Ep. 11: Van Jones
BY Future of StoryTelling — June 25, 2020

Activist and political commentator Van Jones discusses the influence of Marvel comics on his life and activism, the power of virtual reality to create empathy and understanding, and why the future of human civilization is the future of storytelling.


Available wherever you listen to your podcasts:


Apple Podcasts  |  Spotify  |  Google Podcasts  |  Stitcher  |  iHeartRadio 


Additional Links:


    Charlie Melcher:

    Hi, I'm Charlie Melcher, Founder and Director of The Future of Storytelling, and I'd like to welcome you back to the FoST podcast. At this moment, we as Americans find ourselves in the midst of a national outpouring of rage and grief, centered on the tragic police killing of George Floyd, and fueled by so many other events just like it. We at FoST are disturbed and outrage by these killings, as well as the outbreak of police aggression that we've seen in their wake.

    We stand with demonstrators around the country and the world, in calling for a thorough and long overdue reform of the United States Criminal Justice System. Just one step in a long process of purging systematic racism from America's institutions. Furthermore, we believe deeply in the resounding truth that neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim, and that silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. We believe that every citizen, every organization, and every institution has a moral obligation to use what power they have to oppose injustice.

    We'll share some of the steps that we're taking to do our part in that fight at the end of this episode. But we would not exist as an organization, and wouldn't be here speaking these words right now, if we didn't truly believe that stories are a vital part of that fight. My guest today is both an embodiment and a champion of that truth. Van Jones, a graduate of Yale Law School, has a long list of professional accomplishments that include co-founding six non-profit social justice organizations, hosting four documentary and political commentary shows on CNN, authoring three New York Times best selling books, championing two landmark acts of Congress, and even working for President Obama as his Green Jobs Advisor.

    As Van and I discuss in this episode, he credits much of his driving sense of mission and values to the stories that inspired him as a child. Which also helped inspire his belief as stated in the tagline of his production studio, Magic Labs Media, that the earth is made of stone, but the world is made of stories. For over two decades Van has been using that belief in the power of stories, as well as a deep understanding of how to wield them, to build a better, cleaner and more equitable future for all Americans.

    We recorded this episode several weeks ago. And so in it, we don't touch directly on what's currently happening in the streets all across America. Instead, our conversation examines the broader impact that stories can have through the lens of both Van's personal life and his professional work. And so without further ado, I'm very honored to welcome Van Jones to The Future of Storytelling podcast.

    Van Jones, it's such an honor and pleasure to have you on the podcast today. Thank you for being here.

    Van Jones:

    My honor to be here. It's great to see you.

    Charlie Melcher:

    So nice to see you again. So I read that as a kid, you read a lot of comic books.

    Van Jones:

    True story.

    Charlie Melcher:

    Who were your favorite superheroes?

    Van Jones:

    The X-Men. I grew up when Marvel Comics were still mainly an underground phenomenon. You had to be a super nerd, a super geek to know who the X-Men were. You were going to get a wedgie at some point that semester, for sure, just by definition, if you knew any of that world and that universe.

    But I really grew up as a skinny, nerdy, bookish, emotional kid on the edge of a small town in rural West Tennessee. Born in '68, so it's the '70s, the '80s, when there was no upside for being a nerd. Now you can be a nerd. You can be a geek. It's cool. There's Silicon Valley, it works. There's Will.I.Am, you can make it work. No, you were just a bully magnet with your weirdo comic books, and Dungeons and Dragons, or whatever it was. It's trying to survive high school. And that's how I grew up.

    Charlie Melcher:

    Well, we shared that because I was a crazy Marvel collector. I lived for those. And favorites personally, yes Daredevil. Yes X-Men, Luke Cage, Power Man, Iron Fist. The more obscure, the more I loved to collect them and read them and consume them. Would you say that some of those stories, and some of those characters were influential for you? Have they continued to live out and play out in your life?

    Van Jones:

    I wouldn't say influential. I would say fundamental. The idea of the X-Men in particular, these weirdo kids with these special abilities, and they were sworn to protect a world that hated and feared them. Sworn to protect a world that hated and feared them. There's no better kind of framework for being an African American activist in the US context than that. So you're in this world that doesn't appreciate you, maybe is afraid of you. And yet you've committed yourself as the X-Men did, to the noble of purposes. The kind of power fantasy of the marginal nerd to be able to become something great and do something great is, I think, at the root of the whole comic book ethic, and it's my ethic.

    Charlie Melcher:

    And with great power comes great responsibility.

