An open letter to my friend, Van Jones
Congratulations on your promotion to Co-Chair of the REFORM Alliance Executive Board. You have done it once again. You built a powerful organization, an impressive roster of talent, and some big victories. Your new CEO, Robert Rooks, has a lot to look forward to.
It wasn’t long ago when I was in Robert’s shoes. A little over two years ago I stepped into the CEO role at Dream Corps, you moved onto our Board of Directors and into your new role at REFORM. I was nervous walking on Bambi legs — unsure how I could carry forward your vision and lead the team you built. But my nerves were for naught. You taught me well and pushed me hard. Our organization that had only five staff when I started is now 50 strong. Our team consistently outperforms our size in our impact and accomplishments. You believed in me all the while instilling in me wisdom from which to lead.
While congratulations are in order, I also want to share what you taught me. These are lessons our entire movement can take to heart:
- There is nothing more urgent than freedom. I still remember when we first met back in 2001. It was at a rally you led to shut down a “super jail” for youth that was being proposed in California. I’ve come to realize that in the years since that freedom is your life’s work. It was true when you founded the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights nearly 25 years ago, and it was true 5 years ago when you challenged our team to keep fighting to get people out of jail even though Trump had just won the presidency. You said it was our job to bring people home, and today more than 14,000 people are out from behind bars because of the First Step Act. Putting freedom first means taking risks and facing criticism, but it keeps the focus where it should be: delivering results for people who are hurting the most.
- To lead means to go first. I saw an article the other day about how after the pandemic economy recovers, we will face a new threat: automation that grew in popularity over the last year. None of this surprised me, because you were talking about this ten years ago. It’s why you and Prince teamed up to found #YesWeCode (now Dream Corps TECH) to put Black and Brown people in the jobs where they are designing the future, not just downloading it. You’re willing to step forward even if people don’t buy your ideas or believe in what you’re doing, initially. I’ve seen it over and over again. It’s not magic —It comes from methodical study and scenario planning. But it is risky, and we need to take risks if we’re going to make our dreams for this country a reality.
- Hope it’s your fault. When something goes wrong, hope it is your fault. If it is your fault, you can fix it. What I learned (sometimes the hard way) is that there is always some part of the problem that is mine to own. Even when only 1% of the problem is my fault, I can own that piece 100%. From there you grow. This is why I have no doubts about sticking up for you when you come under fire, because I know you would be the first to be charitable to your opponents and the first to criticize yourself. It comes from your spiritual grounding, from your faith, from your family — and I hope my whole team finds the same spirit in their own way. It makes organizations better, and it can make our movement better.
- There are allies everywhere — if you look for them. Speaking of faith! Here is an idea that used to be called solidarity or smart strategy, and is now suffering a real beating. Common pain should lead to common purpose. I did not believe you when you said bipartisan criminal justice reform was possible. Yet, here we are. The narrative has shifted. Republicans and Democrats are teaming up. Donald Trump – a man who was never shy about racist demagoguery – ended up bragging about how many people he brought home from jail instead of how many he locked up. Now, we’re all re-learning that this unlikely allyship approach makes freedom movements stronger, not weaker.
- Don’t bet against you — or anyone on your team. You taught me that the cause of freedom is worth discomfort and blowback. I get tired of it some days. Then I get word from my staff about someone else who is home from behind bars, and I remember again what you’ve always said about why we do the work we do. When we are fighting for *literal freedom*, there is no backing down and there should be no amount of criticism we can’t take.
Thank you Van for your belief in my leadership. Some of these lessons were harder than others to learn, but you never gave up on me. Even when I was reluctant to take the role of CEO, you reminded me of one of your favorite Van-isms: No pressure, no diamonds. I’m writing this in the hope you’ll know how much you’ve meant to me, but also so that others can learn from what you’ve taught me.
I have no doubt that the next thing you tackle will blow all of us away. I can’t wait to see what you do and will be proud to be by your side while you do it. Thank you for your leadership and congratulations on the promotion.
When it gets harder to love, love harder.
Love your friend,
CEO, Dream Corps