The Mystery of a Mere Idea

Compelling ideas are all you need to start a revolution. That could be one lesson to take from the experience of Van Jones, the green jobs activist from Oakland.

Jones is one of the best-known faces in the green jobs movement. He was already well-known in this movement before Obama made green jobs one of his priorities last year. Now it seems as if Jones’s name is everywhere. He was recently profiled by The New Yorker. In the article, Jones describes how his organization, the Ella Baker Center, managed to win a grant of over $200,000 in 2004 on the basis of a mere idea, the idea that green jobs could be the next great tool to fight poverty. He was able to do this despite the fact that at the time, few people knew what a green job was.

“We called all these community meetings, did these retreats, and at the end of the day we had some great photographs, a couple of pamphlets, and not one job…It was a complete and utter failure,” Jones says in the article. He goes on to say that he applied for another $200,000, and got that too. “Then we wasted it all again. Because we still didn’t know what we were doing.”

As the article tells the tale, it wasn’t until Jones took his idea to an event held by the U.S. House Speaker, Nancy Pelosi, that his campaign began to catch fire. Desperate to get her attention, he asked her to repeat four words: “Clean Energy Jobs Bill.” That was in early 2007. By the end of that year, the Green Jobs Act passed Congress and was signed into law by President Bush.

Jones wrote a letter to The New Yorker to clarify his remarks, saying his organization had in fact accomplished a lot in Oakland with those grants. But I was still struck by the sincerity of his off-the-cuff remarks in the New Yorker piece. What he has done with his concept of green jobs provides inspiration for all of us struggling to figure out innovative ways to lift up our communities. We just need an idea. It’s all right if we don’t necessarily know how to implement it right away.

Jones took a fantastic idea that a few years ago made no sense, and has helped make it real. Green jobs could be the thing that not only helps fight poverty, but transforms the American economy for decades to come. Or maybe not, but let’s hope so.

David Holtzman is a planner for Louisa County, Virginia, a freelance writer, and a former Shelterforce editor.


  1. Unfortunately, it’s these “off the cuff remarks” that make funders nervous about giving money to organizations for green jobs, eco-friendly housing programs, or anything else that has to do with sustainability. It’s one thing to talk about esoteric concepts, another entirely to have the data to back it up. And Jones admittedly wasted almost a half-million dollars of someone’s money — money that could have been put to good use elsewhere. I wonder how many grantmakers read that piece in the NY Times and decided that sustainability isn’t viable.


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