Looking Back on Our Revolutionary Roots with Van Jones—#Roots2Liberation

Tomorrow is the Ella Baker Center's 20th anniversary celebration! We are excited to reflect on our victories, our journey, and our vision for the future as we gather with almost 500 of our supporters here in Oakland. 

To remember our revolutionary roots, we talked with Van Jones, co-founder of the Ella Baker Center, about what inspired him to create the organization, his proudest moments, the challenges along the way, and his hopes for the organization. 

Van Jones is the President & Co-Founder of Dream Corps. Current initiatives, #cut50, #YesWeCode, and Green For All, create innovative solutions to "close the prison doors, open the doors of opportunity, into a new green economy." A Yale- educated attorney, Van has written two New York Times bestsellers: The Green Collar Economy, the definitive book on green jobs, and Rebuild the Dream, a roadmap for progressives. Van is a correspondent for CNN and regular guest on political talk shows. In 2009, Van worked as the green jobs advisor to the Obama White House. There, he helped run the inter-agency process that oversaw $80 billion in green energy recovery spending.

What inspired you to found the Ella Baker Center?

The inspiration was being a young black man in America. I found myself in the middle of one of the biggest prison expansions and expansions of police power and presence in the world. California was ground zero for that. I had a law degree in my hand. I decided to fight back.

The Rodney King uprising was probably the big formative experience in my young adult life. There was a real sense that police were out of control.

I got out of law school in 1993. I was 24 years old, a young black guy with dreadlocks. I figured the best thing I could do was start suing cops.

In 1995, Diana and I created Bay Area Police Watch. We were trying to replicate a similar program in Southern California, Los Angeles Police Watch, which was a simple hotline service with a roster of volunteer lawyers willing to take on cases.

I got a little support from Yale Law School’s support fund and also from the Echoing Green Fellowship. Eva [Eva Paterson, Founder and President of the Equal Justice Society] was willing to give us a literally a closet in the back of her office [at the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights]. And on September 1, 1996, Diana started up the payroll for something called the “Ella Baker Center for Human Rights In California.” (We later dropped the “in California.”)

I had a unique responsibility and opportunity to fight back, and the Ella Baker Center was a base for that. We built the Ella Baker Center to fight back.

What was your proudest moment?

Getting Marc Andaya fired. Here we were: I was still in my 20s at that point. The Ella Baker Center and Bay Area Police Watch were only a couple years old. We go after Willie Brown, the most powerful mayor in the history of the city, and at that time the most popular elected official in northern California, if not the whole state. I am proud to say that we kicked his ass over the mistreatment of his black base by his out-of-control police department.

[Bay Area Police Watch campaigned in 1996 and 1997 to get San Francisco Police Officer Marc Andaya fired for his killing of Aaron Williams and his brutal history of violence against people of color in general.]

Not only did they fire the cop, but they reformed the police department. It showed that we weren’t just a bunch of crazy kids; it showed that we could take on the biggest local opponents and win.

My whole public career grew out of that fight. We knew that we were either going to win or we were going to shatter the organization. All we had was ourselves. We had like three or four people on staff at that time. It was one of those “win or die” moments for an organization -- and we won.

After we dismantled Willie Brown’s police commission 1997, driving three of his five commissioners to quit in shame because of their role in defending Andaya, we launched the Third Eye Movement [regional movement of youth activists using hip-hop and art to speak out for justice]. We created something called INS Watch in partnership with La Raza. We created TransAction, which was the first transgender police accountability organization in the country.

In 2000, we fought hard to stop Prop 21 from passing. This nasty initiative, which ultimately passed, put 14-year-olds in adult court and 16-year-olds in adult prison. We saw the most inspiring youth protest I’ve ever seen from the mobilization to try and stop that thing. Then there was the Books Not Bars campaign. It stopped the super jail, and laid the basis to help close 5 youth prisons across California.

What were the biggest challenges? What did you learn?

Criminal justice is a tough field, you’re having to go up against racism in its purest form. People think it’s completely acceptable to put little black and brown teenagers in prison for things that they know their kids are doing at the prep school. That’s called inequality, that’s called injustice; that’s the definition of injustice.

It’s hard to win these fights; it’s hard to raise the money; it’s hard to find the opportunity; it’s hard to deal with the media. It is uphill, in the rain, with short legs, it is very, very hard to win anything in a criminal justice fight.

