- Van Jones spoke to Insider about his new podcast, “Uncommon Ground with Van Jones,” which debuted this week in partnership with Amazon Music.
- Jones also discussed his work in criminal-justice reform and the award he received from Jeff Bezos that included a $100 million gift for non-profit recipients of Jones’ choosing.
Van Jones, the CNN political commentator, activist, and entrepreneur, spoke to Insider last week in a phone interview tied to the release of his new podcast, “Uncommon Ground with Van Jones,” which debuted Wednesday in partnership with Amazon Music.
“Uncommon Ground” finds Jones in conversation with notable names and grassroots activists “in search of unifying solutions to our country’s biggest problems,” with topics ranging “from climate change, to prison reform, to voting rights, to spiritual evolution, to cancel culture,” according to a release. The initial slate of guests includes Deepak Chopra, Chef José Andrés, will.i.am, Sarah Silverman, Bishop T.D. Jakes, Andrew Yang, and S.E. Cupp.
In our interview, Jones discussed the podcast in relation to his history of work in criminal-justice reform, including his founding and continued presence on the Reform Alliance and his efforts to help pass the bipartisan legislation of the First Step Act in 2018. He also alluded to his plans to implement the “Courage and Civility Award” that he received from Amazon founder Jeff Bezos in July, which included a $100 million to gift to non-profit organizations of Jones’ choice.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
How did this come together, the podcast and the partnership behind it?
You know, I’ve been fascinated by the podcast space as a place for a deeper and more intimate conversation, had the opportunity to do a podcast with CNN called “Incarceration, Inc.,” and really enjoyed that experience. And I just wanted to have broader, deeper conversations in the podcast space. Amazon is in the process of ramping up this capacity, in this area, and I’m excited to be on board.
How do you approach making topics like climate change and voting rights compelling enough to engage the average or uninterested listener? Sort of the question of our times.
I think people are very interested in these topics. I think that they are just worn down by the tone and the tenor of the discussion. I think it’s kind of like when you have two neighbors fighting over an important topic. You’re sick of the fight, but you’re not sick of the topic. How are we going to give our kids a livable planet? How are we going to make sure that democracy works better for everybody? How can we make sure that people have opportunities in this new kind of high-tech economy? Those are things that people are thinking about and talking about and worrying about all the time. I just think what we have to do is make sure that we are going deeper than just the soundbites and the tweets and the talking points. And that’s really what “Uncommon Ground” is all about.
Also, we’re going to be hearing from new voices, all these amazing grassroots leaders, who I get a chance to meet when I’m on the road, working on political causes or speaking in different communities. These folks never get heard from, and they are so hopeful and smart and tough. So I think having new voices is going to be important and hearing from new voices. And then hearing from more familiar voices, but talking about things in a deeper, more heartful way. So there’s going to be new voices in the conversation. There’s also gonna be new perspectives from familiar voices in the same conversation.
What’s your ideal guest, apart from who you’ve listed? Who do you seek out for this type of a format?
Well, I’m really proud of the people we’ve already got. I mean, we’ve got some of the biggest humanitarian voices on the planet, whether you’re talking about Chef José Andrés, or whether you’re talking about Deepak Chopra or T.D. Jakes. We also have people that are not as well-known, but grassroots activists, like Malkia Cyril and LaTonya from Philadelphia. And then, as we go forward, I’m hoping that that people recognize us as a very good place to come and have a deeper and more heartful conversation. And I think people may be surprised at some of the voices that we pull on overtime.
I wanted to say, congrats on the award from Jeff Bezos.
Oh, well, thank you.
How does one go about strategizing the implementation of a $100 million gift for charity?
Uh, very carefully. [Laughs].
[Laughs]. You know, I was blown away that Jeff Bezos and Lauren Sanchez decided to create this new award in the first place, and then to have me be one of the first two recipients. Over the past 30 days, since we’ve only had the grant for 30 days, I’ve been in very deep conversation and dialogue with experts across a whole range of different fields of endeavor. And we have a 10-year horizon to figure out how to invest and distribute the funds. But look, here’s the thing. I’ve always been fighting for the same basic causes. I’ve been trying to disrupt prisons and pollution and poverty for my whole career. But I’ve never had enough philanthropic capital to put behind my ideas or the solutions that I think are most promising.
And so now that’s different. It’s a crazy experience to go from being somebody who’s been asking for grants for 30 years to being somebody who is in a position to invest philanthropically. We’ll have announcements to make in 2022, but I am taking my time. I’m not in a rush. You know, this is a once in a lifetime opportunity. We call this “the miracle money,” and I want every penny to make a miracle. That’s the standard. If I can 10x the impact, I want to be able to do that. So, every penny needs to make a miracle. And that’s what we’re focused on. By the way, the very first episode of the podcast, José Andrés and I talk about, in more depth and detail, what the experience is like. If anybody’s interested in how the first two recipients of this award are thinking about it, should definitely check out episode one of the podcast.
