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Green jobs will clean up the economy, communities

Attorney Van Jones pushes for a green "New Deal" to revitalize the economy, the environment, and underserved communities.

Van Jones can command a stage. Whispering about pollution in poor neighborhoods, he might bring an audience close to tears. Then he'll pack the next thought with a wicked grin, rocking the room with laughter.

"This is the PowerPoint presentation Al Gore would do if he were black," Jones told several thousand people at the Bioneers conference last month.

The Yale-trained attorney from Tennessee has campaigned against police brutality and youth imprisonment with the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights he co-founded 11 years ago in Oakland, Calif. But his recent push to create a "green-collar" job corps has catapulted Jones to the national stage.

Jones hopes low-income, minority communities will be able to share in the potential fortunes of the emerging clean-tech economy. He's asking the government to help groom people in the hands-on tasks of greening the nation's buildings and outfitting its blighted zones with renewable energy technologies.

Jones pushed for the creation of the Oakland Green Job Corps, which will take $250,000 from California's settlement from the 2001 energy crisis to train several dozen underprivileged workers.

Jones also campaigned for the Green Jobs Act of 2007, which Congress recently passed as part of a massive energy bill. The plan earmarks $25 million to train low-income workers in these so-called green-collar jobs. Now he wants Washington to fund $1 billion in green jobs training. And he's on the board of the Apollo Alliance, which is calling for the creation of 3 million clean-tech jobs by 2015.

The first industrial revolution hurt people and the planet. The second industrial revolution should help the planet and people, too.

Jones recently spoke with CNET News.com about how the clean-tech industry could boost the economy, cut pollution, and restore inner city communities.

Q: What does social justice have to do with green technology, and why should people involved in the clean-tech industry pay attention?
Jones: Fundamentally, we spent a lot of blood, sweat, and tears in the last century trying to integrate solutions for a poison-based economy. Now we're using clean tech to birth a clean and green economy, and I think we should do everything we can to ensure that the green economy has a place for everybody.

When you're talking about bringing new technologies into the world you're talking about new products, new services, new enterprises, new industries. That means new opportunities for job and wealth creation. We need to be very sure we are not replicating the mistakes from the dot-com days when we set ourselves up for a digital divide. We should work very hard to avoid having an ecodivide where we have ecological haves and ecological have-nots.

For instance, when you think about the solar industry, there are opportunities for low-income people and people of color to be involved--from installing the panels on someone's rooftop all the way through being trained to become the inventors of the next leap forward in photovoltaics. We have to make sure we pay attention to those opportunities.

One reason that's really important is that it's very rare that you get a chance to rethink the economy, and that's what's going to happen. The first industrial revolution hurt people and the planet. The second industrial revolution should help the planet and people, too.

How can the Green Jobs Act that has been approved by Congress help to achieve that or get the ball rolling?
Jones: The Green Jobs Act 2007 is just the first step, a small down payment on a much bigger vision. If the president signs it, he'll put enough money to train 35,000 people across the country in green trades. That's very important.

There have got to be people trained to do that work. You have to make sure we have a world-class, green-collar workforce to help our business community meet a world-class challenge. The business community deserves a world-class workforce. The government should be working to put people in the front of the line for the new century's green jobs.

Are there models for something like this in other places?
Jones: Our Green Jobs Corps will start in 2008, inspired by Solar Richmond, which is training underprivileged folks in solar panel installation. It's a great example of a small, relatively cheap program training a couple dozen people at a time to meet a growing demand for solar installers in Northern California.

The good thing about these jobs is you can train people in a relatively efficient way to at least get them in on the ground floor. It's a growing industry. That means in a couple years you go from being a worker to being a manager as they hire more people. Maybe a couple years after that you get to be an owner or contractor yourself.

There's an opportunity here to take a photovoltaic panel and use that not only to push down the amount of carbon in the atmosphere, but also begin to push people up out of poverty. I think it would be very smart for Silicon Valley to think about these technologies as social uplift, job-creating technologies as well as global warming solutions.

And one reason that would be important is the more folks who maybe can't afford to put solar panels on their second home but are nonetheless benefiting from the solar economy, the more the political and cultural support there will be for renewable energy.

It's not a handout here; you're really connecting people who most need work with the work that most needs to get done.

The big challenge now is to make sure that we spread the wealth, work, and health benefits of the green economy as broadly as possible. We don't want just the eco-elite or the eco-chic to benefit from all these clean and green technologies. We want to make sure we're passing laws to help low-income people weatherize their homes, put up solar panels, and create jobs for their low-income neighbors doing that work.

