Van Jones Urges Vassar Grads to ‘Find Common Ground’

You can temper today’s polarized political climate by finding ways to work with people you don’t agree with. That was the message from criminal justice reform activist and political commentator Van Jones to Vassar’s 629 graduates at the college’s 155th Commencement ceremony May 26 in the outdoor amphitheater.

Flanked by President Elizabeth Bradley and Dean of the Faculty Jonathan Chenette, Van Jones salutes the Class of 2019.

Jones, host of The Redemption Project and The Van Jones Show on CNN, said he was able to work with former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, a staunch conservative, to lobby successfully for a bill described as the most significant federal criminal justice reform legislation in a generation. The “First Step” bill was passed overwhelmingly in both houses of Congress and signed into law by President Trump in December 2018. “That’s what’s possible when you start at the bottom and put the needs of the people at the bottom first,” Jones said. “It’s not about finding middle ground; it’s about finding common ground.”

Jones said he first began to think about the inequities of the criminal justice system when he was in college himself. “I spent part of my 20s in a drug-infested den of debauchery, Yale University,” he quipped. None of his fellow students were arrested, he said, “while young people in housing projects in New Haven were going to prison, and nobody thought that was odd.”

Jones said he learned that people in prison weren’t much interested in his political beliefs. “When you’re dealing with people on the bottom, they don’t care what political party you belong to or what philosophy you hold,” he said.

The same is true, he added, about people dealing with addiction. “I heard about the pain in Appalachia, about people dropping dead in small towns in red states and liberals acting as if it didn’t affect us,” Jones said. “I decided I’m not going to become what I’m fighting, so I chose some leaders from South Central Los Angeles who knew how to deal with addiction and said, ‘Let’s go to West Virginia.’”

After encountering some initial skepticism, Jones said he was able to create an organization called From the Hood to the Holler that helps rural communities combat addiction. And like his fight for criminal justice reform, this movement also crossed party lines. “A white, Trump-voting sheriff broke down in tears telling us how helpless he feels putting his neighbors’ children in the ground every week,” Jones said. “He learned our work was saving lives, and he said, ‘Please help me.’ I don’t care who people are voting for. We’re saving lives in South Central L.A., and we’re saving lives in West Virginia.”

Jones urged the graduates not to hate people who hold other political beliefs, “because you’re no good at hating. You’re never going to out-hate the hateful people, but you can out-love them and you can out-work them and make a decision in your heart to ignore the little problem and focus on the big one.”

Jones said all of his work had demonstrated that there are “millions of awesome people of both parties and both races and all backgrounds who just don’t know how to find each other.”

“Don’t worry about the awful people,” he told the graduates and others assembled at the Commencement ceremony. “You go find the awesome people, and we will finally have a country with liberty and justice for all.”