By Nick Winnie

When I walked into the College 9/10 multipurpose room to hear Van Jones speak last Wednesday, I expected little more than vague political rhetoric and left-wing fist-pumping.

Like much of the Santa Cruz community, I consider myself environmentally friendly. I recycle. I ride the bus. I buy organic. So, I felt right at home attending a lecture titled “Growing Greener, Growing Together: Sustainability, Social Justice, and the Future of the Progressive Movement.”

Van Jones stood before a room filled primarily with liberals — myself included — and with a brilliant mixture of directness and delicacy, effectively called into question our entire view of the environmental movement. With genuine grace and serene intelligence, Jones opened our eyes to the possibilities of a larger, more cohesive modern progressive movement.

Despite our common interests, Jones argued, today’s environmental and social justice movements are extremely disconnected from one another, and that the future success of the larger progressive movement in America depends on the ability of mainstream environmentalists to work together with our nation’s communities of color in directing the growth of the emerging green economy.

Jones began to explain his argument in the context of what he called “Eco-Apartheid.” This provocative label describes America’s present exclusion of most people of color and low-income communities from the benefits of the American economy’s shift from “grey” to “green”, towards increased sustainability.

Jones used nearby Marin County and Oakland to illustrate the composition of our society’s “ecological haves and have-nots” within this Eco-Apartheid model. Affluent whites in Marin are financially able to make the environmentally conscious decisions to buy organic, drive hybrid cars, and invest in green companies, but minorities living in inner-city Oakland are cut off from these choices and benefits entirely.

The community that has to endure the strain of public health issues due to environmental hazards in the inner city lacks the means to purchase green products, and is cut off from the job market emerging from the ascendant green economy.

His argument was more a critique of the left than anything else, and this is why his message hit home. He eloquently exposed the harm of divisions within the Progressive movement drawn along racial and class lines, providing truly innovative solutions in response to them. He spoke of creating “green pathways out of poverty” for young people of color, calling for affirmative action in creating this new green workforce.

I was standing under the spotlight Jones had turned on the audience, and I accepted his criticism with the utmost respect. He had managed to expose our commonly held progressive views as shortsighted and incomplete, at the time igniting a strong sense of solidarity and optimism in the room.