    Van Jones:

    Absolutely. Absolutely. And Peter Parker and Uncle Ben telling him that.

    Charlie Melcher:

    Uncle Ben.

    Van Jones:

    Yeah. Uncle Ben telling Peter Parker that, that is really my ethic. I have so much respect for Stan Lee. And I think that his ability to humanize the genre, I think that was really important, and I took all of that in. The nobility of the heroic ethic of Stan Lee is my heroic ethic as well.

    Charlie Melcher:

    Nicely said. So I have a long relationship with you that you don't necessarily know about. So I was at the Bioneers conference in 2003.

    Van Jones:

    Wow. Life changer.

    Charlie Melcher:

    Life changing, because I will never forget the speech that you gave there where you ... I came there as an environmental activist, and you opened my eyes to the need for social and prison reform, and social activism. And you took those two movements and you tied them together. You literally said a movement that is courageous and visionary on the environment, but cowardly and ignorant about the social issues will fail.

    I remember that, and I actually cried with you during that speech that you gave when you so honestly, and authentically shared how passionately you felt about this and how moved you were. And nobody, there wasn't a dry eye in the house as you gave that talk. Honestly, I was like, "Where did you come from?" Where did you come from? And how did you learn to get up there and, and give that talk, like speak from the heart like that?

    Van Jones:

    I appreciate that. Well, first of all, not easily. I had a speech impediment growing up, you can still hear remnants of it. I was incredibly shy beyond shy. I grew up going to public schools. I grew up in the black church. There's this thing in the black church, and I'm not saying it's to be racially offensive or divisive, but there is something called the black church. If you ever been in one, you know it ain't the same as a white church.

    And there's this theological position that I just call the hallelujah anyhow position. No matter what's happened during the week, no matter how many times we've been mistreated or discriminated against, or called horrible names, or even lynched, or even falsely accused, or even jailed or killed. Hallelujah, anyhow. You're not going to steal our joy. You're not going to steal our dignity. Hallelujah, anyhow.

    But because I grew up in such a weird place, Jackson, Tennessee, who's ever heard of that? Then I wind up going to law school at Yale, who hasn't heard of that. And then I move to the Bay Area, and not to go work downtown for a big firm, but to work essentially in low income communities, with transgender people, and homeless people, and kids in trouble. And it all just got shaken up inside of myself. And it came out as this commitment to protecting things that are sacred, no matter where they are. I could see how the solution for the earth, and the solution for people were the same thing. Solution for the planet, solution for the people, same thing. That you could fight poverty and pollution with the same thing.

    And then I got invited to go to Bioneers, and I just had so much to say. And when I got there, I looked out. That was probably the biggest audience I had ever spoken in front of, and I'm looking out, and it's clearly like mostly white, very affluent, but with these big hearts. And I'm thinking to myself, if I can just get these folks to care about these kids from Oakland, there's just nothing that we can't do. That was probably the most consequential speech of my life because I just ... Something just came pouring out of me into that moment, and it created ultimately the pathway that led me to the Obama White House and everything else. But that was the farthest thing in our mind at the time. But that was a really, really important moment.

    Charlie Melcher:

    So it seems to me that you then went on this path. I know the whole story about going to the White House. I know the story about getting pushed out of the White House. And now most people know you because of the work you do on CNN, as a political correspondent or commentator. But what people don't realize, because they don't think about commentators as getting shit done, right. They think about them as people that talk for a living, and don't really do anything. And you are unbelievably effective as a person who gets important things done. There was the Green Jobs Act. Sorry, I don't remember the exact name of it from 20-

    Van Jones:

    Sure, Green Jobs Act. Yeah, 2007.

    Charlie Melcher:

    I do remember it, okay. And then the First Step Act, first big major legislation for prison reform in a decade. That was later in 2017, is that right?

    Van Jones:

    Yeah. And we got Trump 2018, we got Trump to sign it, which was unbelievable. It's so funny because the Green Jobs Act of 2007, we got George W. Bush to sign that, to get green jobs all across the country. And then the First Step Act, the criminal justice reform piece, we got Trump to sign.

    Charlie Melcher:

    I mean, it's crazy. And also in an age when, when Congress is just divided and in the standstill, right, shut down because of the partisan rancor. And yet you've been able to get these major things passed or be important part of doing that. What's the formula for getting real progress made?

    Van Jones:

    What I have tried to do is look for the areas of common ground between the right and the left, and put my work there. Now that's a choice. It's not the only choice, not the only valid choice.

