The Ella Baker Center for Human Rights has a 10-year history -- which it marked Sept. 14 with an anniversary gala in Oakland -- of aggressive opposition to police abuse, racism, economic injustice, and the get-tough policies that have created record-high incarceration rates.
Those problems have only gotten worse over the last decade, despite some significant successes by the group in both Oakland and San Francisco. But these days, founder and director Van Jones sounds more like a hopeful optimist than an angry radical.
"When we first got started, our politics were more about opposition than proposition," Jones told the Guardian. "We were more clear what we were against than what we were for."
An organization once prone to shutting down the halls of power with sit-ins is now working on prison reform legislation, doing antiviolence public education campaigns, and promoting the potential for a green economy to revitalize West Oakland and other low-income communities.
"Now, I'm in a place where I want to see the prisoners and the prison guards both come home and get some healing," Jones said.
Some of that transformation comes from Jones's evolving critique of progressive political tactics, which he has come to see as ineffective. "Our generation would be better if we had a little less New Left and a little more New Deal."
But the change was also triggered by a personal epiphany of sorts following his unsuccessful effort to stop the passage in 2000 of Proposition 21, which sent more minors into the adult correctional system.
"I went into a major depression and I almost quit being an activist," Jones, an attorney who turns 38 this month, told us. "It was a very personal journey, but it had a big impact on the Ella Baker Center."
The change has made allies of former enemies, like radio station KMEL, which was vilified for selling out the Bay Area hip-hop culture after Clear Channel Communications purchased the station, but which is now helping the Ella Baker Center spread its antiviolence message.
The center has also attracted a new breed of employees to its ranks of 24 full-time staffers, people like Communications Director Ben Wyskida, who moved here from his Philadelphia communications firm last October. As he told us, "What drew me to the Ella Baker Center was this message of hope."
Jones has a critique of the problems and those in power that is as radical as ever, noting that authoritarians have taken power and essentially dismantled our democratic institutions. But he's moved from diagnosis to prescription, telling us, "I think the 'fuck Bush' conversation is over."
His new approach hasn't always gone over well with his would-be allies. Environmental groups including Greenaction boycotted Mayor Gavin Newsom's photo-op posturing during World Environment Day last year, and they were critical of Jones for validating the event and using their absence to grab the media spotlight for his green economy initiatives.
But Jones tells us he doesn't get rattled by criticism that he's playing nice with the powerful because he remains committed to helping the underclass. "The most important thing is to know who you're for and know your history."
And if the group's 10th anniversary black-tie celebration in the Oakland Rotunda was any indication, the Ella Baker Center has more support now than at any other time in its history.
The guest list for the event was a veritable who's who of every major political, grassroots, and environmental organization on the West Coast. Guests included Code Pink cofounder Jodie Evans, Mother Jones publisher Jay Harris, and actor-activist Danny Glover.
"Radical means root -- that's what we have always been addressing," Jones told us at the event. "We used to spend a lot of time pointing out the hurt in the community. Now we connect the points of hope."
To Jones, hope means tying the need to save the planet from global warming to the need for economic development in Oakland. "Let's make it into job opportunities for poor people and build a green economy strong enough to lift us out of poverty. That's hope. We want to take people out of the prison cells, into solar cells."
Jones's allies see him as a silver-tongued visionary, a lighting rod who can bridge movements with apparently differing agendas. Activist Julia Butterfly Hill, a longtime friend and political ally of Jones, told us at the event, "Van shows he cares and he's human, and he puts himself out there on the line. That's why you saw this coming together. This is the voice, this is the conversation that the planet is literally dying for, and I really mean sick and dying for."
The evening, a spirited celebration of hope and achievement, gave influential friends a chance to size up where the group has been and where it's headed. As Harris of Mother Jones told us, "Van is a big thinker. He really engages people's imaginations in terms of what could be. There's one way, which is to fight against the system. Van's way is to reimagine the system."
There to bless the event, Glover warmly heaped his own praise on Jones by comparing him to the Civil Rights Movement worker who is the organization's namesake. "When I think of Ella Baker and what she stood for, Van carries on that work, and I think that's vital. We envision ourselves through the women and men that set a certain standard. Van sets a certain standard."
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