AUG 30, 2018
CNN’s Van Jones: Genius is Everywhere
Van Jones hosts his own show on CNN, and he’s the founder of The Dream Corps, an accelerator that supports economic and environmental innovation. Its #YesWeCode initiative aims to help 100,000 young people from underrepresented backgrounds find success in the tech sector. Van is an important voice on social justice and STEM education, and Time Magazine named him one of the 100 Most Influential People in the world. In this episode, Van joins Spencer at Zillow Group’s New York office for a live recording in front of employees. The two discuss Van’s impressive background working in communities and promoting green jobs, how to increase diversity in tech and why young people have the power to change the world.
Spencer Rascoff: Thanks, everybody. We’re here in the New York office of Zillow Group. I’m here with our guest, Jones. Please, everyone, give Van a welcome.
Van, thanks for coming on Office Hours. I wanna start by having you walk us through your career. We know you as a public media personality on CNN, but there’s a whole career that preceded that. So, tell us how you got there, and walk us through your career.
Van Jones: I think probably the best way to start is just to talk about where I was born and raised, and then just go from there. But I was born in Jackson, Tennessee. I was talking to a friend from Kentucky. I was born in Jackson, Tennessee. My dad had been born in segregation and poverty in Memphis in 1944. So, he grew up basically in a shotgun shack, joining the military to get out of poverty.
Everybody else was running out of the military. My dad ran into the military to get out. When he got out, he put himself through college. He married the college president’s daughter, who was my mother, ’cause Willy Jones was bad. My dad was bad.
And then, he put his brother through college. He put his cousin through college. And then worked with my mom, put me and my sister through college. And I’ll always point out, when my father died, the picture that we put of him on the funeral program was him standing in front of Yale Law School the day I graduated with his hands in the air —
Rascoff: Proud moment.
Jones: Yeah, proud moment for him, given where he started from. So, but my dad was such an “up and out of poverty guy. He got himself out of poverty, then he was a cop in the military, then he was an educator. And I just felt like my dad helped so many people, including my whole family, get out of poverty really with nothing.
How could I have a Yale law degree and not try to at least beat him, if not best him? So, I became a — 24 years old, graduated from Yale Law School, moved to the Bay Area and started working on criminal justice, police reform. I was woke before y’all had alarm clocks.
Rascoff: I’m guessing most of your Yale classmates pursued a different path?
Jones: You know what’s so funny? Everybody I went to Yale with, they wanted to be in politics, and they wouldn’t take on any controversial issues. They were worried about their Supreme Court testimony. And when I was just on the left side of Pluto. I was on every issue, every protest, every demonstration.
And I wound up working in the White House, and they didn’t. Just saying. Follow your heart, follow your dreams. I started an organization called the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, and we worked to try to fix the juvenile justice system. We wound up closing five abusive youth prisons in California, and we cut California’s youth prison population by 80 percent with no increase in youth violence or youth crime. A big cost savings. Stopped them from building a super jail for kids in Oakland. Reformed the San Francisco Police Department. This is all in the 1990s, early 2000s.
Rascoff: All your early to mid-20s?
Jones: Twenties to early 30s, and I just burned out. It was too hard. A lot of funerals. You work with urban youth. You wind up going to a lot of funerals. You got young people in the caskets, and then old people with white hair sitting up in the pews, which is the reverse of what you expect. And there were so many — I’ve still gone to more funerals in Oakland than graduations.
And you’re in a situation when you have that much bad stuff happening — even little things that you don’t think about. Like, there’s so many sidewalk memorials that when little, bitty kids see balloons, they sometimes start crying ’cause they think that the balloon is — they associate that with memorials of kids who have gotten killed.
So, just — that kind of stuff, that’s just too hard for me. So, I wound up deciding to do something very different, just trying to get jobs for kids coming home from jail. And we had a big solar boom happening in California at that time — now you’re about 2005, 2006.
