Van Jones: Obama's Green Jobs "Handyman"

Since the drafting of Van Jones to the Obama administration, people have wondered what exactly his job will be and what it will mean for the future of green jobs. Jones is a rising star among environmental activists, author of The Green Collar Economy and had been CEO of green jobs activist group Green For All until his government appointment caused him to step down.

From a Greenwire interview with Van Jones:

E&E: Do you consider yourself Obama's "green-jobs czar," as some have dubbed you?

Jones: No, I'm the green-jobs handyman. I'm there to serve. I'm there to help as a leader in the field of green jobs, which is a new field. I'm happy to come and serve and be helpful, but there's no such thing as a green-jobs "czar."

E&E: A Rutgers University report published today suggests that most green job openings will not be new occupations, but rather traditional occupations with a new layer of "green" skills and credentials. For example, laborers and building contractors who need specialized training and certification to perform home weatherization audits. Do you agree?

Jones: Yes. That's one of the exciting things about this. Sometimes people think we're talking about some exotic occupation from Mars that nobody's ever heard of. That we're talking about George Jetson or Buck Rogers when we're thinking about green jobs. We're not talking about solar ray-guns; we're talking about caulking guns as one of the major tools we're going to need to be smarter with energy. Those are jobs our existing work force, with a little training, can start doing right away.

Some bloggers privately wonder if it's the best move for Jones -- or for the green jobs effort. The thinking: He seemed to be doing well where he was. Why put him behind a government desk? What happens to the momentum he had built up? Jones gives his answers to those questions in this YES! Magazine interview:

Doug: What happens to Green for All while you're in DC?

Van: That's the best news of all, that we have an extraordinary leader in Phaedra Ellis-Lamkins, who's coming on board. Anybody in California knows that she is a true wunderkind. She has been a phenomenal leader of the progressive labor movement, she's African-American, she's young -- in her early thirties. You just could not dream up a better person to come into Green for All at this time.

Doug: The last time YES! readers heard from you was in an interview right after the election. In that interview you said that you had no intention of going to work for the Obama administration. What changed your mind?

Van: Not only did I say I had no intention of going, when they asked the question, I burst out laughing because at the time it seemed completely ludicrous that it would even be an option. I think what changed my mind was interacting with the administration during the transition process and during the whole process of getting the recovery package pulled together. I began to see that there was an important role at the table, inside the process, to do make sure all the great things the president wants to do can get done well.

Doug: While you're in DC, what can folks who have been following Green for All and working with you or on your initiatives, what can folks do to keep the movement going?

Van: Continue doing the things we have planned. We're working to implement the green recovery in a just way. We need to get those recovery dollars out fast and fair. Anybody who's interested can got to the website greenforall.org and you'll see lots of opportunities to get involved and also lots of information about how to get those recovery dollars working in your own community. And that's going to be an important part of what Green for All does going forward. To tell you the truth, I think in that start-up phase the early phase, visioning and initiating, I think I did an extraordinary job. We are in a different world, and Green for All needs a different leader. And it has that leader in Phaedra Ellis-Lamkins.

But it's the end of this guest post on Grist that may most accurately describe what Jones' real job is (emphasis mine):

This week, President Obama defied those stereotypes by appointing Van Jones as his green jobs guru, tasked to simultaneously increase environmental protection and economic stimulus. I have hope that he can not only rise to the task but also tie together environment and economy in a way that we can all better understand.

That fits with what seems to be an Obama signature move. He wants to help the country understand its myriad crises. Forgiving him for a moment for not making the economic crisis crystal clear just yet -- it's possible that the closest we'll come is that most of the United States wasn't engaged until two entertainers discussed it last week -- remember that Obama flirted with the idea of appointing a television personality to the surgeon general spot.

Having people who can explain these murky waters in sound bites and confidently -- charismatically -- point toward the future seems to be important to the president. Is it better than surrounding oneself with wonks whose only passion is policy? Probably not. And that's why neither the administration nor Jones wants to let anyone call the new appointee a "czar."

Here's Jones addressing young climate activists in Washington, D.C., last month: