On the opening afternoon of last month's Bioneers Conference -- the massive gathering of environmental activists held annually in San Rafael -- shiny hybrid cars parked in spaces "reserved for clean-air vehicles." Conferencegoers polished off kale salads and raw cucumber soup while a three-piece band picked out bluegrass tunes in the sunshine. Several thousand righteous souls had trekked here to the Marin Center in search of ideas and enlightenment. But the 2:45 p.m. panel on "social entrepreneurs" was failing to inspire.
The first speaker, a ponytailed environmental philanthropist, subjected his audience to a dry academic talk about the people he calls social entrepreneurs: ambitious visionaries who take risks and seize opportunities. He portrayed such activists as special people, implying that the rest of society should basically get out of their way. Some audience members seemed more interested in getting out of his way, and quietly slipped out of the auditorium in search of more fiery oratory.
The second speaker, a community organizer who works in Mexican border towns and embodied many of the traits her predecessor had catalogued, repeatedly left the room in silence while she struggled to get her PowerPoint presentation working. "I had hoped to show you ..." she said, her voice trailing off. "You're not going to get a visual, I guess."
By the time the final speaker addressed the crowd, people shuffled restlessly in their seats as a lone infant wailed. Van Jones, a tall, dark-skinned man wearing a "Kanye was right" T-shirt under his black blazer, seemed to have little in common with his audience of predominately white hippies. Feeling the energy in the room ebbing straight from the stage, he later said, Jones decided to throw out the talk he had planned to deliver about the work of his human-rights organization, the Ella Baker Center. Instead, he asked the name of the squalling baby. "Tavio," the mother replied.
"Tavio is a social entrepreneur," Jones said. "Tavio is changing the rules -- see? Speak when you want to speak."
The crowd laughed, and Tavio's parents smiled beatifically.
Then Jones alluded to what he had heard from some of the other speakers that day. "They're calling out for us to be brave again," he said. "To break out of patterns, start breaking some rules, try some new stuff." He explicitly challenged the ponytailed speaker's notion that social entrepreneurs such as he are isolated heroes. Jones said he personally would be "babbling on a street corner" somewhere if not for the support of his colleagues. He instead insisted that each member of the audience had the potential to light a fire that could change the world.
Jones quickly involved others in his presentation by lobbing questions back at his audience; each raised hand signaled another person won over. "Is there anyone here who has a recurring dream that there's something you're supposed to be doing?" he asked. "You look at your journal and the same idea keeps coming back? Is there anyone here who ever swallowed hard and took a stand for something that you knew was unpopular? Has anybody in this room ever really, really screwed something up, and then tried again? Well, I would say if you answered yes to any of those questions, you are a social entrepreneur."
The activists hung on Jones' words, captivated by the potential that he described within each of them. He finished with an exhortation worthy of a revival: "Our species is struggling to live through you, through that dream, through that journal entry that keeps recurring," he said, his voice quivering with passion. "I beg you, I beg you, embrace that rule-breaking, life-affirming, risk-taking you that the world needs so desperately right now."
He bowed his head, and was greeted with whistles, hoots, and applause. Half the audience leapt to its feet. If it hadn't been a crowd of sedate white liberals, someone might have shouted "Hallelujah." A woman turned to her companion and asked, "Where did this guy come from again?"
Jones came from rural Tennessee, by way of Yale Law School. The self-described former "rowdy black nationalist" is best known as founder of the Ella Baker Center, an Oakland-based nonprofit group with roots firmly grounded in criminal-justice issues that affect low-income people of color. In 1995, he started Bay Area PoliceWatch, a program that assists victims of alleged police brutality. He made his mark as an activist by brashly saying things no other civil-rights leaders would say, such as "Willie Brown's Police Commission is killing black people." The center's second program, Books Not Bars, runs a campaign to radically transform California's youth prisons into rehabilitation centers. As the group gained visibility and a reputation for in-your-face tactics, its annual budget snowballed to $1.4 million, and its staff increased to 22.
But Jones' personal life has been punctuated with a series of epiphanies, each of which has expanded the focus of his work. In college, he embraced the fight for racial justice. Then he moved to the Bay Area and embraced the struggle for class justice. When he gained interest in environmentalism, he started searching for a way to pull together all three quests in the service of a better future. Now that he believes he has found that unified field theory -- one suffused with his rediscovered spirituality -- he's out to sell it to the progressive world.
"There is a green wave coming, with renewable energy, organic agriculture, cleaner production," he said in an interview. "Our question is, will the green wave lift all boats? That's the moral challenge to the people who are the architects of this new, ecologically sound economy. Will we have eco-equity, or will we have eco-apartheid? Right now we have eco-apartheid. Look at Marin; they've got solar this, and bio this, and organic the other, and fifteen minutes away by car, you're in Oakland with cancer clusters, asthma, and pollution."