Truth to Power: The Intentional Partnerships of CNN’s Van Jones
September 28, 2018
On Wednesday, October 10, Seattle Arts & Lectures will be welcoming our 2018/19 Journalism Series opener, Van Jones–social entrepreneur, CNN political contributor, and host of The Van Jones Show–in celebration of the paperback release of his New York Times bestseller, Beyond the Messy Truth.
Called the “voice of reason” by people in red and blue states throughout the volatile 2016 political season, Jones has made it one of his many missions to challenge voters to disagree constructively. Get your tickets here!
By Julia Cook
At the start of September, CNN commentator Van Jones found himself back in the White House—not to reprise his role as green jobs “czar” of the Obama administration, but to advocate on behalf of incarcerated Americans alongside a somewhat unlikely ally: Kim Kardashian West. The two–who both identify as liberals–met with Senior Advisor to the President, Jared Kushner. And, armed with vastly different backgrounds and expertise, they shared a common goal: to bring the act of clemency to the forefront of bipartisan politics, specifically in the case of Chris Young, a thirty-year-old man serving life without parole for a minor drug felony.
“Without any context, it’s hard to know which ‘side’ he’s on, since his words borrow from each voice at the table.”
Jones’ career in public policy has been one of unlikely partnerships, persuading those with larger platforms to listen to him, and supporting causes that—on the surface—seem unrelated in nature or practice. Prior to his series The Messy Truth and The Van Jones Show, Jones’ advocacy spanned from environmental issues to social justice in technology. But over the last two decades, a consistent message has emerged. There are areas of society from which certain voices are excluded—but these are spaces where those voices would flourish, if given the chance. With his extensive network and his experience as a grassroots organizer (see The Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, The Dream Corps, and Color of Change), Jones is uniquely positioned to connect people with the resources they need. Better yet, he can work with both sides of the equation.
“Jones has realized the only way around the current tribalism in politics is to march right through it, talk to the other side, and find the value in their beliefs.”
Watching Jones speak is a lesson in code-switching. He reads the room and leads with stories, often of his father, which resonate with audiences in a way dry policy can’t. Without any context, it’s hard to know which ‘side’ he’s on, since his words borrow from each voice at the table. He often points to his father’s disavowal of both liberals and conservatives, and to his idea that “people have to climb that ladder out of poverty of their own effort . . . [But] the brightest child in the world can’t climb out of poverty on a ladder that has no rungs on it.” It brings to mind a quote from Andrew Carnegie’s The Gospel of Wealth:
The best means of benefiting the community is to place within its reach the ladders upon which the aspiring can rise . . . in this manner returning their surplus wealth to the mass of their fellows in the forms best calculated to do them lasting good.
Listeners in the liberal camp might be irked by a direct mention of the ‘robber baron’ Carnegie, just as they might be rankled by Jones’ eagerness to work with the current embattled president. But far ahead of his time (and his early critics, like Glenn Beck, who embarked on a mea culpa tour early last year), Jones has realized the only way around the current tribalism in politics is to march right through it, talk to the other side, and find the value in their beliefs. A Yale educated attorney, he eschews the temptation to soliloquize like the liberal elite, realizing his words will reach more people if they don’t ask too much of the listener.
“Simple, intentional communication is important for Jones, as his chief tool for bridging vast societal divides and party lines. Mutual respect is another.”
Jones poses questions of his audience, leans forward in his interviews, repeats key phrases to emphasize his points. Read a soundbite from him and you might see the same short sentence two or three times. In a New Yorker profile from 2009, Jones said he admired the style of Ronald Reagan, the way that former president could put Americans at ease, even when discussing matters of grave importance and complexity. Simple, intentional communication is important for Jones, as his chief tool for bridging vast societal divides and party lines. Mutual respect is another.
In the past decade, Jones has used these tactics to open historically white, privileged spaces to the disenfranchised, particularly people of color and low-income communities. The first step, Jones believes, is convincing these groups they should not only want to be involved, but that they need to seize their role in order to progress with society. In this second Industrial Revolution, the means of production are no longer factories and machinery, but solar panels and programming languages. And that’s where Chris Young comes into play. When capable people like Young are stalled in their development—through mass incarceration, through withheld social and economic ladders—the privileged will keep their own kind at the top. Diversity initiatives are part of his efforts, but in choosing leadership and hiring for programming positions, companies must choose candidates with the right expertise, and Jones wants to also disseminate those skills. “I spend a lot of time trying to build those ladders and yelling at the kids to climb,” he said in a SXSW session early last year.
“Just as Jones has embraced the power of people like Kim Kardashian West, it’s natural that he’d be recognized as a mouthpiece for social justice struggles and his media platforms as a stage for their solutions. Especially when his chief rhetorical strategy is to just listen.”
In a video from Mic news, Chris Young said when he gets out of prison, the first thing he wants to do is turn his theoretical knowledge into actual programming. Without a computer in jail, it’s hard to visualize what he’s learned of Python and PHP. Jones isn’t alone in identifying the potential in programming—celebrities like Karlie Kloss and recording artist Ne-Yo have led efforts to diversify the pool of software engineers in America. What’s different about Jones is his ability to see untapped potential in all kinds of spaces—whether it’s solar panels or social networks—and communicate each group’s need for the other. Just as Jones has embraced the power of icons like Kim Kardashian West, it’s natural that he’d be recognized as a mouthpiece for social justice struggles and his media platforms as a stage for their solutions. Especially when his chief rhetorical strategy is to just listen.
In a political climate rife with takedowns, it’s important for both message and action to be consistent. It’s doubly important that leaders work together for the good of their constituents; seeing their interests as the true source of progress. We think of Van Jones as a journalist because he’s used his platform to point out the injustices in our labor marketplace, our neighborhoods, and our jails. But his activism has encouraged a new kind of persona to emerge—one that, when attacking issues before the players behind them, prevents “liberal” or “conservative” from becoming a dirty word, and retrieves those left behind by politics.
Julia Cook is a Seattle-based writer; you can find her work inside the pages of The Stranger, Bitter Southerner, and Pittsburgh City Paper, but not GQ… yet. She’s also a three-time blackout boarder in SAL’s Summer Book Bingo, though her high school reading list is still marked ‘incomplete.’ Check out her other essays for the SAL blog, including “First in a Series” reading recommendations, an expatriate packing list, and a webcomic.