Founder, Rebuild the Dream
"I grew up in a civil rights household. When I graduated from the Yale Law School, I decided to go fight for social justice. At Yale, I realized that a lot of Ivy League undergraduates were doing copious amounts of drugs—and going to rehab if they got caught. A few blocks away, poor kids in the housing projects were doing lesser amounts of the same drugs—and going to prison.
I knew that dichotomy was wrong, and I decided to do something about it. I worked for two years in a civil rights law firm in San Francisco. Then I started a police misconduct project to coordinate litigation against problem police officers, practices and precincts. The project was called Bay Area PoliceWatch. I later grew it into the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights.
Our “Books Not Bars” program took on the hard work of closing youth prisons in California in favor of rehabilitation, education and employment. In alliance with numerous other groups, we succeeded in closing four youth prisons in California, and permanently blocked the construction of a “Super Jail for Kids” near Oakland. So far, our coalition has reduced California’s youth prison population by 30 percent— with no related increase in youth violence.
I’d been first introduced to Social Venture Network in 1998, when I was one of four winners of the Reebok International Human Rights Award. SVN co-founder Josh Mailman was on the selection committee. After the ceremony, Josh invested in The Ella Baker Center—giving us our biggest grant up to that point—and invited me to join SVN.
From my first SVN conference , I was blown away by the passion, creativity and effectiveness of the community. Before joining, I was deeply suspicious of all business people, whom I presumed to be greedy and exploitive. I had never met entrepreneurs who took the value of social justice and environmental stewardship as seriously as I did—and in some cases more so. It was through SVN that I first began to develop the concept of “green jobs, not jails.” I had been unaware of the power of market-based solutions to address the seemingly intractable problems of poverty and pollution, and to do so on a large scale. I became a serious convert to entrepreneurship and socially-responsible investing as key pillars of any serious strategy for change.
Reflecting on the genius and brilliance of the SVN community, I began to push Oaklanders to embrace the idea of green jobs and entrepreneurship as an innovative set of pathways to prosperity. As a result, the Oakland City Council in 2007 created the Green Jobs Corps, which trained local youth for work in green industries such as weatherization, solar panel installation and organic gardening.
That same year, Speaker Nancy Pelosi helped me navigate the halls of Congress to pass the Green Jobs Act of 2007, signed into law by President George W. Bush. It authorized $125 million for Green Jobs Training Programs across the United States. In 2008, I launched a national organization called Green For All, which now operates in 50 U.S. cities, and has helped municipalities and businesses create thousands of green jobs across America. I also published my first book, The Green Collar Economy. It was a New York Times Best Seller, and is considered the definitive book on green jobs.
Members of President-Elect Barack Obama’s transition team, impressed by the book, recommended me for inclusion in the Obama Administration as a Special Advisor on Green Jobs. In the White House, I helped to oversee $80 billion in green recovery spending.
After coming under fire from the President’s opponents, I resigned in September of 2009, and became a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. In 2010, I joined the faculty at Princeton University as a visiting fellow to teach a course on Environmental Policy and Politics.
During that period, I developed a number of insights about how the movement for hope and change that elected Obama had gone awry. I published my second book in 2012, also a New York Times Best Seller, called Rebuild the Dream. I also launched a new organization in 2011, called Rebuild the Dream, which today is fighting to bring economic opportunity back to America."