Van Jones urges students not to “overthink” activism

May 4, 2012

On April 10, a handful of University of Chicago students had the opportunity to meet with Van Jones, the former Green Jobs advisor to the Obama Administration. At this special session, Jones advised student activists and shared anecdotes from his own experience. During his education and in the beginning of his career, Jones was well known as an activist for social change. He discusses this history as well as his career on Capitol Hill in his new book, Rebuild the Dream. Jones currently works as a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and as a senior policy advisor at Green for All. He is the co-founder of three non-profit organizations: the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, Color of Change, and Green for All. Despite two appointments at Princeton and regular speaking engagements, Jones is quite dedicated to mentoring and advising students, which was obvious during the two-hour session.

During the meeting two University student groups presented their most recent campaigns for feedback from Jones. The University of Chicago Climate Action Network (UCAN) spoke about their big win with the Chicago Clean Power Ordinance. Students for a Socially Responsible Investment Committee (SRIC) discussed their recent activities and agenda, which include reaching out to students, faculty, and alumni. The students at the meeting also represented the Southside Solidarity Network, University of Chicago Medical Center Trauma Center Campaign, the Office of Sustainability, and the Organization of Black Students.

Jones spoke enthusiastically about our generation of students. He made an effort to learn everyone's name and livened the room with his presence. He advised students to be mindful of the messages they use so as not to alienate certain constituencies but at the same time not to "overthink" their work and commitment. Caitlin Kearny, of the SRIC campaign, took that advice to heart, saying Jones "emphasized the need to be able to discuss your issue with a variety of different people who get excited and motivated by ideas and values that aren't the same that motivate [you]." Jones made the point that if people agree with you, at the end of the day, it's not necessarily important why—allies can be found in unlikely places.

Jones stressed that this can be the best time in our lives to get involved in advocacy—we have the flexibility, motivation, and drive. Students asked Jones general questions like how to keep up the momentum for a project and more focused ones. UCAN, for example, wanted advice on how to address the science behind climate change. Jones suggested that UCAN not try and argue the facts of the case—to just get to the heart of the matter. Jones quickly came up with pithy phrases pertaining to the campaigns. When speaking about UCAN's efforts to pass the Clean Power Ordinance, he said, "you're taking asthma inhalers out of little kids' pockets, it's as simple as that."

Sandy Carter, a third year and former UCAN Director, presented on behalf of UCAN. She found the session to be inspiring and heartening. "Just listening to him talk about his path, and how it's been a mix of struggles and successes, of activism and bureaucracy, was very uplifting."

When asked what kind of advice Carter would give a young activist, she echoed Jones' message, "I would tell a budding activist to not give up. Whatever your campaign, activism is hard, exhausting, and can often involve mundane work, but in the end you can make a difference. And as Van said, our generation is being put on trial by the world; we are being judged and are facing some of the most complex problems of human history. We need to turn the tables and 'put the system on trial.'"

—Christy Perera