    There are people who have, and I think with great justifications say, "Listen, we can't be friends. You're snatching babies from their mothers at the border. You're trying to take away women's rights over their bodies. You're trying to exclude people from the country because they're Muslim. We're not going to be friends. I got to fight you." And so there are people who have gone to the battleground and they are fighting hard. And I respect that. That's important.

    I've played that battleground role in times in my life. But for me in my heart, there are areas of common ground. And what happens is when you don't look for the common ground, the people who suffer the most are the poor, the marginal, the vulnerable, the addicted, the afflicted, the incarcerated, those are the people who lose out.

    So we just built a liberty and justice for all movement, a left and right movement to get something done. And through the Dream Corps, which I founded, which has #cut50, a bi-partisan campaign on criminal justice. Plus the Reform Alliance, I'm the founding CEO there, backed by Jay Z, backed by Meek Mill, backed by Robert Smith, Robert Kraft, et cetera. Over the past 36 months, we've passed almost two dozen criminal justice bills on a bipartisan basis, including in red states like Georgia. We got Trump to sign a bill, the First Step Act that got 8,000 people out of the federal prison system earlier, with many more to come. Now the federal system is the smallest it's been in a couple of generations now.

    It doesn't mean that I don't fight Trump on the stuff I disagree with him on. Doesn't mean I'm going to vote for a Republican. But it does mean that on issues like criminal justice and addiction, that hits both sides of the aisle, and generational poverty, which hurts people from Appalachia to the hood and the barrio and the reservation, and all the way back around. There are things we can work on together.

    Charlie Melcher:

    So let me ask you about one of the other things that you've built. You have a production company, Magic Labs Media, and I love the tagline for that company. The earth is made of stone, but the world is made of stories. If we want new facts, we need new fiction. Can you tell me a little bit why that's the tagline, and how you came up with that?

    Van Jones:

    It came to me in prayer. You know, I pray a lot. I meditate a lot. People look at what's going on in the US and maybe throughout the West, politically with some horror, no matter what side you're on. Just the level of divisiveness and dysfunction and disrespect is so high. This overwhelming narrative that the problem is somebody else, and the solution is to smash them to bits is everywhere in the culture. It's a spiritual problem, and a cultural problem, and a narrative problem. Well then that's where we need to be putting a lot more energy and attention and time.

    So Magic Labs, we've got this virtual reality project where we let you be in the body of a small black child sitting on the front seat of a car. You blink awake, and you pick up your hands, your hands are like the hands of a small black child. You look to your left and your dad is a big black guy, Winston Duke, who played M'Baku in the Black Panther, Marvel, Marvel movie. And he's your dad and he's driving the car. He's joking with you, and he's telling you funny stories, and everything's going great. And then the lights start flashing behind you, and you get pulled over. And you get to witness the reenactment of an actual traffic stop from the point of view of a small black child on the front seat of a car. And it's not gruesome, but it's very disturbing.

    And we took that virtual reality content, two and a half minutes to see CPAC, the Conservative Political Action Conference with, I don't know, 6,000, 7,000 Trump supporters. And we had law enforcement people. So we have video of people taking off their MAGA hats and putting on our visors, taking off their NRA hats, the make America great hats, and putting on our visors, and two and a half minutes later going, "Wow. I literally never thought about what when I see these police interactions, and of course, I always side more with law enforcement because I understand they got to protect themselves. They got their own families to come home to. But I just had never thought about what it would be like to be a child in that car. Would that happen to your dad?"

    Now that's not going to change the way anybody votes. But it can change ... Because it's not going to create political agreement, but it can create understanding. And that's what you can do with culture.

    Charlie Melcher:

    I love that you're using VR, and experimenting with it. At The Future of Storytelling last year, the piece that won the FoST prize for bridging the divide, it was a category that we had, was a piece called I Am A Man, which was this beautiful interactive VR piece by Derek Ham. You became a sanitation worker in 1968, in Memphis, peacefully marching with your sign that said, I am a man. It was a series of vignettes. This is the strike, the sanitation workers strike that Dr. Martin Luther King came to, to support the strikers. And in the piece he's assassinated. You don't see that, but it happens in the course of this piece. And so you go from being part of peaceful protests to an evening when there's riots in the streets. You as a viewer, you are this African American man. Again, you can tell from the color of your hands.