You talk about the Green Jobs Act as a start. It would earmark $125 million and $25 million for at-risk youth and other special populations. That seems like a relatively small amount for such a sweeping project. What kind of funding would you like to see?
Jones: As our follow-on, next year we're launching this national campaign called Green for All. We're asking for $1 billion over four years from the federal government to get a quarter of a million people out of poverty as green-collar workers and entrepreneurs. Why do we say that? First of all, we're focusing on getting people out of poverty who are below the poverty line in the pollution-based economy.

The Green Jobs Act is broader than that, and just $25 million is focused on that. We want to focus $1 billion on that set of people.

If you match that federal $1 billion with state, local, and nonprofit capital, spend about $8,000 per year per person to get the job training done and get them some support in moving people out of poverty and into work, the great thing about it is...your savings to society in terms of social welfare are tremendous. It's not a handout here; you're really connecting people who most need work with the work that most needs to get done.

There have been comparisons with this to the days of (President Franklin) Roosevelt, and talk about a green New Deal. Why do you think we need the government involved in something like this?
Jones: The business community is going to have to take the lead in terms of innovation and job creation, but government can help support the problem solvers and stop helping the problem makers in the U.S. economy. The problem makers--the polluters, warmongers, incarcerators--have a disproportionate share of the resources, and the problem solvers don't get the help they need.

So what kind of help can the government give the problem solvers in the clean and green economy? One, the kind of help is to have a uniform national policy with regard to carbon so that polluting doesn't pay but going green does. The other thing is to make sure that our green business leaders can rely upon a world-class workforce.

No sane society would saddle all these new nascent industries and entrepreneurs with 100 percent of their job training costs on top of the risks they have to take with new markets and new technologies. The smart thing to do is at least make sure the government is training people to do this work and so that folks can walk through the door job-ready.

When you talk about a green New Deal, this will be different from the old New Deal in that we're not trying to create a welfare state, but we're also trying to get away from this warfare state that we've been living under for the past seven years. It requires a new role for government not as a nanny and not as a bully but as a partner to the problem solvers in our economy.

These efforts seem to be bringing together groups that maybe haven't worked together to the same extent before. You have unions, politicians, environmental activists, businesspeople. What role is Silicon Valley playing so far, or what are you hearing from venture capitalists or from start-up green-tech companies?
Jones: I spoke at the Investors' Circle a year ago and people were very receptive. The Full Circle Fund is going to be giving my organization, the Ella Baker Center, a grant to support our work.

The Full Circle Fund is a bunch of philanthropists who get their money out of Silicon Valley's young entrepreneurs. People are interested, and it's trying to turn that interest into actual outcomes.

The good thing about the group on the venture capital side, about the Solar Richmond project, is that it really is creating a trained workforce of people from disadvantaged backgrounds to do this work. The big challenge is to get the solar industry to really follow through with hiring the people to complete the program. Each entrepreneur has to think seriously about their own bottom line, but I think that it's important for a business leader trying to do the right thing.

If we don't include everybody in the green economy, we set up the potential for a backlash alliance between poor people and polluters. That would be very dangerous.

What could ensure that the jobs created would offer a chance for advancement, say for someone installing solar panels who then prefers a managerial role?
Jones: There's nothing guaranteed, but the best green job would be a union job where some of those protections are there. Short of that, we have to make sure our community colleges and job training programs are focused on green career pathways and not just that first job.

What kinds of surprises are you running into with this project?
Jones: There's still such a cultural gap between low-income people who are first-time job seekers and solar entrepreneurs; that getting our trained folks hired has been harder than I expected. We just have to communicate better with the employers what they want and need to see at the interview level. We'll get there.

What kinds of things do you wish were addressed more when people talk about green jobs?
Jones: It's so important that we have a green economy that's not just about reclaiming throwaway stuff. It also needs to be about reclaiming thrown-away people, neighborhoods, and children.

This country is 5 percent of the world's population. We produce 25 percent of the greenhouse gas pollution and we have 25 percent of the world's prisoners. Most of those prisoners are low-income people of color locked up for committing nonviolent crimes including drug offenses.

What ties those two stats together is an underlying ethic of disposability. We still have a society where we think we have throwaway stuff and throwaway people. We don't believe that's true.

Any inventions around the corner that you think provide extra promise?

Jones: I'd love to see dramatic advances in battery and energy-storing technology and also superconductivity for our power lines so that we can waste less of the energy we do generate. I'm very excited about smart grid technology.