IMPACT Symposium: What We Can Learn From Van Jones

Jeremy Freeman

9/30/13 Van Jones D.C. Photo: Jeremy Freeman/CNN Digital Rebranding 2013

Simon Silverberg

Starting in 1964, Vanderbilt’s IMPACT symposium has hosted a wide variety of speakers known for having intellectually stimulating and, often, controversial views. From Margaret Thatcher to Martin Luther King Jr., IMPACT speakers offer their thoughts on contemporary issues, and the 2017 opening night speaker, Van Jones, did not balk at the opportunity this past Monday night. The Tennessee native was the sole speaker Monday with Ezra Klein and Shaun King speaking Tuesday night, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar capping off the symposium on Wednesday.

Embracing the event’s theme, The Time is Now, Jones touched on a variety of political issues facing America in the 21st century. To begin, Jones began to characterize and explain the sources of discontent many Americans have towards Washington. Citing NAFTA, Wall Street deregulation, and the Iraq War as abysmal failures that had bipartisan support, Jones believes these policies are major contributors to the distrust America had in its leaders during the 2016 election.

Consistently throughout the speech and Q&A session, Jones made sure to explain that he was not a member of any party’s “cult.” He accused the elites of both parties for abandoning their constituents and only offering policy solutions to further their own ends of re-election. Mentioning his friendly relationship with Jeffrey Lord, his fellow CNN political commentator, Jones harped on the need not to hate those on the other side of the political spectrum. “Corey Lewandowski, that’s a different story,” Jones added.

Furthering his call for both sides of the American political system to take off partisan blinders, Jones defended his comment regarding “the moment Trump became President.” The comment was in reference to one portion of Trump’s address to Congress when he asked the widow of a Navy SEAL to stand for applause. “If Donald Trump does 99 bad things, but one good thing, guess what I am going to say. ‘Donald Trump did 99 bad things and one good thing.”

Prior to becoming a political commentator, Jones was an environmental justice advocate and served as the Special Advisor of Green Jobs in the Obama White House. A staunch Obama supporter and Trump dissenter, Jones’ comment regarding the best path forward for the Democrats surprised many in the audience. “I don’t care,” Jones said, and silence followed. Part of Jones’ justification for Donald Trump’s victory in 2016 was that “liberals stopped being liberal.” In citing the shutting down of factories and loss of many manufacturing jobs in the Midwest and Appalachia, Jones’ noted that the NAACP, the National Organization of Women, or big environmental groups did not go to help. But, “Donald Trump showed up.” Making sure he would not be chastised for using Ebonics, Jones commented, “Democrats would’ve done won had they been Democrats.”

In such a divisive political system that has seemingly forgotten about the ordinary American, when asked to give advice to students thinking about jumping in to the field of public policy, Jones commented, “Don’t.” While slightly tongue in cheek in his answer, Jones touched upon the rapid pace with which the world is changing. “The future is written in [computer] code.” Rhetorically, Jones asked the audience to name a lawyer who has changed the world, “except for Barack Obama.” While rather dismissive or perhaps humble in his answer, the Yale Law graduate encouraged the audience to make change by spending time learning more technical expertise in STEM fields. Advice Jones was willing to give, however, emphasized using your skills to help those who are not similar to you. He suggested that many of the drug treatment programs used the inner cities could help those in rural America dealing with heroin or opioid addictions. Following the same theme, when asked how Black Lives Matter supporters or other social activists should deal with those who deny systemic racism or refuse to empathize with those who face discrimination, Jones emphasized a commitment to discourse.

Jones’ final comments were addressing the painful hardships he witnessed and experienced as a part of the Obama White House. “I saw the letters…thousands of them.” As he put it, during the early years in the White House, President Obama was trying to give healthcare to people who threw racial slurs at him. “And you know what we called these people?…Our constituents.” As Jones walked off of the stage, he led a solidarity slow-cap that became absorbed in applause.

I believe that Van Jones’ unwillingness to consistently take the obvious Democratic side or label everything that Trump does as wrong just because Trump did it is a much needed opinion in the sphere of political commentary. However, it is also worth noting that from 2013 to 2014, Jones was featured on CNN’s Crossfire along with Newt Gingrich, Stephanie Cutter, and SE Cupp. To sum up this show’s one-year existence, Cutter and Jones would deliver the liberal response to a given issue and Cupp or Gingrich would respond in kind with the conservative viewpoint. Such partisan dialogue with little attempt at working together appears to be something CNN and Jones are leaving in the past, a trend that hopefully permeates across all cable media.

Outside of his work at CNN, Jones is working to achieve criminal justice reform and reduce the prison population while making communities safer with his #cut50 initiative and also working to teach 100,000 low income youths to write code with #YesWeCode. Both of these organizations are a part of a larger organization called The Dream Corps where Jones serves as President. With #cut50, Jones put on display bipartisan cooperation as he invited Newt Gingrich to an idea summit for prison reform. Hopefully, Jones’ speech will inspire us students to seek the best of both “sides,” abandon the glib tweet we are thinking of sending, and find ways to grow closer to those who come from different backgrounds.