The Defenders

Van Jones

“Now you standing up by yourself don’t make a ... bit of difference in the rational world. You’re just one fool standing up. But if you’ve ever seen a standing ovation? It starts with one fool standing up. And then pretty soon the whole stadium is standing up.”

Van Jones, born Anthony Kapel Jones, cared about justice from a young age. Van’s childhood heroes were President John F. Kennedy, Robert F. Kennedy, and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Van was even known to use his Star Wars action figures of Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, and Lando Calrissian to represent his heroes! Sadly, these men were all assassinated shortly before he was born. Although their tragic deaths reminded Van that he was born into troubled times, he didn’t really begin his life as an activist until he was attending University of Tennessee.

While there, Van ran for many student government positions, partly to impress his girlfriend, whose parents were both professors. Inspired by the activist editor of his hometown’s newspaper, Van started an underground college newspaper. He attended law school at Yale, where he worked as an intern at the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights in the spring and summer of 1992. That spring, the world watched the trial of four Los Angeles police officers who had been caught on camera assaulting an unarmed African American man named Rodney King.

The entire country watched this trial unfold. For many African Americans, this was the first time their daily struggle was exposed to the world, since recording devices were relatively uncommon and expensive at the time (and smartphones did not exist). This trial was seen as a chance for justice against what many considered one of the United States’ most violent police force. When all four officers were found not guilty and acquitted, Los Angeles erupted into riots. Fires burned throughout the city, and stores were looted in the chaos. During the riots, more than 2,000 people were injured, 60 people lost their lives, and a billion dollars worth of property was destroyed. Van, shocked by the court’s decision, became a self-identified revolutionary, determined to fight for racial equality under the law and against police brutality.

During his time as an activist, Van founded several projects and organizations, including:

  • Bay Area Police Watch, a hotline where citizens can report police abuse
  • The Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, which specializes in fighting difficult or controversial human rights’ battles that other organizations do not
  • Color of Change, a web-based movement designed to make the government more accountable to African Americans

Van noted that a major problem facing African Americans was actually an environmental one. The neighborhoods where ethnic and racial minorities lived were often built on contaminated land or near sources of pollution. His activism took a turn towards environmental justice – the idea that all people deserve to live in a safe, unpolluted environment. In 2008, he published his first book, The Green Collar Economy. He began to see the importance of improving environmental conditions as an important part of ending discrimination, laying the groundwork for a new kind of activism, combining the work of environmental and racial-equality activists. This point of view laid the groundwork for a new kind of activism, one that combined the work of environmental and racial-equality activists.

With his book bringing him into the public spotlight, Van soon found himself appointed as an advisor to the Obama White House, teaching at Princeton University, and hosting his own show on CNN, called The Van Jones Show. During this time, he has maintained his role as an activist, fighting for both racial and environmental justice.


The Bureau of Labor Statistics defines a “green job” as a job that produces goods or provides services that benefit the environment or one in which workers’ duties center around making their production process more environmentally friendly. But how are “green jobs” related to human rights?

Environmental issues, such as air quality, access to clean water, and pollution, often impact people living in poverty - often minorities - more than they impact people living in more affluent areas. For example, African American children are twice as likely to develop asthma as white children, a fact often attributed to living in neighborhoods with poor air quality. Jones realized that efforts to achieve racial justice must include environmental justice. Although they may seem unrelated, they are deeply connected. Environmental justice emphasizes the fundamental human right to a healthy living environment, regardless of race or class.


  • Learn more about environmental racism here.
  • To learn more about a currently active anti-police brutality group, read more about Black Lives Matter.
  • Follow a group who advocates for police reform on social media, such as the ACLU, Campaign Zero, or Amnesty International.


Discovery Education has teamed up with Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights, Humanity United and Fund II Foundation to bring Speak Truth to Power to the classroom. Speak Truth to Power, a global initiative dedicated to sharing the stories of human rights defenders around the world, provides compelling content for a set of flexible, standards-aligned digital resources, designed to educate, engage and inspire the next generation of human rights defenders.

Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Mission Statement

Led by human rights activist and lawyer Kerry Kennedy, Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights has advocated for a more just and peaceful world since 1968. We work alongside local activists to ensure lasting positive change in governments and corporations. Whether in the United States or abroad, our programs have pursued justice through strategic litigation on key human rights issues, educated millions of children in human rights advocacy and fostered a social good approach to business and investment.