And people were ordering the solar panels for their houses, which you can find on Zillow —
Rascoff: Thank you. Well done. [Laughter]
Jones: But they were ordering solar panels for their houses, but it would take them three months, six months, nine months to get the solar panels up ’cause they didn’t have enough well-trained people to do the work. And so, I saw a big opportunity to try to get young folks from the community trained to put up solar panels.
And that became a huge breakthrough because we got money to train youth to put up solar panels, and a woman named Nancy Pelosi, who had just become Speaker of the House, came and saw what we were doing. And she went nuts. She says, “You’re fighting pollution and poverty at the same time by getting these young people jobs, cleaning up the environment, bringing in the clean energy revolution.”
So, she took me to Washington, D.C. She had me testify in front of almost every one of her committees, and we got a guy named George W. Bush to sign a bill called the Green Jobs Act of 2007 to spread my program across the country. That was a huge victory. And then I wrote a book about it in 2008 — “The Green Collar Economy,” available on Amazon. [Laughter]
And that book became a bestseller. A guy named Barack Obama read the book, and so, suddenly —
Rascoff: Did that happen organically? He was a community organizer in Chicago at the time. How did you get on his radar screen?
Jones: He was running for Senate — I mean, he was in the U.S. Senate, and he was getting ready to run for president. And Al Gore at that time was making a huge noise about the climate crisis and depressing everyone because it’s just such a big problem, and I was seen as somebody who had a solution.
So, then he brought me to Washington, D.C., to help him, and wound up moving about $80 billion with a B from the federal government into clean and green solutions, $5 billion for solar — $5 billion during the so-called stimulus package. So, it was my job to coordinate that spend out for the president.
After that, I went to Princeton, taught there for a while. Then I wound up on CNN with my second book, and that’s where I am. But my TV career is the shortest part of my career. I spent literally 25 years working in communities, doing tough stuff, trying to help people, and I’m mainly known for talking about tweets on CNN.
Rascoff: It’s funny how life happens. What are advice to young people and common threads from that career path? What do you pull out as some things that you’d want to make sure a 25-year-old self or 20-year-old self would hear?
Jones: You have a lot more power than you think, that’s the main thing I would say. Especially when you’re young and you’re new. You see a lot of stuff that could be improved. You see a lot of gaps. And often you’re almost scared to say anything ’cause you don’t want to get in trouble, you don’t want to seem like you’re a troublemaker.
But my experience has been if your heart’s right about it, if you really are trying to, say for instance, make Zillow be the best possible thing or whatever it is, you can actually make a tremendous difference, wherever you are. You don’t have to have the big title. You don’t have to be the head of stuff. You can actually make a tremendous difference.
I think, number one: Don’t underestimate your power and your influence. People said we’d never close a prison in California. They just built 20 of them. They said, “You’re never gonna close any prisons.” We were just too young and dumb to know any better and wound up closing five and making things better.
Another thing I would say is that I think most people have some calling inside themselves. Almost like secret hope about your life that you might be able to make a difference, help people. You’re almost embarrassed to share with people — something you want to write, something you’d love to see happen.
It’s almost embarrassing, but it keeps coming back, and it keeps coming back. That’s why you were born. That thing. It’s why you’re here. Now, you’re getting skills and experiences and meeting people, doing a lot of other stuff, but that’s the thing. And if you can, without getting yourself fired or evicted — which, having had both happen to me, I don’t recommend — if you can find a way to just continue to move in the direction of that dream, it’s amazing what happens in your life.
All the stuff that makes no sense in your life — the crazy people you’ve met, the bad things that have happened to you, your nutty family — all that stuff winds up being fertilizer to help you do something really beautiful and really amazing. And I think, more than ever, it’s gonna be unlikely people that do awesome stuff.
I think the people I see at the top of the game in Washington, D.C., right now — they’re stuck, and they’re fighting. I see people in D.C., I see people in Wall Street, I see people in Silicon Valley, Hollywood. The people at the top, they’re having a hard time adjusting to all these changes in technology, in society and everything else.
