Van Jones Unearths Valuable Truths at University Lecture

From the November-December 2014 #839

by Erica Schwabach


Van Jones, a renowned environmentalist and co-host of CNN’s

“Crossfire,” spoke as part of the University Lecture series in

Hendricks Chapel on September 30, 2014.

Photo: Kadijah Watkins & Daily Orange

Van Jones poured energy into the undeniable truths of “Green Jobs and Sustainability,” his speech and contribution to the University Lectures when he spoke in Hendricks Chapel at Syracuse University on September 30. The Chapel was the perfect locale for his rhetoric about actions such as building greater awareness, adopting the policy of unity, and awakening our deepest sense of human compassion in response to countless global injustices. Jones brought to light a multitude of issues ranging from police brutality and racial divide to social injustice and issues of climate change. 


Van powerfully unified these complex issues and demonstrated their inherent, but often underrepresented, interconnectedness. He confronted environmental injustice: the unequal distribution of burdens from environmental hazards, such as air and chemical pollution. Low-income and minority communities and communities-of-color receive a disproportionate share of these burdens. Environmental injustice also concerns these communities’ underrepresentation in political affairs pertaining to environmental litigation and decision making. 

Van spoke about his involvement in the People’s Climate March earlier this year in New York City. He walked the streets and saw firsthand what environmental injustice looked like. He marched beside and met eyes with indigenous peoples long ago robbed of their sacred lands. Those same lands are being slowly destroyed by pollution and related global climate changes. Van also marched beside young men and women of color from the Bronx, those who survive environmental injustice daily in the form of smog and city pollutants. Van passed countless victims who are taking the real brunt of climate injustice. He brought these issues to life with his recollection of the march, which was in contrast with inadequate coverage by our media and no focus from political leaders. 

“These issues are both individual and intertwined; one isn’t bigger than the other,” said Colton Jones, a Co-President of Students of Sustainability at Syracuse University. He continued, “These are all injustice issues. Members on the lower end of the socio-economic scale are getting hit—they feel it. These are the unheard voices of the movement.” Colton’s passion for broadcasting the connection between social/racial injustice and environmental injustice was carried further by others in the room.

“Life is not being valued,” declared Christine Edgeworth, the other Co-President of Students of Sustainability. She went on to reinforce Van Jones’s message of a missing ethical framework: “The people who are doing the injustice just don’t feel it—justice overall is clearly the larger issue here.” 

Personal narratives of the sufferers and survivors of environmental injustice are integral to effectively combating them. These personal narratives are nearby, and accessible, for those who choose to embrace them. SUNY-ESF student Mikayla Comas shares her personal story as a person affected by the overlap of social and environmental injustice and as a member of Divest-SU/ESF. Divest-SU/ESF is a campaign to persuade Syracuse University and SUNY-ESF to invest in renewable, cleaner energy sources and therefore divest their endowments from fossil fuels industries. Comas’s exposure to fossil-fuels in her home neighborhood of East Flatbush in Brooklyn is “not proportional” to other neighbohoods. According to Comas, East Flatbush is a predominantly African-American/Caribbean-American neighborhood. The bus depot nearby her home struck her as the perfect example of how “environmental justice and racial justice do tend to overlap.” She went further, stating, “In the South Bronx, the average rates of asthma in this area are so much higher than the national average that people often call it ‘Asthma alley’…About 100 trucks go in and out of this neighborhood almost ten times a day.”

However other perspectives exist and one was strongly brought up the night of the lecture. “Divisive” was the word used by a student present that evening to describe Van Jones’s rhetoric about white polluters. The student’s allegation, provoked by Van’s description of the historical act of dumping waste chemicals in areas populated primarily by people-of-color, was addressed by Colton Jones: “You have to acknowledge the race issue. Van Jones brought up a pivotal piece and character of the story.” At the lecture Van himself argued for discussing the whole truth: “There is no way to get to the unity that we want without first talking about the disunity that we’ve had.”

Historical examples of success in combating an extensive injustice lend us another tool in combating the social and environmental injustices presently faced. Facing these injustices opens us to the danger of searching for easy answers. Historical examples provide insight into the complex solutions demanded of activists in the pursuit of positive change. 

One example from the past we can use to create wider spread social change is the nationwide divestment campaign from South African Apartheid, a system of white minority rule. According to Ben Kuebrich, a Doctoral student in Composition and Cultural Rhetoric at SU and member of Divest-SU, this campaign was so successful that “by the late 80s, over 150 colleges and universities had divested from companies doing business with South Africa. This helped to push US law makers to impose sanctions and eventually the apartheid state fell.”

Complexities of this challenge include oppositions to the divestment campaign such as by the president at the time, Ronald Reagan, as well as other backlash from those who felt that there would be a negative economic impact on ordinary black South Africans. However, it is important to remember that while this example can serve us to show that a dedicated, strong effort by like-minded individuals can work for change for the betterment of society, it may not work in all environmental justice cases per se.

Another great method for combating environmental injustice is establishing dialogue and raising awareness through education. Betsey Hogan is a professor of writing at SUNY-ESF and she teaches a course titled “Literature of Nature” which traces environmental writing and literature through the 19th and 20th centuries. Hogan claims that it is difficult to find other sources besides predominately white, male voices such as John Muir, Aldo Leopold, and Henry David Thoreau. Although these are great pieces of work, they do not represent or describe the minority voice nor the voices of people of color, the people most affected by environmental injustice.

A lack of diversity in voices discussing this matter can adversely affect our conceptions of who has and should have a legitimate say in environmental affairs and decision making. Because of this, Hogan focuses exclusively for one to two weeks of each semester on African-American nature writing. Camille T. Dungy’s Black Nature is one of the works taught by Hogan. She relies on Dungy’s work to engage the class participants and help them understand the importance of acknowledging the underrepresentation of voices and to facilitate participation in a conversation far more inclusive of, and relevant to, the larger environmental movement. Hogan describes this as “meaningful to their thinking of these issues… The students are very moved by it. The students here tend to be very thoughtful about this and they want to talk about this absence.” 

As we move forward in the struggle against environmental injustice and grow our knowledge for improving the imbalance between diversity and unity, many perspectives must be embraced. Edgeworth’s thoughts on the need for and benefits of collaboration on campus are encouraging. She comments that student leaders at SU are coming together to work as a team: “We need a collective effort, and from this there will surely be a ripple effect.” 

Colton Jones also remains positive and hopeful amidst struggle and controversy. “I think we are finally realizing that we have a loud voice and that voice is being heard. A new dawn is approaching. It’s time that we all wake up to our potential!” 

Since Van Jones’ lecture, more thought has been given to student activism in general, as shown in a piece written for the Daily Orange about increasing protests on campus and what this means for the SU community at large. However, future challenges can be seen in combating sensitive issues such as the environmental justice issues explored above. In order for direct action to be taken awareness of these issues needs first to be more widespread. Van Jones raised some energy around environmental injustice issues but now it’s our collective obligation to ride that wave as far as it will take us.

Erica is an Environmental Studies major at SUNY-ESF.