Van Jones: On the American Dream, OWS, Hip-Hop Activism, and More

Van Jones is a globally recognized, award-winning pioneer in human rights who was recognized by TIME magazine in 2009 as one of the 100 most influential people in the world. As a co-founder of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, Color of Change, and Green For All, his leadership has deeply imprinted American political and moral thought, leading to a presidential appointment by President Barack Obama in 2009. This, year, he launched the Rebuild the Dream campaign, “an engine helping to drive the 21st-century movement to renew the American Dream.” Urban Cusp recently interviewed Van Jones to find out where he stands on a host of current issues, including where America has been, where it is, and where he wants to see it go.

Urban Cusp: Do communities of color tend to be apathetic in relation to the Green movement? What would you want to see become viral within urban communities as it relates to environmental activism?

Van Jones: African Americans and other communities do have an interest in environmental issues. If you talk about it only in terms of rain forests or polar bears, the interest is not as strong because people have other issues. But when you talk about it terms of asthma inhalers in your children’s pockets and how we can get those out, or clear air, clean water, community health and those kinds of things first. And also job opportunities in the solar industry and organic food and good food. When you talk about it from a health, wealth and work point of view, then I think there is a big interest. You have to remember that’s not something new. Many African Americans and Latinos have a close relationship with the land – and many came one or two generations removed from agricultural environments. And when you look at Africa, you have a very hard time arguing that Europeans are the only ones that care about the environment when you look at the amount of wellness preservation in Africa. The upper-income segment of the Green movement (eco-elite) does get a lot of the attention, but they’re not the only show in town.

UC: Tell us a little about “Rebuild the Dream” and how it will ensure that it doesn’t promote an American Dream rooted in consumerism and consumption.

VJ: Consumerism and consumption is on its way out because people don’t have the income and the resources to support that. So, when you’re talking about the American Dream or rebuilding the Dream, you’re really talking about an American Dream 2.0 that’s more of what Dr. King was talking about. Dr. King said about his dream, “I have a dream – a dream deeply rooted in the American Dream.” He was talking about being in a country where everyone counts and everyone matters. Dr. King was struggling for a better capitalism, but that doesn’t mean we’re struggling for a better consumerism. It’s shareable. Enterprise that uses genius to solve economic problems.

UC: What distinction does “Rebuild the Dream” make between the “traditionally poor, new poor and economically anxious”?

VJ: Most people (even working, struggling poor folks) are not going to be offended if you lump them in with the middle class and middle class values. With that said, there is something going on in America. You have 20 million people who used to be middle class who fell out of the middle class in the past couple of years to poverty or near poverty or to such a high level of economic anxiety that they feel poor. Their homes are so far under water, they’re so under credit card debt. They’re so embattled by the health care system. That even if their income level says that they’re middle class – they don’t feel middle class. A whole bunch of new people have come through the door. They don’t look the way we look; they don’t have the story we have; but they’re also economic victims. They’re casualties of the economic elite – the 1% running the economy into the ground for their own benefit. How do we interact where we don’t let the needs of the newly poor displace the needs of the traditionally poor but at the same time not waste allies?

UC: In your opinion, is it anti-American for someone to have contempt for the American government but a love for the American people and the American Dream?

VJ: When I was younger, I was on the left side of Pluto when it came to a lot of these questions. Now, I’m in my mid-40s. I’m a father, a homeowner and my views on these issues have evolved more back to where my father was. My dad always taught us that America is two things and not one thing. In its founding reality it was ugly and unequal – even Thomas Jefferson admitted that. The country was not equal at its birth, but America is more than just our founding reality. America is also our founding dream. And the founding dream is a value quality. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”

So what is America? America is this place where an imperfect people have been struggling now for 200+ years to drag that ugly founding reality closer to the beauty of that founding dream. And that’s who we are; that’s all America is. America is that place. Only 5% of the world’s population but 95% of the world’s dreams half the time. Here we are. Nobody should deny the pain of what America has failed to do and what America has in fact done… but we’re not going to let the pain have the last word. We are a unique experiment on earth. There’s nothing that’s wrong with America that can’t be fixed by what’s right about America and what’s right about America is people like us [freedom fighters]. We’re America too. In the tug of war between our founding reality and founding dream, our side has been winning.

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Rahiel Tesfamariam is a public theologian, social activist, writer and speaker. She is also a former columnist for The Washington Post and founder/ publisher of, a cutting-edge online lifestyle magazine highlighting progressive urban culture, faith, social change and global awareness. Visit and follow her on Twitter and Instagram @RahielT.

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