They’re really, really struggling, whereas the newer people, they seem to actually have a little bit of an inside track on what’s next. If you can combine that generational perspective with a deeper purpose and a deeper calling, I think you can do a lot more than most people would assume.
Rascoff: I wasn’t alive in the ’60s, but obviously there seemed then to have been this sense of upheaval and of empowerment, and youth were able to make an impact. It does seem like we have a lot of that today, and some of that is because of the democratization of media and social media. Some of it is because of millennials and just young people feel they want to be part of something bigger, connected to some sort of a mission, whether it’s at a company or in politics or in society.
It does feel different than it did 10 or 15 years ago.
Jones: Even five years ago.
Rascoff: I’m trying to adapt to that as a CEO of what’s it like to run a company in that environment. I think the media’s trying to adapt to what’s it like to inform people about what’s happening in the world around them in that sort of environment.
Jones: I think people have a sense, and they’re not wrong, that maybe help is not on the way. And in that situation, you want to do something. And I think, frankly, people who are not in government and who are not in politics are gonna have to do more. It used to be that the future was written in law in Washington, D.C. It was written in law by senators, by congress people, by Supreme Court folks, people who have been democratically selected to figure out the future for America and write the future in law.
Now, frankly, the future is being written in code — computer code — in Silicon Valley and places like this. They’re updating your phones right now. You didn’t ask them to, they’re just busy doing it. If you think about that, what that means is that the private sector — whether it’s finance or technology or media — the momentum is there, the power is there, the money is there.
But the people who are sitting in those chairs, in your chairs, nobody’s coming to you and said, “You’re supposed to save the world.” They say, “You’re supposed to get your project done. You’re supposed to meet these earnings reports.” But increasingly, you’re gonna feel an urgency about the world. And you don’t think you can wait four years to vote on it and hope it works out okay.
And so, this is a new reality, I think, for the private sector — that you actually have the ability to make a change. You have a whole generation that wants to make a change, and there’s a big failure at the government level. And not just United States — throughout the West.
That’s gonna be something that’s important to take seriously ’cause I think to keep your best folks and to get your best work out of your best folks, that social purpose has to get elevated a little bit.
Rascoff: Companies like ours have been pulled into this by their employees really saying, “We want you to be more engaged civically. We want you to either be more philanthropic or more outspoken on political issues or both.” And it’s complicated managing a company in that type of environment, especially such a polarized, politicized situation.
I know there are things that our employees want me to speak out on, topics that I have chosen not to engage on, where other CEOs have. The litmus test that I’ve made for myself is does it directly affect our employees or our company?
What have you seen, either guests on your shows or others that you’re interacting with in media and business landscape — how are they navigating that?
Jones: The reason I like what you’re doing is because it’s authentic to you. I think the most important thing is that you do you.
But I think trying to figure out how to let that authenticity bubble up through the rest of the company — that’s a more difficult management challenge. I’m looking around at CNN, and I’m new to CNN, but I’m not young. So, I was born in ’68, so I’ll be 50 years old this year.
I’m new to CNN, but I’m not young. Because I’m new, I have more in common with the younger people, though. And I’m watching all these younger people — they have just brilliant ideas. Just unbelievably brilliant ideas. What they think is newsworthy is not what we are putting on the news.
I think we’re leaving a ton of value on the table, just because the thing is just not set up to listen to the 24-year-old who’s been there for 18 months. And so, that I think for companies of this size, figuring out some way — you should be authentic to yourself, but keeping your ear big for the authentic voices in your building, which will actually change what you’re authentic about, I think that’s the big challenge.
Rascoff: The nice thing about young people is — you once were in your mid-20s, started to take on the criminal justice system — is they don’t know any better. So, they’re hopelessly optimistic and naive.
In my world, in the startup world, that enables them and encourages them to start companies, ’cause they don’t know any better.
