Interview with Van Jones: Rebuilding the Dream in Detroit, Part 3

[This is the third in a three-part inteview with Van Jones, who delivered the keynote address in Detroit, Mich., on April 30, 2014, to attendees of the ACI National Home Performance Conference.  The full interview is posted in three consecutive blogs. Click here to read Part 1. Click here to read Part 2.]

TW: I’d like to bring you back to the vision statement you mentioned in your plenary speech today at ACI. I was moved to hear you remind us about Martin Luther King Jr. first speaking about his famous dream, when he came to Detroit [before the March on Washington]. There are six kids from Detroit Youthbuild who are here at ACI, some of whom have been homeless, and they are here on scholarships. I’m wondering: What kind of dream can we hope for the people of Detroit?

VJ: Everybody says it, but it’s true: Detroit built the middle class. The middle class was invented in Detroit, and Detroit gave America its dream. When you have a big breakdown, you can have a big breakthrough. Look at your own life: It’s those really bad days that open the door to some really good days. You’ve got a lot of breakdown here in Detroit, but it opens the door for some real breakthroughs.

We always talk about the downside of these [unemployed] kids, how bad it is for these kids, if they can’t find a job. That’s the least of our problems; it’s bad for the country! Some of these kids are brilliant, good hearted, smart, tough, resilient, dealing with more than most of us do these days. I think they’re the resource we can’t afford to lose sight of.

The reinvention of Detroit—distributed food production, urban farming, community gardening, greenhouses—they’re big opportunities. There will be distributed goods production, as some of these very skilled people who are either here, or have roots here, start getting their heads wrapped around 3D printers, and the craftsmanship involve in that. The maker movement—for lack of a better term—is getting more inter-penetrated with some of the African American working-class folks and others who know how to build things. There is an inter-penetration that can happen, we can have an explosion of craft and trade coming out of here, because people know how to make stuff here, and people with roots here will have new tools to make stuff. I’ve no idea what will come out of that. Some distributed goods production, distributed energy production, energy efficiency, solar, micro-wind—a lot of that could be cradled here.

All these homes about to be knocked down [in Detroit], there’s a huge opportunity to reclaim copper and glass, and all kinds of stuff out of that. You can load it and crush it all down to nothing, but that’s the dumbest way to do it, and that’s a lot of what they’re talking about. It’s short-term smart and long-term stupid. Doors and moldings—that stuff you can sell, and you can make a ton of money, because we’re doing un-building here, and they’re having a big building boom over there.

I see a lot of possibility [in Detroit]. It takes leadership, it takes determination, it takes a lot of prayer, it takes a lot of willingness to grow. I see a lot of pain, but I see more promise than pain in Detroit.

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