In his lecture at Hendricks Chapel on Tuesday evening, civil rights and environmental advocate Van Jones called for young people on college campuses to take action.
“There is a new generation — the biggest, most diverse in world history — taking the stage,” Jones said. “When they look at the future we’re giving them, they don’t want it.” The audience gave him a standing ovation after he called for young people to “build a new civilization.”
Jones, former green jobs advisor to the Obama White House and current co-host of CNN’s Crossfire reboot, spoke at Syracuse University as the first speaker in the annual University Lectures series. In his speech, Jones highlighted the parallel importance of “the struggle for racial and social injustice” and “the struggle for a livable planet.”
Despite offering numerous jokes and endearments to the audience throughout his talk, Jones’ tone was ultimately grave. He cited his firsthand experiences of the recent unrest in Ferguson, Missouri as one sign of deep social inequality. Describing armed confrontations between protestors and police, Jones said, “There’s something about life that’s not being valued.”
Jones then argued that there is a similar lack of value for life behind the refusal of the capitalist system to accept large-scale change on environmental issues.
He offered the idea of “disposability” as an example of “faulty logic in our society,” pointing to the way the culture disposes of everything from goods such as plastic water bottles to the way that “disenfranchised and disadvantaged people are treated as disposable.” He also thundered against an economy based on “death,” or the finite and ecologically damaging fossil fuel industry. He suggested the growth of new industries based around clean, renewable energy.
He compared the current protest movements such as “Justice for Mike Brown” and the People’s Climate March to his own college experiences protesting apartheid and the imprisonment of Nelson Mandela. He urged today’s young people to challenge conventional wisdom and injustice through discussion and peaceful agitation.
“It’s the diversity, sensitivity, and connectedness of this generation that makes me believe they can achieve their destiny,” he said.
Perhaps most central to Jones’ talk was this championing of youthful idealism and the importance of college activism. During his lecture, Jones repeatedly praised Divest SU ESF, a campus activist group held a rally before the lecture to pressure SU to redirect investment in the fossil fuel industry to renewable energy. Calling them “youth in action,” Jones said they reminded him of his younger days he was involved with a similar divestment group dedicated to diverting investments away from apartheid-era South Africa.
Yanira Rodriguez, a graduate student in the College of Arts and Sciences who attended the lecture, said she is very supportive of Jones’ calls to reform at the college level. “It’s so easy to get involved on the undergrad level,” she said. “I’ve been passionate about environmental reform since I was very young. Almost all reform issues are connected in some way, like Mr. Jones said, and it's so important to take all sorts of opportunities to get involved in activism now.”
Jones spoke to a small crowd of Divest SU ESF members after the lecture with tears in his eyes, assuring them that their courage and dedication in fighting injustice through activism would forge “an unbreakable bond…for the rest of your lives.”
SU’s campus is a good place for students to start working toward broader policy changes, he said in an interview. “You should impact the community where you live,” he said. “Try to move policy where you are. It’s only in hindsight that you know what tactics worked. So you use whatever’s available. Can we prevent disaster? I don’t have a crystal ball. But I know we have to try.”