You focused on criminal justice, then the environment, and then, more recently, STEM and underserved populations or underrepresented populations in technology. So, tell us about #YesWeCode and what you’re up to more recently.
Rascoff: Part of the tragedy of what I see happening on is just what I call wasted genius. I spent a lot of time in tough schools visiting prisons, juvenile detention centers. Geniuses, just super ridiculously smart people. Genius is actually pretty uniformly spread out, but opportunity is not.
And so, when I was at Yale, I saw kids doing all kind of drugs and terrible stuff. The cops never got called, nobody went to prison. At worst, they went to rehab. Maybe they had to take a semester off, and that was it. And then, those people went on to become doctors, and lawyers. George W. Bush, president of the United States, that — you could have a bad couple years if you’re at a certain income level and a certain zip code.
But a few blocks away, kids doing fewer drugs got seven years, 13 years, 22 years in prison. And so, we’re just wasting a ton of genius, some of those young people who are behind bars right now could be the Mark Zuckerbergs, or they could start the Zillows or whatever, but they just won’t have that shot.
And so, we started #YesWeCode as really an opportunity to try to connect some of the brilliant urban youth that we know in the Oakland part of the Bay Area with Silicon Valley. And Prince, the late rock star, was a person who really wanted us to do that. And so, Prince and I were the co-founders on #YesWeCode.
And it’s been a really powerful experience because, just from a physical point of view, Oakland is only about 37 minutes from the Google campus, and I think 41 minutes from the Facebook campus. It’s very, very close. But it may as well be on the other side of the moon in terms of somebody who’s going to — what used to be Castle Von High School and their thought about the fact that they could ever work at Facebook; it’s just completely on the different side of the moon.
Rascoff: What can companies do to improve underrepresented minorities in technology?
Jones: I think a couple things. First, how many people here ever had an internship any place? So, just that. Just doing internships and apprenticeship programs is so important. Because the thing about it is when you try to hire somebody for a job, there’s only one of two outcomes. They’re either gonna make it, or they’re gonna get fired.
And that can be scary for everybody. It’s like, “We hired somebody.” The thing about an internship: You win if you just complete it. I had an internship — nobody’s expected to ace the internship. They just had it, and they did a good job, they made some friends, they learned some stuff, they got some mentorship, their sights got raised.
That is not happening for huge sections of our country. Just literally people can’t even get their foot in the door. I think internship programs are important, and then apprenticeship programs, where somebody’s paid to work for three months or six months, and they complete the apprenticeship.
Maybe they’re great, and they’re awesome, and you hire them, you could say. But if not, they at least successfully completed an apprenticeship program. They might be able to go someplace else and get a job. These are the kinds of things that an HR department doesn’t want to have to deal with the brain damage and the heartburn around, unless there’s a passion in the company and not just the CEO.
By the way, stuff like this — it can’t just be the CEO. If the CEO’s excited about the internship program and you’re not, it’ll be the worst internship program ever. If the CEO’s passionate about diversity and you’re not, or passionate about apprenticeships and you’re not, then even the people who see the video and who come will have a miserable experience.
So, it’s really about you as a cohort recognizing the importance to yourself of bringing in some of these new voices and perspectives. When I first started doing this, I thought about it more honestly as, “This is great for the young people.” I didn’t realize how great it was for the companies.
It took, actually, a while for me to realize how great it was for people with completely different perspective, Rolodex, understanding to come in.
We occasionally do these hack-athons through #YesWeCode, and we get urban kids in the same room with engineers from top companies, and every single time we do it, the engineers are blown away by how smart these kids are. We’ve done it in Baltimore, in Oakland, in New Orleans and all over the country.
And top engineers — they come in, they think they’re gonna teach these kids stuff, and within 20 minutes their mouths are hanging open. Not just by how smart the young people are, but also by the kids of problems that young people want to solve using technology.
