Commencement Address Transcript
CEO of Reform Alliance, Host of The Redemption Project
and The Van Jones Show on CNN
Sunday, May 26, 2019
Back to Ceremony
It’s an honor to be here. I want to first really speak to the true stars of the show. Faculty, I’m proud to be here with the staff and the students, the graduates, but it’s really just to the parents I want to say, I understand. I do. There were fevers that you weren’t sure would ever break. These kids have forgotten all about that. You didn’t forget.
There were parent teacher conferences that turned out bad. And you didn’t know if these kids were ever going to get out of elementary school. But you stuck with them, and now they’re here. I assure you, they are ungrateful, and you will get none of the praise you deserve for 20 years when they have their own kids, but we’re going to praise you right now. Give these parents a round of applause. You done good. You done good.
And now, to the graduates, what were you guys thinking, man? You picked a year to graduate where the stakes couldn’t be higher, the challenges couldn’t be greater, the conflicts couldn’t be more intense, and we couldn’t need you more than we do. I want to speak to you very honestly about what you’re about to walk into, and a way at least that I have found to think it through.
The paradox that you’re leaving this campus and facing the dilemma is extreme, in that you, most of you in your generation are passionate about something. You care about something. There’s some cause that’s touched you. Twenty years ago, people left campuses, they just wanted to make a lot of money. Your generation wants to make a difference—your generation wants to make change. This is an extraordinary development for your generation—it’s beautiful.
But there’s a problem—which you’re about to figure out real quick—which is, as passionate as you are to make change, there’s other people who are passionate who don’t want your change. And the more passionate you get, the more passionate they get. And sometimes passion can lead to division, which creates more passion, which creates more division, which creates more passion. Which is a very, very difficult cycle to break, and I wish you good luck.
Just joking. I have been struggling with this myself, and I just want to share with you—I think there is an answer. I think there is a way through. But it’s not obvious. And it’s not what the left will tell you, and it’s not what the right will tell you. It’s what you’ll discover in your own heart if you commit yourself to this work fully, fully. The secret is actually what you went through when you were trying to get ready to come over here. You had to—you had to get this gown that was open, that was split, that was separate. You had to pull that gown together. Where did the zipper start?
The zipper started at the bottom. When you want unity, you don’t start at the top, you don’t start with the elite, you don’t start with the people who have everything already. You start at the bottom, and you start pulling up from the bottom. And we’ve got people in this country who have been let down by both parties. We’ve got people in this country that have been let down by all the great ideologies and philosophies that we’ve all studied and that we all adhere to on either side. They have been let down, and in this country right now and around the world, there are people with minimum human freedom. Minimum human dignity. They are trapped in poverty, they are trapped in addiction, they are trapped in a broken criminal justice system that is the biggest, we have the biggest incarceration industry in the history of the world, locking up more people in the United States than anywhere in the world in the so called Land of the Free.
There are people at the bottom who do not enjoy the benefits of any of these political parties or philosophies’ great ideals, and they suffer every day. And you have the opportunity, wherever you land, to keep them in your hearts, and to make them central to your effort.
I want to talk about how I know. I have to confess, and I hope I don’t offend anybody. But I spent my twenties in a drug-infested den of debauchery and sin: Yale University. And I saw more drugs being used by young people at Yale than I ever saw in a housing project. I saw more young people at Yale breaking the rules, breaking the law, than I ever saw in a housing project. And yet, none of my classmates went to prison. None of my classmates even saw a police officer. At worst, they went to rehab or to France. And then they came back, and they didn’t get second chances. They got third, fourth, fifth, twenty-fifth chances.
And now those people are out there doing well in their lives. And yet, a few blocks away, in the housing projects of New Haven, kids the same age within eye sight of each other, doing fewer drugs, went to prison by the thousands. And nobody thought that was odd. Nobody thought that was strange. And yet, now when those same people try to come back home and get jobs, they’re branded ‘drug felons,’ and won’t be hired by the same people who were using drugs when they were that age.
Now I don’t mean to shock any parents; we might have some non violent drug offenders right here. So, don’t raise your hand, your mama’s here. But you have an opportunity as a first generation coming off of the college campuses, knowing the ills and the evils of mass incarceration, to do something about it. To hire people, to work with people, to give scholarships to people, to give second chances to people who really never had a good first chance.
And if you’re going to make a difference, though, you’re going to have to work with people who don’t agree with you on your philosophy. I have in the past few years been able to pass 18 criminal justice reform bills on a bipartisan basis in red states, in purple states and in blue states, bringing freedom and dignity to people who’ve been left out and spat on and had their lives ruined for too long. We’ve been able to pass bills.
And you say well, Van, how was that possible? How did you convince red states, Republicans, to become liberals like you? Did you put something in their water, I mean how did you do that? And what I want to say to you is, if you are a Progressive, or if you know any, when you start dealing with people at the very bottom, they don’t care what political party you’re in. They don’t care what philosophy you hold.
