Van Jones is a CNN news host, a New York Times bestselling author, and a lawyer whose accomplishments are monumental and many. On the evening of Thursday, Feb. 11 Van Jones spoke at a Drew University virtual event hosted by the Drew Forum, funded by the Blanche and Irving Laurie Foundation and moderated by Patrick McGuinn, a professor in the Political Science department.
Starting off the evening, Jones spoke about the current tension in America, and argued that citizens of all religions, political affiliations, race, gender, and social status need to understand one another. He insists that we need each other, red and blue states alike, informing the audience that he was born in the historically Republican state of Tennessee where his father also grew up, has served in the military, and then attended college where he met his wife whom he now has a family with. “In a democracy,” he mentions, “people often disagree and that is acceptable.”
One student questioned his rapport with former 2012 presidential candidate and former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Penn.), whom he quickly assured the audience that he has a positive relationship with. “Like myself, Rick Santorum is not afraid to offend his base,” Jones said before mentioning a quote from Bobby Kennedy regarding the concept of disagreeing with one’s own friends. Jones mentions that he admires Santorum for moments they have worked together on the goal of improving the criminal justice system. “He has helped me on criminal justice issues…We get along just fine. Why?” Jones asks before highlighting a concept of accepting and acknowledging one another’s views. “The key is to not try to convert or convince but simply to understand.”
The next topic he discussed, criminal justice– is one that he is especially passionate about. He has spent 25 years solving issues within the criminal justice system and has helped to close five abusive prisons by working with the Trump Administration to pass a bill called the First Step Act, decreasing the federal prison population by 17%. He has spent much of his career fighting to stop the abusive treatment that occurs in these facilities. “They can’t vote. They can’t march,” Jones said, “They can’t tweet, they have no ability to determine who is in the White House.”
Jones explained the four main predicaments that he believes our country is facing: an ecological crisis, a steep drop in the wages of middle-class citizens, the challenge of diversity in the western world, and lastly the truth and trust collapse that he feels social media is hugely responsible for.
On the issue of truth and trust, Jones said, “people can pick their own realities now,” speaking specifically about the issue of social media and algorithms. “If you click on your app two or three times that you like Donald Trump, the algorithm will kick in and start giving you content and you might be in QANON yourself in six months.” He made the point that technology has evolved vastly, yet continues to divide us as citizens. Jones called the audience to action to fix these divisions. “We use these things as toys, not as tools,” Jones comments on smartphones.
Jones is confident that there are a lot of jobs to be acquired when it comes to repairing the damage of climate change. “There are areas of surprising common ground where people should work together. Climate is actually one of them, surprisingly,” Jones speculates. “So you may see a climate bill come together that will create jobs.” The talk ended with a message of hope and the prospect of citizens letting go of contempt for one another, regardless if they are in the Democratic or Republican Party.