We did a hack-athon once where a young girl — the problem she was trying to solve was that she was in foster care, African-American, tough background. And she said, “Mr. Jones, when you’re in foster care, your parents aren’t around, and you just have to wear whatever clothes your foster parents find for you.
“So, sometimes when you go to school, people laugh at you because of the way you look. So, young girls like me, we sometimes do stuff that we’re not proud of to get money to buy clothes so we don’t get laughed at.” Her solution, very simple, “Could we build an app where people who are donating clothes” — ’cause a lot of their clothes are donated — “where the clothes could be found on an app, and we could pick our own clothes, so that way we’d be picking clothes that would be good for us?”
The engineer sitting next to me said, “That’s probably a multibillion dollar idea because second-hand, used clothes — that’s a global market. And nobody’s ever actually even suggested that.” And what I said is, “Poor kids have billion-dollar solutions because they’ve got billion-dollar problems.”
And when you start listening to what some people are going through, you’d wind up finding whole other market opportunities — all kinds of adjacent possibilities that just aren’t available to you if it’s just everybody who went to fancy schools like me.
This whole #YesWeCode experience — and I just appreciate so much your support of it — I didn’t realize what an elitist snob I was. I’m just gonna be honest. The first time we did a hack-athon in Oakland I showed up, and you got all these kids, and they’re from tough neighborhoods, and some of these neighborhoods don’t get along.
And I walk in there, and my first thought is, “I hope there’s not a fight.” This is anti-racist, civil rights guy. But the bias in my own head, my first thought was, “I hope there’s not a fight.” And three days later, by the way, when these kids had shown up 20 to 30 minutes early every day — they’re sitting there, waiting for us to open up the building, and you can’t drag ’em out there at the end of the day. And they’ve come up with ideas that are 20 times better than anything anybody has come up with from my sector of society. I was embarrassed.
I had to tell ’em, I thought, “Listen, I totally underestimated you guys. And if I’m doing it, Lord knows what other people are doing.” And it just made me a complete zealot lunatic about creating more opportunity for folks in those places. And if Zillow can be a place to absorb even a fraction of that talent, there’s no telling what can happen here.
Rascoff: I wanna talk about the state of news media. Yeah, I know. [Laughter] It’s a fraught topic —
Jones: I thought you liked me.
Rascoff: Probably a year or two ago, if you had said, “The state of news media,” the topic of conversation would have been about how difficult it is for print — maybe broadcast — but mostly print to make money in an increasingly digital environment. Now, fast forward a couple years, and it’s more about what role does the media play to inform the public? How do politicians interact with the media?
From your perch, where you sit as a media professional, what would you wish that politicians did differently?
And I’m not just talking about Trump. I’m talking more generally to try to make for better discourse.
Jones: I don’t know. I wouldn’t necessarily blame the politicians. I sometimes feel like I work in the tobacco industry. Like, “Don’t use our product; it’s bad for your health.” Sometimes, I feel that badly about the way that the media has responded.
I don’t blame the politicians; they do what they do given what’s available to them. I blame, really, us in the media system. There’s another round of innovation. We now have a system based on the phones in your pocket — a ton of data, no wisdom at all. That’s how I would describe it.
You are overwhelmed with data, and you can’t find wisdom no matter what you do. And it’s really the lack of wisdom that I think is causing the problem. I don’t know what’s gonna happen, but this is not working.
Because for CNN, I get to go into red states and red counties, talk to Trump voters all the time. The way we’re talking past each other is just heartbreaking.
Rascoff: That seems sort of — I have a hard time convincing myself that will ever change. That seems sort of inevitable, given the fragmentation of media and the echo chamber that we put ourselves into, and the way that digital advertising and Facebook personalization propagates that ideology bubble that we all live in. We seem to inevitably be on this course towards more and more polarization.
Jones: And thank you very much.
Rascoff: How do we fix it? Come on, Van, what’s the solution?