I’ve never been into a prison, and I’ve been into hundreds, where somebody came up to me and said, ‘Van Jones, help me, I want to be able to go home and see my family. I’m wrongly convicted, I need a second chance. Help me, please get me out of here, but whatever you do, Van, don’t talk to any Republicans.’ I’ve never heard that from anybody locked up.
What I’ve heard is that people need help, and they’ll take it from where they can get it. They’ll take it from wherever they get it. And what I’ve learned is something very good, which is I don’t have to have my conservative friends stop being conservative for them to do good. And they don’t have to have me stop being liberal for me to do good. That there are conservatives in our country who, on their own basis, don’t want to see us spending money on a big, failed government bureaucracy that hurts people and doesn’t make the country any better. And for their own conservative reasons, don’t want to waste that money. For their own conservative reasons, don’t want to see liberties gobbled up for people just because they’re poor. For their own conservative reasons, some of them are Christian, and they want to see second chances and redemption for people.
And so, we’ve been able to come together. I’m as liberal as I ever was, my friend Newt Gingrich is as conservative as he ever was. But we were able to come together and get an overwhelming level of support last year in Congress for criminal justice reform. And Donald Trump signed a criminal justice reform bill that will this year alone have 25,000 people with fewer sentences, 4,000 people coming home from federal prison, and 100% of women behind bars no longer brutalized and shackled when they’re giving birth to babies. Dignity for incarcerated women, signed overwhelmingly in this Congress last year. That’s what’s possible when we start at the bottom. That’s what’s possible when we put the needs of real people at bottom first.
It’s not about middle ground. It’s about common ground. And common ground can be found in surprising places. It can be found in addiction treatment centers. It can be found in courtroom waiting rooms. It can be found in strange places, and I’ll tell you one last story and then I’ll let you go.
People stuck in prison deserve us to look for common ground. People stuck in addiction do as well. I decided, hearing about all of the pain and the overdoses that were going on in Appalachia, that I couldn’t stand it anymore. I couldn’t take it anymore. I couldn’t stand to hear about people dropping dead in small towns in the red parts of our country. And liberals like myself acting like it didn’t affect us. I remember when we had the addiction crisis in the blue parts of our country with crack and heroin. And people either did nothing, or sent in the police to kick in doors and make it worse.
And I said, I’m not going to become what I’m fighting. I’m not going to stand to one side while people are suffering. And I took leaders from South Central Los Angeles, who have been on the forefront of the crack epidemic, who knew how to deal with an addiction crisis. And I sat down with them, and I said, ‘we got people who have a different colored skin, but the same pain. And they don’t have enough sense to call us and ask us for help, and we don’t have enough care in our hearts to offer it. Let’s go to West Virginia.’ And they said, ‘is you crazy? We’re black, we’re Latino, we’re liberal, we’re gay. West Virginia?’
We got off the plane; we didn’t know what we would find. And what we found are people we now call our closest and most beloved friends, because they’re tired of going to funerals too. And we have a white, straight, male, Trump voting sheriff, who broke down in tears, crying about how helpless he feels, putting his neighbors’ children in the ground every weekend. And when he learned that with no pressure, no diamonds, that we’ve been under the same pressure for 30 years, that we know how to save lives, he said ‘would you please help me? Would you please help me?’
And we now have a network from, we call it from the Hood to the Holler. And from the Holler to the Hood, helping each other now, moving forward. I don’t care who they vote for, and they don’t care who we vote for. We can vote against each other and not hate each other. We can disagree with each other and not disrespect each other. And we’re saving lives in South Central, and we’re saving lives in West Virginia, and we walk through the halls of Congress together. People can’t believe what they’re seeing, because we started at the bottom. And then we began to build.
So the last thing I want to say is simply this: don’t you ever become what you’re fighting. Don’t you ever let somebody who hates you trick you into hating them. Don’t you ever let somebody who wants to divide trick you into helping them do it. You are never, I hate to tell you this, it’s insulting, don’t be mad at me. If you’re mad, I’m sorry, I’m leaving anyway, I can say what I want. But you have a big problem, your generation, and it’s this: you suck at hating people. You’re no good at it. You can’t do it, you been trying to be hateful and angry and outraged and you’re miserable. You’re never going to out ugly the ugly people. You’re never going to out hate the hateful people.
But you can out love them, and you can out work them. And if you make a decision in your heart, if you make a decision in your heart, to ignore the little problem and focus on the big one... Everybody in my generation’s letting you down for one reason and one reason alone: we’re focusing on the little problem. The little problem is the so-called ‘awful people.’ I’m on the left, so I say the awful people are in that party. And they, they’re terrible, what are we going to do, look at all the bad things the awful people in that party are doing. And then on the other side they say, well look at the awful people in your party and the awful things that they do.
And we argue about the awful people. Well, there are some awful people. That’s a little problem. It’s a little problem. The big problem is that we have millions and millions and millions of awesome people in both parties of all races, of all backgrounds, who just don’t know what to do. We just don’t know how to find each other and help each other and lift each other. If your generation says, I’m not worried about the awful people; I’m going to find the awesome people, and we’re going to fix these problems, you will finally have a country with liberty and justice for all.
Thank you very much.