Facing Race Spotlight: Tech Activist Van Jones

By Carla Murphy Nov 04, 2014

Van Jones, 46, stays on mission: expanding opportunities for young people of color. The longtime activist and former advisor to the Obama White House is now president of Rebuild* the Dream, a think tank behind two new opportunity initiatives, #YesWeCode, and #Cut50. #YesWeCode seeks to train 100,000 "low-opportunity" youth to become high-level computer programmers. #Cut50 has the goal of reducing the prison population by half in the next 10 years.

On November 15 at Facing Race, the biennial conference held by Colorlines publisher Race Forward, Jones will join Rinku Sen and Ian Haney López for a look ahead to the next 50 years of civil rights and racial justice struggle. Earlier that day, he’ll also discuss building the pipeline from schools to economic opportunity, some of which he talks about here. But first up this Election Day: voting.

As people head to the polls, I’m thinking of a young college-going woman I met recently. She is so involved in her community, from supporting fast-food worker strikes to organizing around other poverty-related issues. But she is extremely uninterested in voting. Her distaste is palpable. If she were in front of you what would you say to her?

I would say she’s half right.

How so?

The voting booth is not a place where you can get everything you want, but it is a place you can lose everything you have. So it’s not that you don’t vote and everything works out well. It’s that if you don’t vote everything’s gonna work out worse. We have be smart enough to vote and build companies and create our own media and protest and support each other in civic ways. It’s not, either voting is gonna solve all our problems, or it’s not worth doing. That’s really foolish. Notice that rich people vote and build companies and create private clubs for themselves. They never leave voting out. The only people who leave the voting out are those of us who feel so frustrated with the system that we throw our hands up. But all that does it make it worse. One thing about Election Day: Nobody’s vote counts any more than yours–unless you don’t vote and then everybody’s vote counts more than yours.

Have you always voted, even during your early 20s?

Look, my mom and dad took me with them to vote when I was a child. It never occurred to me not to vote. I grew up in Tennessee and both my parents were public school teachers. But both my parents were born into segregation without any rights. People act like Jim Crow was 6 million years ago, [but] my parents were born without any rights. I’m the ninth-generation American, [but] I’m the first person in my family born with all my rights. So the idea that I wouldn’t exercise all my rights to speech to vote, to peacefully assemble and to engage in commerce is nuts to me. I don’t understand it at all.

As part of your #YesWeCode initiative, you wrote an op-ed recently name-checking African-American leaders in the tech sector for young people of color. Why?

Nobody goes to McDonald’s and orders sushi because you don’t see sushi on the menu. If people don’t see opportunities in technology and the innovation economy for themselves then they won’t order it. Instead, our kids will be wanting to be basketball players and rappers and street hustlers because that’s what they see. If you can see it, you can be it. If you can’t see it, it’s very hard to be it.

Why promote tech among this upcoming generation and not another industry like, say, journalism?

Because incomes are going up in technology and they’re going down in journalism.

What is Silicon Valley doing to diversify?

I think we’re at the beginning of a sea shift here. Up until now, Silicon Valley has relied on a pretty narrow pipeline, with Stanford, MIT and Caltech always represented and most of the rest of the genius of America left out. Now we’re beginning to see more engagement. For instance, you’re starting to see Google supporting more of the grassroots coding education. For example, Hack The Hood in Oakland just got a big grant from Google and I think they are being supported by other tech companies. Facebook has hired a diversity czar, for lack of a better term, who’s an African-American woman who has been very aggressive. So change is underway, but it’s not moving quickly enough.

What more could Silicon Valley be doing?

Well, there are almost 100–and there’re more every day–grassroots efforts to teach coding to low-opportunity young people, and they’re all woefully underfunded and not well supported by the tech industry. I think immediately of some of the great organizations that we already have like Black Girls Code, Hack the Hood, Hidden Genius Project, All Star Code, Girls Who Code, Code for Progress, La TechLa, Urban Txt and others that should be getting major support from the tech companies. We’re leaving genius on the table. Those are the groups that know how to contact and access our best and brightest folks and they need to be supported. We need more partnership between the grassroots folks who’re doing this work and the people who will ultimately be the beneficiary of all this genius.

Voters in your state, California, may pass Prop 47 today, which will reduce sentences for many nonviolent offenders. Can you talk a bit about your #Cut50 initiative?

#Cut50 is an initiative to use bipartisan solutions to cut the prison population in half in 10 years. It’s timely because on the one hand, from the bottom up, you have this new Ferguson-driven consciousness around over-policing and the impact of the nation’s prison system on people of color. On other hand, you have the Republicans, top-down, beginning to realign on the question of excessive incarceration. You have a very rare moment where there’s a bottom-up consciousness and a top-down realignment. Now is the time for bold solutions. I’m not interested in solutions that will give you a 2 percent reduction in the rate of growth of prisons. I’m talking about reversing course and cutting the prison population in half.

How confident are you that voters will pass Prop 47?

I have not seen the kind of vigorous fight-back from the other side that we’ve ordinarily seen when we’ve gone about trying to move in a more sane direction. Anything can happen, [and] I could be heartbroken again, but I think we’re at the beginning of the end of a nightmare.

I want to circle back to the bipartisan consensus. I think it’s fair to say there’s usually not much goodwill when grassroots folks hear "conservative" or "Republican" and "criminal justice" in the same sentence. For someone like you who’s trying to work with both sides, how do you broach that divide?

I’m lucky. I spent a year on the air with Newt Gingrich co-hosting "Crossfire" on CNN, and we didn’t agree on a single topic except for criminal justice reform. And that’s been true of every Republican I know. Now that is an adequate basis for a coalition. If somebody says, "Well, I don’t like Republicans," I think that’s irrelevant. If Republicans say, "I don’t like Democrats," that’s irrelevant. We’re not trying to get married, adopted or invited to the prom. You don’t make a coalition with your friends. You make a coalition with people who have slightly different interests than you and whose interests might converge at one point. [Next year] it’ll be weaponized gridlock on every issue from women’s rights to labor rights to the economy and foreign policy and [criminal justice reform is] the one area where both can agree that things have gotten so crazy that Rand Paul is quoting Michelle Alexander from "The New Jim Crow" on the floor on the Senate. If you can’t figure out a way to hold your nose, on either side, long enough to do something about it then shame on us–because the people who’re suffering are the ones who’re in prison. 

* Post has been updated since publication to reflect that the name of Jones’ think tank is Rebuild the Dream not, Rebuilding the Dream.