I, uh, will do. Going back a few years here, and in relation to your past efforts, what did you see as the key to the bipartisan effort behind the First Step Act?
There are some areas where the two parties are just not going to agree and should therefore just battle it out, but that’s not the vast majority of issues. If you take an issue like criminal justice, everybody understands that the liberals have our stake of the fight. Progressive are very passionate about social justice and racial justice. So the incarceration industry really offends progressive values, but there are conservative values that the incarceration industry also offends. Conservatives don’t like big, staled, unaccountable government bureaucracies that eat up a ton of money and produce bad results. Well, that’s the prison system to a T. Right-wing libertarians don’t like the government gobbling up more and more people liberties. That’s what the prison industry does every day. And there are a lot of conservative Christians who wonder, “Where is the redemption? Where’s the second chances?” How can a fallen center rise again, if the prison industry just destroy people’s lives and brands them forever as being unemployable and unworthy?
And so it’s when you find those areas where liberal passion for justice can line up with conservative passion for liberty, you can build a Liberty & Justice For All Coalition, and that’s what we did. You had the strongest progressives and the strongest conservatives voting together during the Trump administration to pass a bill that by some calculations has helped 20,000 people come home from federal prison much earlier than they would have. That’s the kind of bottom-up bipartisanship that I think we need more of. And by the way, we talk about that kind of stuff on the podcast. Also, we talk about climate solutions, which you mentioned earlier. Everybody knows that progressives are concerned about climate because of concern about future generations and species being loss. What people don’t talk about is the fact that you have a bunch of red state farmers and ranchers who are getting pummeled by floods and fires and droughts, and who are very close to the land. And they know that the climate is changing rapidly and they would be very open to certain types of climate solutions, especially those that would pay them more money to capture and sequester carbon in the soil with more advanced agricultural techniques.
So I spend a lot of time looking for those unlikely overlaps of interests. And I call those places, where you’re shocked and surprised, and you’re like, “Wait a minute. These two groups that you think would be far apart actually are just putting the emphasis emphasis on a different syllable, but they’re saying the same thing.” I call those areas of unexpected overlap “Uncommon Ground.” And when you find them, whether it’s on addiction or criminal justice or climate, or youth opportunity, I think we should go deep there and pull as many people into those conversations as possible. And that’s the point of the podcast.
What has your participation in the Reform Alliance meant to you, and what do you see coming from your continued role in the organization?
It’s just an extraordinary opportunity to work with people who have massive hearts, big brains, and big wallets, who want to make a difference. And I learn from each and every board member I every time I’m in communication with them. The level of concern and passion that those board members have is really mind-blowing. As well-known as they are, they do a lot of work behind the scenes that they deliberately don’t want acknowledged, ’cause they don’t want to create a feeding frenzy every time they show up. But, you know, the number of governors and senators and mayors that have gotten phone calls from a Reform Alliance board members I think would shock a lot of your readers. And then also they’ve built an unbelievable team of policy experts and advocates that have been able to pass bills in eight states, 13 bills and eight states, in just a two year period. That’s a pretty, pretty fast clip.
Some people, I think, thought this was going to be a vanity project, but it’s turning out to be a much more impactful organization already than some of the skeptics were suggesting. And the issue that was the Reform Alliance takes on, probation and parole reform, really has not had a national champion until we launched. And two thirds of the people who were under the control of the criminal justice system are not in prison or jail. They’re on either probation or parole, and their lives can be a living hell because it is so easy to be sent back to prison. If you show up late to a meeting with your parole officer or you get caught talking to someone who has a criminal record, and you’re not doing anything, you can be back in prison and lose your job or your apartment and custody of your kids. So every day is just an incredibly anxiety-provoking nightmare and that level of stress doesn’t make any community better or safer. So we’re very proud that we are beginning to help to change that system, to make it a lot more humane, a lot more effective. …
Look, my view about this whole situation that we’re in is that the divisive voices in our country, no matter what political ideology or race, are just getting way too much attention. And the unifying voices, the problem-solving voices, the healing voices are just getting way too little attention. And I think now’s the time for people who’ve got really great ideas to solve the problems, to have a platform. And that’s really what “Uncommon Ground” is all about. It’s a platform for people who are exciting people, who are interesting people, who also are about that business of solving problems, to finally be heard.
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