,” Jones said. “That epiphany changed my life. You think you can’t do anything, especially when you’re young, but you can always start where you are with what you believe in.”
Jones spearheaded the Oakland Green Jobs Corps, which provided jobs installing solar panels for predominantly poor, minority youths in the area. Jones went on to write his first book about the initiative, “The Green Collar Economy: How One Solution Can Fix Our Two Biggest Problems,” which caught the eye of a certain senator from Illinois.
“This senator with a funny name and kind of big ears read the book,” Jones said. “And he got elected president of the United States, and asked me to come to the White House and run a program based off the book. What can one person do?”
Although Jones is no longer an adviser in the White House, the issue of climate change is still at the forefront of his work. According to Jones, along with nuclear war, climate change is the biggest threat to humanity.
“You are staring down the barrel at both of these possibilities right now,” Jones said. “And if you feel a little bit anxious, or a little bit out of sorts, or if you’ve been finding yourself really frustrated, there’s a reason for that.”
Jones described the United States as being founded on two notions. One was a “nightmare,” which included taking land from Native Americans, exploiting the labor of African Americans and ignoring the rights of women. But it was also founded on a dream, one that is written into our constitution, that all men are created equal. This dream, according to Jones, is something that we have to constantly strive for.
“We are that unlikely, rainbow-colored people, who every generation tries to close the gap between the ugliness of that founding reality and the beauty of that founding dream,” Jones said. “That’s who we are.”
While the possibility of closing that gap might look dismal to those who disagree with the Trump administration, Jones said abandoning the idea is not the course to take.
“What I want to suggest to you is that you should be better patriots,” Jones said. “A lot of times the Liberals and the Progressives don’t claim the mantle of patriotism. It would be nice if you liked America. This is not somebody else’s country, this is not somebody else’s experiment.”
And in order to heal the wounds in society and truly make America great, Jones said one thing is needed.
“Somebody asked me what the philosophical basis is to bring the country together,” Jones said. “I’ll tell you what it is: respect. We can disagree; we’re supposed to disagree, it’s a democracy. But don’t disrespect.”
Following his talk, Jones fielded questions from members of the audience. Topics spanned from sexual assault on college campuses to the legacy of the Obama administration to the plight of Americans, regardless of the color of their skin.
“It’s not a left-wing period or a right-wing period, it’s a turbulent, volatile period, because people are hurt,” Jones said. “People at the bottom are hurt, and hurt people holler.”
Max Maurice, the vice president of programming for the Student Association (SA) and a senior majoring in electrical engineering, said that the SA brought Jones in to offer a unique perspective.
“I wanted it to be more reflective of current events, and I wanted it to be educational in terms of what we can do with civic engagement, in terms of where America stands right now,” Maurice said. “The intent of bringing him here was to open a discussion and see through his eyes, as a pundit of color, where we are politically right now.”
Jones noted that he was close friends with the musician Prince, who died a year ago. In the 1980s, videos by black artists weren’t allowed on MTV, according to Jones. Michael Jackson and Prince became the first to break this barrier, and they did so in a way only they could.
“They tore it down,” Jones said. “They challenged gender, they challenged sexuality, they challenged race and the best part of America is the world that they built. It is extraordinary how much one person can impact the world if they just stand in their own truth.”