As a teenager, Van Jones got his first taste for justice from the pages of Marvel comic books. “I love comic books because the people [in them] see big problems and decide to solve them as opposed to being bystanders waiting for someone else to do something,” says the 39-year-old attorney and human-rights advocate. “I was a scrawny kid, the nerdy guy, and I wanted to grow up, get big and [be the one who] fights the bullies.”
And so he did. For nearly a decade after earning his law degree from Yale, Jones worked tirelessly on behalf of America’s underclass, helping victims of police brutality, fighting to reform the corrections system and working to bring peace to inner-city streets. His work was so single-minded and intense, in fact, that Jones himself became a victim — of a lifestyle that left him exhausted, undernourished and unbalanced.
But, true to form, Jones took the lessons he learned from his own recovery and put them to work for the good of others. These days, he’s championing a healthy way of life for the urban poor.
Breakthroughs and Breakdowns
A Tennessee native, Jones moved to the San Francisco Bay Area in 1993. He had worked there for the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights during a semester-long break from school two years earlier — in the midst of the Rodney King case.
“The Rodney King beating in Los Angeles got my attention, but the acquittal and uprising that followed the beating — that’s what really locked me in,” says Jones. So he gathered a bit of start-up money and founded the Bay Area PoliceWatch, a legal helpline for victims of police misconduct.
But PoliceWatch was only the beginning. In 1996, he established the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, a strategy and action center designed to bring justice, opportunity and peace to urban America. The center then launched a host of campaigns to address human-rights issues, including the Books Not Bars program, which works to reform California’s abusive youth-prison system, and Silence the Violence, a group that aims to abate street violence in the Bay Area.
To keep the center’s projects active and energized, however, Jones was overworking, under-resting and eating gobs of easy-to-find but nutritionally bankrupt processed foods. Soon, the consequences of his lifestyle caught up with him.
“I definitely went through burnout in the late 1990s and early 2000s. I’d spent years eating only Twinkies, and I had a lot of addictive patterns with regard to work. I was getting very little sleep, and my health was bad. Then I also went through a major romantic breakup that turned into a breakdown,” he says.
“So I decided to turn my breakdown into a breakthrough. I started going to spiritual retreats and learning more about basic health and wellness, which I had always thought was a bourgeoisie indulgence.”
The now-married Jones, who has a 3-year-old son, also began to connect the dots between healthy food, a healthy environment and a healthy body. All of which led him to think about health creation, or the ability to create and sustain a healthy way of life, and about who has access to the tools to do so — and, more specifically, who doesn’t.
Health Haves and Have-Nots
With society becoming more focused on health and sustainability in general, Jones saw a widening gap between the health haves and the health have-nots. It was a gap he wanted to help close. Today, one of Jones’s key areas of focus is creating more egalitarian access to a healthy future — one that offers the benefits of green living, nutritious foods and health maintenance to those who might otherwise miss out.
“What’s happening now is that people are beginning to wake up to the value of a green economy, one that really honors the earth,” says Jones. But this new economy, he adds, can’t ignore people who live in underserved urban communities or in regions that have historically been deluged with industrial pollution.
To this end, Jones envisions training unemployed and underemployed people for “green collar” jobs, such as solar panel installation, water reclamation and recycling. These jobs, he notes, can help preserve the environment at the same time they help enhance the well-being of workers and their families.
“We want to create green pathways out of poverty, or a green economy that is strong enough to lift people out of poverty,” says Jones, who helped write the Green Jobs Act of 2007, a bill currently wending its way through Congress that would allocate money to “green-job” training programs across the country. “In simple terms, we have to heal both the people and the environmental degradation. We can’t have this society where only some people can afford clean water and organic cuisine. Everyone needs to be part of the green economy.”