The Ella Baker Center had a tremendous track record of being able to win. I’m very very proud of that. What I learned was you have to win and then you have to spin the win. I learned you cannot be modest, you cannot get out here and take on Goliath and beat Goliath and hope everyone noticed.

I hope that over the next 20 years every victory that is won by Ella Baker Center is celebrated and known across the country. Because these are very tough fights to win.

What defines Ella Baker Center for you?

The willingness to fight. People love talking about problems, analyzing them, tweeting about them, posting and reposting about them. I like beating bad guys. That’s what I like. I like victory.

There were multiple times when someone was murdered by the police, and we were the only people willing to take on that case and fight it in the press and fight it in front of the police commission.

We never ducked any fight because it was too hard. We never got into any fight because it was a popular thing.

You don’t get your 20s and 30s back. Diana and I gave the best part of our lives to the Ella Baker Center. I was just a skinny black guy with dreadlocks, wanting to take on the system. The two of us could have done anything with our law school degrees -- especially Diana. I’m very proud of Diana for taking me by the hand and taking a chance. Nothing would have happened without her. I was out there being the rock star. But she was being the rock for the entire organization and getting very little credit externally.

Twenty years later, there are hole punchers and staplers and laptop computers and IRS filings, and it just seems like that office was always there. But I remember when it was a scribble on a napkin that I pulled out, talking to a young, blonde law student from Hastings. I’m very proud that those kids stuck it out.

What led you to name the Ella Baker Center after Ella Baker?

I liked the idea of helping the poorest and the youngest fight for themselves, and that’s what Ella Baker stood for. I think she was as important as a figure in the 60s as anyone else. Her approach led to SNCC, which was absolutely essential ingredient to the overall mix.

Many people hear about Ella Jo Baker for the first time because they hear about the center. Using the unknown name of an unsung heroine violated every rule of good branding and marketing. But I’m glad that we chose that name because it’s done a lot of work to keep her name alive.

How did starting the Ella Baker Center impact you? How did it lead to what came next for you?

Because I did so much wild stuff -- in terms of being willing to take on Willie Brown, being willing to take on the Oakland Super Jail, being willing to take on these fights that most people would take a pass on, because I was willing to challenge the system locally -- there was massive amount of space opened up for my voice and leadership, both nationally and globally.

For example, the World Economic Forum named me a Young Global Leader. I won the Reebok International Human Rights Award in 1998. And all of this national and global appreciation comes pouring in because I was willing to take on this local corrupt power structure.

I didn’t give a damn and just fought like a banshee whenever I could. And I wound up getting opportunities and creating relationships that let me create stuff at a different scope and scale.

I’ve gone on to be one of America’s more prolific serial entrepreneurs. We built a bunch of stuff inside of Ella Baker Center. And since I’ve been gone, there’s been Color of Change, Rebuild the Dream, #YesWeCode, Green for All, #cut50, Beyond Prisons, Magic Labs Media, and The Dream Corps. We also launched a PR firm, Megaphone Strategies.

You would never think that starting TransAction to fight police abuse against transgender sex workers in the Tenderloin would be a path to CNN, a NYT bestseller and the White House. But when you’re true to what you’re about, amazing things happen.

People appreciate real fighters. People who really believe in something.

Where do you see EBC going in the next 20 years? What is your hope for the organization?

It’s not up to me. I would be very proud if at 67 years old I could walk in there with Diana and see a whole set of people, some of whom are in elementary school now, continuing the fight for justice however they see fit. Just the idea that it’s still going on, the idea that the baton got passed.

I hope that 20 years from now there will be a bunch of people working there who weren’t even born when it was founded. No matter what they’re doing, if really excellent young people 20 years from now still find the Ella Baker Center a worthwhile place to put their life energy into, that will be the highest compliment to me and Diana -- no matter what they’re doing.

At the Ella Baker Center's 20th anniversary event on Thursday, September 8th, Van Jones and Ella Baker Center co-founder Diana Frappier will present the Founder's Award to Fathers and Families of San Joaquin, a longtime ally that has always embodied the values the Ella Baker Center seeks to uphold. If you will not be able to join us at the event, please follow along online with the hashtag #Roots2Liberation.