Jones: Hey look, I don’t know what to do. I think I know how to be in the face of it. Less arrogant, less insistent that I’m right about everything, less committed to treating the red states the way that colonizers treat Third World countries.
It’s very tough to lead a country you don’t love. It’s very hard to win people over when you don’t respect them at all. And the one thing I know we need to stop doing is having this attitude, “You are an idiot and a bigot and a fool and a chump. Vote for me.” That’s less persuasive than you might think if you listen to NPR and CNN and MSNBC.
I think trying to insult people into joining our cause is ill-considered. I think that the idea that we’re supposed to have empathy for everybody except Trump voters, that as liberals and progressives and — not putting you in that mix, but I’m just saying for myself — as liberals and progressives, we’re supposed to have these big, open arms and big, open hearts, except for half the country?
That is not gonna work.
Rascoff: I strongly agree with one thing you said, which is that regardless of whether you’re a Republican or Democrat, dismissing people on the other side of the aisle, if you — that is a recipe for disaster. We have to be respectful of people of all different walks of life and all different political persuasions.
Jones: Basic human rights and human dignity should be a threshold. We shouldn’t attack people because of where they’re born and their sexuality, their race, their gender, all that kind of stuff. In kindergarten, you can’t do that. So, I think it’s perfectly fine to decide to fight for that.
But to then extend that and dismiss half the country as, to make up a word, deplorable because they disagree with you, that is also — you gotta throw a flag on that as well. And also, let me just say this, we need each other. People forget that. We need each other. I’m a liberal. I think you need me in society. I got a big heart, I care about people who don’t have big PACs and don’t have lobbyists and can’t give you any money, but I’ll fight for ’em anyway.
I think you need me. But you don’t want me writing a budget by myself. You don’t because a conservative will say, “Van, I appreciate your bleeding heart, but how much does this cost, and who’s gonna pay for it?” And I never think about that. I just say, “Feed the babies!” I’m not that worried about that.
It’s in that back and forth —
Rascoff: Again, the importance of diversity, political and otherwise.
Van, you’re a do-good machine, spawning all these different organizations, and thank you for talking with us. Thanks a lot for sharing thoughts about the future of media and just explaining your perspective and the impact that you’re making. Thanks a lot, congratulations. You have the last word, please.
Jones: Look, I just want to say, you weren’t born to do normal stuff. It’s not a normal time. It’s not business as usual. And you can have a much bigger impact than you usually let yourself believe. And the fact that you’re here in New York City, you’re working for a major tech company — look, my kids live in LA. The first thing they do is Zillow each other’s houses to figure out the pecking order.
Till a year ago we were renting, so we didn’t get a chance to play. But true story — but that’s a big deal. The fact that you work for a company that every kid in America has heard of, or a lot of them have heard of, gives you standing. It gives you a legitimacy. It gives you a credibility.
And you might feel confused, and you might feel frustrated, and you might feel a bunch of things, but when you walk out of this door, you mean something to people. You mean something to people you went to school with, you mean something to your families, you mean something to your communities.
And you don’t have to have all the answers. You just have to have some of the right questions like, “How can I help? What’s going on? Maybe I know somebody; let me see if I can be of some use.” You got people behind you in line who look like you or who don’t — who don’t have one mentor, not one person who’s willing to tell them one thing.
And you can change that person’s life without a raise, without changing a single other thing — you can change that person’s life. Somebody did it for you, so I wish that people in national media and national politics could come here and say, “Here’s how we’re gonna fix everything and pass every bill and pass every program.” We’re a long way from that.
That is going to be the outcome of something else, and the something else is ordinary people giving a damn. Ordinary people reaching out to each other. Ordinary people doing one more thing than they would have done, and that begins to create an accumulation that can get us out of this thing.
There’s something in this room, there’s something in this company, there’s something that could be very powerful, very beautiful, very impactful for ordinary people. I just encourage you to keep seeking for it because it can be really, really special. So, thank you.
Rascoff: Thank you.