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Van Jones; Founder and National Executive Director, Ella Baker Center for Human Rights; Oakland, CA


Van Jones is Founder and National Executive Director, Ella Baker Center for Human Rights Oakland, CA.

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   LAW STAR                                                                                      1. 800.973.1177

                            Van Jones; Founder and National Executive Director,
                            Ella Baker Center for Human Rights; Oakland, CA
                            [by Charisse Dengler]
                            Founder of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights (EBC), Van Jones is intensely passionate about exposing human
                            rights violations and being an instrument of “justice, opportunity, and peace in the streets.”

Having grown up in the rural South, with            me. I thought it was unfair. So, that began       “We were and are still one of California’s
schoolteacher parents who spoke out boldly          to inform what I wanted to do with my law         only state-bar-certified, police-misconduct-
on the subject of desegregation, Jones was          degree.”                                          lawyer referrals,” Jones said.
destined to be a leader in the fight for justice
and equality.                                       Upon graduation, Jones took a job at the          Other programs the EBC has implemented
                                                    Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights in San        include Books Not Bars and Reclaim the
“I grew up in a very pro-civil rights               Francisco, and it was there that he met Eva       Future. Books Not Bars is a program
household, and that really affected my              Paterson, the civil rights attorney and mentor    dedicated to getting California’s youth
worldview,” he said.                                who would help him accomplish his dream of        out from behind bars and into positive
                                                    founding the EBC.                                 rehabilitation centers, and Jones is proud of
Jones first began to consider becoming a                                                              the progress the program has made so far.
                                                    “Based on the things I saw working as a
lawyer while working at a newspaper in
                                                    young civil rights attorney, I decided to         “As a result of our efforts and the efforts
Shreveport, LA.
                                                    create a human rights center that would           of others, there’s been about a one-third
                                                    be really focused on some of these abuses         reduction in the number of kids who are
“I felt that there was a lot of racism
                                                    and wouldn’t stop at calling them civil           locked up in the state system, and that’s
discrimination in the community that
                                                    rights abuses or miscarriages of justice,         something we’re pretty proud of,” he said.
the newspaper was actually adding to
                                                    but would say that these are human rights         “We’ve got a long way to go, but we’re seeing
and fanning the flames of, as opposed to
                                                    abuses,” he said. “Same way that if we saw        real progress.”
correcting, and I felt implicated because I
                                                    any other country that was putting its poor
was working there,” he said. “I just disagreed
                                                    people and its minority population in prison      Reclaim the Future is a program designed
with a lot of things—a lot of the slants and
                                                    in disproportionate numbers to its majority       to help people with barriers to employment,
angles and the way different neighborhoods
                                                    population, we’d call those human rights          such as those with criminal records, find
and communities were being portrayed—and
                                                    abuses. I wanted to say the same thing was        quality jobs. The EBC also helped start
so I decided that I wanted to make the news
                                                    happening inside U.S. borders.”                   Freedom Fighter Music, a music label
and not write it and went to law school.”
                                                                                                      featuring artists whose work expresses the
                                                    Three years later, Jones turned his dream         EBC’s beliefs.
While in law school, Jones once again
                                                    into reality.
became aware of discrimination in the
                                                                                                      “We think that they [Freedom Fighter
community around him, and this time, it led
                                                    “I started the Ella Baker Center for Human        Music artists] are adding an important
to the decision to focus his legal career on
                                                    Rights in 996, so it’ll be 0 years old in       perspective—an important voice—especially
battling human rights abuses.
                                                    September,” he said. “Our initial mission was     in the world of hip-hop music, where socially
                                                    to document, challenge, and expose human          relevant music isn’t as popular or common
“I noticed that students at Yale University
                                                    rights violations, especially by U.S. law         as it was in the late ‘80s,” Jones said.
used drugs fairly freely—breaking the law
pretty much every weekend—and never got                                                               When asked why he believes young people
arrested or put in prison for that criminal         The EBC’s first program, Bay Area                 have responded so well to the EBC’s
behavior,” he said, “but, literally four blocks     PoliceWatch, was created in 995 to “police       programs, Jones said it’s because the
away, kids doing that in the housing projects       the police.” The program works to expose          organization allows the youth of today to
were labeled drug dealers and drug abusers          police misconduct and campaigns on behalf         speak out in their own voices and do things
and sent off to prison. That really shocked         of victims’ families to bring about justice.      their way.

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   LAW STAR                                                                                   1. 800.973.1177

“We don’t try to dress them up or water         For law students interested in effecting some       an avalanche in the direction that you think
them down,” he said. “We think that people      major change in their society, Jones advises        things should go. That’s the worst thing.”
really need to hear from young people in        finding a mentor who has been in their field        Over the past decade, Jones has worked
urban America—raw and uncensored—in all         of interest for a while and who can make            relentlessly to create an organization
their hope and all their pain so we can start   recommendations and give advice. He also            dedicated to justice, opportunity, and peace;
making wiser choices about how to lift those    vigorously encourages students to go with           and now that the EBC is established and
young people up.”                               their instincts and fight for what they believe     flourishing, he has no intention of slowing
                                                in.                                                 down.
Since he founded the EBC, Jones has been
brazenly educating the world on human           “If you feel called to start something,             “I think the Ella Baker Center is on the path
rights abuses and opening people’s eyes         chances are if it’s worth doing at all, most        to becoming a world-class strategy and
to the injustices taking place in their own     people will tell you don’t do it,” he said. “So,    action center for justice and opportunity…and
communities.                                    listen to your own heart. Get a patron or           we’re going to continue on that road,” he
                                                somebody—get a couple—and then, don’t be            said. “And as for me, I’m going to keep trying
“I get a chance to talk to elected officials.   afraid to fail.”                                    to find ways to make this country more just
I get a chance to talk to philanthropists,                                                          and to make the struggling in marginal
students, [and] community leaders that          “The worst thing in the world is not being          communities more healthy and prosperous.”
are maybe not focused on this part of the       passionate about something and trying to
problem,” he said. “It always feels good when   start a project and it failing,” he said. “That’s
you’re able to see the light bulbs go off in    not the worst thing at all. The worst thing is
people’s heads and you realize that you are     to be passionate about something and take
helping to shape people’s understanding of      no action and always wonder whether you
the world and what in fact is going on.”        could’ve thrown a rock that would’ve caused


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