    And the piece ends with you on the streets now, and police cars pull up, it's evening, lights, headlights are focused on you. And the police come out and say, "Put your hands up." And you are placed in this moment of moral decision to physically raise your hands during this VR piece or not. And you're filled with rage from what's happened and sadness. And that was an amazing, emotional and empathetic moment for a white guy who's not had the police point guns at him before. But probably for anybody really. Anyway, just another example of a similar kind of use of the medium for this purpose.

    I wanted to ask, you work so beautifully across so many media, right? Television, podcasts, radio, documentaries, journalism, VR. Do you have a favorite? Do you think that there's one that's more useful for the kind of influence and impact and change you're trying to accomplish?

    Van Jones:

    Well, I appreciate what you said. I also written a couple of books I'm proud of. But the-

    Charlie Melcher:

    Of course, three New York Times best sellers.

    Van Jones:

    All available on amazon.com or wherever you buy books. It makes me proud to hear you say what you just said, given your role as the preeminent curator of this whole world that I'm trying to be a part of. So I appreciate just the acknowledgement. What I'm proudest of, of all the things I've been able to do in media is an eight part series, a docuseries I did called The Redemption Project. It didn't win any big awards. It didn't get great ratings. But it was the best that I could do in the domain of television, commercial television, very hard to do meaningful shit in commercial television.

    And what it was, was we found instances of violent crime, and we found the victim, the person who had been hurt, or often the surviving family member, and we found the person who had done wrong. The person who had done wrong, sometimes it was vehicular homicide. Sometimes it was a shooting, no sexual crimes, but crimes of violence. The ones who really want to make amends and who had often made some change in their life, really wanted to talk to the person who they had hurt.

    And so we facilitated eight of these dialogues, where we would bring the person who had been hurt or the surviving family member, either into a prison or into a community center where they were going to meet with the person who had completely changed their lives in a moment of rage or stupidity. And we just filmed them talking. And like I said, it didn't get big ratings. Didn't get big awards, but I'm so proud that CNN put it on the air. If anybody ever wants to know what does Van Jones believe, that's it, people reaching across some of the toughest lines possible, and finding some kind of hope.

    What I most like to do is just to talk in front of real audiences, which now with this pandemic, maybe we'll never do again. Because you can go on a long journey with people. 30, 45 minutes, you can really tell a lot of stories. Also, you can just be silent. If you hesitate more than a second or two is going to jump in. It's like it's just not allowed. TV is a very noisy, colorful, medium.

    You're in a room with 500 students or 2,000 conference attendees. You could just shut up for a second, and just let what you just said sink in, and you can get to a much deeper place with people. I love being able to talk, just to real audiences. I have become incredibly comfortable though on live television.

    Charlie Melcher:

    You're really good on it.

    Van Jones:

    Well, that's very kind.

    Charlie Melcher:

    So quick. So fluent. Yeah.

    Van Jones:

    Well, I appreciate it. I cheat, and I'll tell you how I cheat in a minute. But the reality is that during the 2016 election, I was on TV so much for so long. You'd be on TV for 12 hours, 16 hours, and something just switched in me where I just became comfortable. I know what a gift it is to be on television. Even in this era where people are moving away from TV and everybody's on their devices or whatever, there's still something about television.

    Charlie Melcher:

    It's still the mass media, yeah.

    Van Jones:

    I know the importance of my voice in that medium, because you're talking to half a million, million people on an off night for CNN. A big night, you might hit 14 million-

    Charlie Melcher:

    Election night, yeah.

    Van Jones:

    Election night, 80 million, 80 million people. There are rock stars and celebrities that have never talked to an audience that big. And I cheat by the way.

    Charlie Melcher:

    Okay, how do you cheat? I want to hear that.

    Van Jones:

    The way that it is, I have a bunch of very, very smart friends who I have on a WhatsApp thread. And while I'm sitting there watching the debate or watching the primaries, whatever-

    Charlie Melcher:

    No way. This is like having it written on your sleeve or something. You're pulling it out in the middle of the test.

    Van Jones:

    Exactly. Exactly. Exactly. Yeah. So they all started arguing and debating with each other on the WhatsApp thread, and so I just steal. I just steal from my friends, and people think I'm so smart, but I'm not. But I'm smart enough to have smart friends.

    Charlie Melcher:

    I love it. That's like, you're literally looking over someone's shoulder, getting an answer off their test.

    Van Jones:

    30 people's shoulders, 30 people's shoulders.

    Charlie Melcher:

    I love it.

    Van Jones:

    It's allowed, it's allowed.

