Van Jones talks DEI, importance of collaboration for success

Monday, October 7, 2019 - 8:14pm

Van Jones, CEO of REFORM Alliance and political commentator, disucusses collaborating with people of different backgrounds as part of his keynote address at the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Summit in Hill Auditorium Monday morning.

Van Jones, CEO of REFORM Alliance and political commentator, disucusses collaborating with people of different backgrounds as part of his keynote address at the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Summit in Hill Auditorium Monday morning. Buy this photo
Alec Cohen/Daily

The University of Michigan held its 2019 Diversity, Equity and Inclusion summit on Monday to discuss the importance of embracing DEI on campus and in the broader community. The event featured remarks from University President Mark Schlissel and Van Jones, CEO of REFORM Alliance, political commentator and host of The Redemption Project and The Van Jones Show on CNN. The event took place at Hill Auditorium and drew a crowd of more than 1,000 community members. 

The summit began with Chief Diversity Officer Robert Sellers welcoming the crowd and describing the University’s DEI goals. Sellers had a message for those who criticize DEI initiatives for focusing only on marginalized identities: that’s the point, he said.   

“DEI is often criticized, and it’s often criticized based on the belief that DEI efforts are only about designating resources and attention to benefit some specific particular people to the exclusion of other people,” Sellers said. “And those particular people are the individuals who have traditionally been underrepresented or marginalized or considered a minority. I’m here to tell you this morning that when it comes to the University of Michigan DEI plan, they’re absolutely right. Our plan focuses on a myriad of forms of diversity and commits to provide attention and resources to those who hold identities within these forms of adversity that have traditionally been underrepresented, marginalized, under acknowledged.”

Sellers then discussed how people have multiple identities, and how most people have been marginalized at some point in their lives. This is an advantage and a way for people to find common ground and create solutions, he said. 

“The DEI is a benefit to all of us, and thus is relevant to all of us,” Sellers said. “We all hold identities in which we are privileged as well as identities in which we have traditionally been marginalized or underrepresented. This is not to say that all forms of privilege and marginalization are the same, but it does mean that we all have some common experiences that we can access.”

Schlissel then took the stage to express his pride in the University progress towards achieving more diversity, equity and inclusion. He said DEI goals are integral to the University’s values and mission. 

“Our achievements thus far are a direct result of so many members of our community joining together to not only advance our values, but to live them,” Schlissel said. “To share them broadly and instill them in all parts of our mission as a public university. This includes thousands of people, faculty, staff, students and supporters, past and present, who care deeply about our University… at the University of Michigan, diversity, equity and inclusion are values inseparable from our excellence in research, education and service.”

Keynote speaker Van Jones began his speech with the assertion that being able to work collaboratively with people from all different backgrounds is integral to success. 

“The main point is this: I don’t care if you’re Black, White, Latina, Latino, Asian-American, Native-American, I don’t care what faith you are, I don’t care what gender, expression, sexuality you are,” Jones said. “In this new century, the absolute prerequisite superpower for success is how do you perform in a radically diverse environment. That will determine your success or your failure in this new century.”

Jones remarked on the different consequences marginalized people face versus privileged people for illegal activities, using the example of his time as a student at Yale Law School. He said he saw other Yale students breaking more rules than people in housing projects, but he noted how the people of color and the poorer people from the housing projects are the ones that ended up with a criminal record. 

“We have this false view of reality. I saw more drugs used at Yale University than I ever saw in a housing project, period,” Jones said. “I saw more rule-breaking, I saw more norm breaking, I saw way worse behavior at Yale than I ever saw in a housing project. And yet, when those kids got in trouble at Yale, nobody called the cops. At best, they went to rehab, or Europe… But four blocks away, in the housing projects in New Haven, Connecticut, four Black kids doing fewer drugs, selling fewer drugs with less money almost all went to prison in the ‘90s. And they came back 10 years later, 15 years later, 20 years later. Now they’re drug felons. And those same Yale students in positions of power say ‘Well, I can’t hire these people, they’re drug felons.’”

In 2018, President Donald Trump signed into effect the First Step Act, which is a bipartisan bill aiming to prepare incarcerated people for re-entrance into society, encourage earlier release dates and place emphasis on rehabilitation in the prison system, according to FirstStepAct.org. Jones helped pass the act and claimed it passed because of bipartisan work in Congress.

“When you have this many people behind bars, you offend the core sensibilities and the core values of both political parties,” Jones said. “At our best, progressives and democrats believe in something called justice, we don’t like it when majority groups run over minority groups. At their best, conservatives care about something called liberty, individual rights, individual dignity and limited government. Well, the incarceration industry is running over the concept of justice and liberty… You’ve got to learn how to work across ideological lines, racial lines, to get something done.”

Jones concluded his address by discussing how the University’s DEI initiatives can prepare students to succeed after graduating and can help the world by creating solutions through collaboration in a diverse environment. 

“We’re developing a capacity for people to at least work across difference, to recognize the battleground and deal with that effectively, but never lose sight of the common ground and be able to deal with that effectively too,” Jones said. “And if this University community is going to be able to have the impact it needs to have, central to the mission has to be this idea of diversity, equity and inclusion.”

In a panel discussion after Jones’ speech, LSA senior Dim Mang addressed how emotionally draining it can be to be a student activist and leader working on DEI. 

“Something to keep in mind, especially from a student perspective, is how much of a burden this work is for us, for people of color,” Mang said. “I’m a first-generation college student here, first-generation immigrant as well. And I think that a lot of my peers, especially in groups like the Arab Student Association, La Casa and the Black Student Union is that along with our school work, along with our personal relationships with family and friends, continuously coming in day in and day out, putting in this work trying to be representatives of our community is a toll and it’s taxing and its draining.”

Jones responded by saying Mang is right — it is emotionally taxing. It’s not fair that she and other student leaders have this burden to bear, but it will make them and the community stronger in the long run, he said.

“As tragic as it’s going to be to say,” Jones said. “As hurtful as it’s going to be to say, by you doing extra, just like when you go to the gym, and someone says ‘you have to pick up the 200 pounds and I’m going to pick up the 100 pounds.’ That’s not fair, but you’re going to be stronger tomorrow.”