SALT LAKE CITY — Despite being on television, a former adviser to the 44th President of the United States, and close friends with the late pop icon Prince, Van Jones is just like most college students: wondering where the food is at.
“I thought there would be food here,” says Jones as he begins his exclusive Salt Lake Community College student-based discussion, standing in front of a mix of students and faculty members.
Jones requests a sandwich — tuna, at first, but admits that turkey is a good second option.
Jones was in Utah Tuesday to serve as keynote speaker at the 2018 Tanner Forum on Social Ethics. He is a very busy man, hosting his own political commentary show on CNN and also appearing as a frequent correspondent for other programs on the network.
Prison reform is one of the many topics that Jones spends a great amount of time and effort on. He’s the president and founder of Dream Corps, which the website describes as “a social justice accelerator. We back initiatives that close prison doors and open doors of opportunity for all.”
Jones was a college student once, and was involved in many student publications during his time at University of Tennessee-Martin. He has said in the past that the skills he learned during his time at UT-Martin as a political science/communications major, were more influential during his lifetime than those that he learned at Yale law school, CNN, and even the White House.
“We learned real journalism,” says Jones. “We learned the basic, hard stuff. Asking real questions and not taking BS answers. You know, who, what, when, where, and how. It’s unbelievable now how much nonsense people in power get away with because they just speak in passive sentences.”
Jones cites his training from “old-school journalists” who were without the modern convenience of the internet and instead had to rely on their wits, ability to decipher and find credible information, and a library card.
Reflecting on his time in Washington DC as a past adviser to former President Barack Obama, Jones explains that you have to be “very fast and a critical thinker” to exist in the White House terrain. The complicated and almost “’House of Cards’ [or] ‘Game of Thrones’ competition going on at all times,” as Jones explains, requires people to always be at the top of their awareness levels.
Among many challenges facing journalism is the financial aspect. Many newspapers are hemorrhaging money and can’t afford to give out good information at the same free cost that the internet provides.
“People think that they pull out their phone and the information is there and the phone made it or the app made it. No, [reporters] made it,” says Jones.
Understanding that the future of journalism is uncertain as it goes through a digital evolution, Jones adds that building a large social media platform is key to establishing credibility that will follow young journalists from job to job.
“The more you know about technology and finance, the better off you’re going to be. Because everybody’s career will be impacted by technology and business models,” he adds.
With midterm elections less than a month away, Jones embraces and encourages college students specifically to continue to use their voices in their social media outlets and in the traditional means of volunteer work and campaigning for a cause or candidate.
At the conclusion of Jones’s student gathering, he was escorted to the Grand Theatre to give his speech and participate in a question-and-answer session with Nick Burns, associate dean of communication and performing arts at SLCC. Jones was also free to eat his sandwich.
Later, in front of hundreds of people, Jones begins his speech by explaining his father’s journey from poverty in 1944, to the military, to finding ways to support multiple family members through college. Jones says he challenged himself as his father’s son with a law degree from the most prestigious law school in the country, to help more people than his father did because he has the ability and the power to do so.
Jones explains this internal feeling for wanting to help people that stemmed from his childhood love of comic books and the heroes in the pages.
Jones’s favorite superhero is Superman, who is an immigrant alien from the planet Krypton. Although not from this planet, Superman does what he can for the people of Earth, and Jones reminds himself of his own mission and how Superman’s mission are one and the same: help the people of planet Earth.
Jones wears Superman cuff-links as a daily hint to stay the course of the Man of Steel and continue to do more for humanity.
Jones is a self-admitted staunch Democrat in his beliefs, and sees the disconnect between America’s two primary political parties and the people voting for them. During his speech, Jones pointed directly to the lack of work contributed by progressives during this upcoming election.
“No blue wave without blue work,” says Jones. “Liking things on Facebook doesn’t count as votes.”
The rift between the political parties and among the public supporting them won’t further the country in a positive direction, according to Jones. He believes that a division among people and the lack of the ability to understand the other side’s beliefs will only separate the country further.
“I’ve never seen a bird fly with just a left wing. A bird needs both wings to fly,” says Jones.
Jones closes out the night by denying any future interest in running for political office by explaining that he would rather “be the stick than the piñata.”
It was clear by the end of the night that Jones was among the many in the country who are hungry for a change, but he’s betwixt conflicting parties that could see a major shake-up after next month’s elections.
Photo gallery by Alex Martinez