    Charlie Melcher:

    So I've again, had the pleasure to see you a number of times speak publicly. I've seen you in many of those appearances wear either a purple shirt or a purple tie. Can you tell me why?

    Van Jones:

    Because it's in honor of Prince. I never wore purple before he died. I used to wear orange or red. I think they kind of matched my skin tone a little bit better. But when I left the Obama White House under fire, because of my left wing, radical past catching up to me. I had been a berserkly radical, proud of it too by the way. In my twenties, I was with every ism. I could find anarchism, communism, any kind of ism that was against the system ism, I was for it. And very proud of myself to be so idealistic and passionate as a young person.

    But the positive thing was a guy named Prince called me and took me in. So I went from working with the President to working with a Prince. Prince used to always say, "In most countries, Van, that's a promotion." We had a great run, six, almost seven years together, changed my life, great guy. So ever since he passed, I wore a purple tie. I had one purple tie, not a purple shirt in my closet. I had nothing purple when he ... I thought it would be too corny for me to be his guy, doing his philanthropy and all his social do-gooder stuff and be wearing purple. I thought that'd be like too ... So I had nothing purple.

    I had one purple shirt when he died. So I put that shirt on. I went on the air and disclosed the fact that we were even working together. Because he was very, very private person. People didn't even know he was giving away so much money and doing all these things. And then ever since then, it's been almost four years now. I guess it has been four years now, I've worn a purple shirt and, or a purple tie every time.

    Charlie Melcher:

    So tell me about a story that helped you believe in the power of stories. Is there something that really shifted your thinking?

    Van Jones:

    That's all I had was stories. I'm not a rich man's child, but all I had was stories. The black community is really an oral tradition. Storytelling is a big deal in the South period, and then certainly in the black community. The future of human civilization is the future of storytelling. Human civilization is a story. Each human civilization has told itself a story and that's what led it great irrigati

    Van Jones:

    And take care of your child as a nanny or as a school teacher. That Amazon package can't get to your door unless a human being comes to your door. And you better hope that human being is not sick. And suddenly it turns out we're all one.

    And so this idea of oneness and wellness. Now listen, the creator already sent a bunch of prophets before to tell us about oneness. Don't be mad now that we got a hard lesson. I mean, we've had all the great prophets and the sages, and the Oprah Winfreys and the Fred Rogers and the Big Birds and Kermit the frogs and all these great people have come. Ellen DeGeneres, and everybody else has come to tell us let's be one. So now we have to have it as a tough lesson.

    But if we learn this lesson and we put the least of these at the center, the people in the prisons, and the homeless shelters, and the women's shelters, and the foster homes who can't shelter in place, and who the virus will just come through again, and come through again, and come through again. You'll never get rid of this virus if you don't deal with the people at the very, very bottom. Make sure that they're healthy. Make sure that they're safe.

    Then if we learn the lesson and we govern ourselves accordingly, then a new story will come. And the next normal will be a story that lets us have a human civilization at peace with itself, and with the earth. That's what this century is about. And that's what the new story has to be about, and I'm proud to be on the journey with you.

    Charlie Melcher:

    Amen. Van, we need more superheroes today. And that's basically one of the lessons I take from this conversation. You are one of my personal heroes.

    Van Jones:

    Same back at you, brother.

    Charlie Melcher:

    You're fighting the good fight. You're out there using your super skills as a storyteller to fight for truth, justice, and the American way.

    Van Jones:

    Absolutely.

    Charlie Melcher:

    Thank you, brother.

    Van Jones:

    Hey thanks. Have me back sometime, and let's stay together. Appreciate you.

    Charlie Melcher:

    I hope you enjoyed today's conversation with Van Jones, as much as I did. If you'd like to learn more about Van, or watch the moving video of his speech at the Bioneers conference in 2003, you can do so on our website, fost.org. There's also a link to the appropriate page in this episode's description.

    As a way of supporting the crucial work that Van does FoST will be donating $5,000 to his organization, Dream Corps, which works to close prison doors, and open doors of opportunity. We encourage all of our listeners to support Dream Corps by texting donate to 974-83. We have also decided to devote this month's newsletter and our social media feeds to sharing resources that people can use to educate themselves on racial issues, as well as innovative and powerful storytelling projects by black artists.

    Thank you for being part of The Future of Storytelling family. If you liked this episode, please be sure to subscribe to our podcast, give us a review and share it with others. A heartfelt thank you to Van Jones, and to our talented production partner, Charts and Leisure. I hope you'll join us next week for another conversation. Until then, please be safe, be strong, and story on.