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Van Jones bringing messy truths to Miami Beach (for liberals, too)

It has been nine months since author and CNN commentator Van Jones captured the Election Night sentiments of millions of Americans with the question that remains at the heart of a national conversation: “How do I explain this to my children?”

Seated with a diverse panel of veteran political analysts for CNN’s live coverage of the presidential election results, the one-time Obama White House adviser watched an historically ugly campaign reach its conclusion in a Trump victory as if witnessing the ill-fated arrival of the Hindenburg. Humanity seemed to hang in the balance.

"You tell your kids don't be a bully, you tell your kids don't be a bigot... and then you have this outcome," Jones, a father of two, told the CNN panel, eyes moistening. "You have people putting children to bed tonight and they are afraid of breakfast. They're afraid of 'How do I explain this to my children?'"

While the bitter divisiveness of that evening remains, Jones has moved on. He’s trying to start a new conversation with the We Rise Tour, a series of appearances around the country that includes a stop on Sunday, Aug. 13, at the Fillmore Miami Beach. These shows feature singers, spoken-word artists, local elected officials and entertainment figures in candid discussions with the audience “about their dreams for the future and their fears,” Jones says.

Sunday’s tour stop at the Fillmore will include guest appearances by rapper-activist-entrepreneur Talib Kweli, actor Adrian Grenier, co-founder of the Lonely Whale Foundation, and others. Net proceeds from the tour benefit charities including Dream Corps, Jones’ nonprofit enterprise incubator.

Jones is optimistic the two sides of the political and cultural divide can re-establish a respectful working relationship, but only if each is willing to say things friends do not want to hear. Jones doesn’t mind going first: Liberals have elitist blind spots, he admits. Trump voters can be good people. He can work with conservative hard-liner Newt Gingrich.

“This mourning period has gone on too long. I’m a Christian and, you know, Jesus only stayed in the tomb for three days,” Jones says, laughing. “At what point can you come out and start trying?”

A Yale Law School graduate, author of New York Times best sellers “The Green Collar Economy” and “Rebuild the Dream,” and the host of CNN’s town-hall series “The Messy Truth,” the 48-year-old Jones is a man of not a few words. He shared some by phone during a walk through midtown Manhattan that was interrupted more than once by fans asking for a selfie.

You are bringing the We Rise Tour to Miami Beach on Sunday. Who is “we”?

“Everybody who is depressed and distressed in Trump’s America right now. Whatever political party you’re in, whoever you voted for, I think people are feeling down. I think people are feeling sad. I think people are feeling that there are major problems that aren’t getting solved. … But look, man, at a certain point we have to start focusing on the positive people and the positive opportunities that are abundant right now.”

The tour has attracted the expected audiences — progressives and people of color — but you’re interested in having conservatives attend as well, right?

“Absolutely. This is our first real tour and, usually, on your first tour you have mostly people who know you and agree with you, but there are times when I am up there giving my keynote where you can hear crickets. [Laughs] I have tough love from both parties.

You don’t get to this situation with only one party doing wrong. Both parties need to look in the mirror. I’m challenging people in a serious way, liberals, I mean, about our elitism. I say, ‘We drew our circle too small.’ We got very good at defending the people who have been traditionally marginalized, but some of the people that the new economy has newly marginalized, especially in the Rust Belt and the industrial Midwest, we didn’t know how to draw a circle to include them in an authentic way. And they noticed.

Now that’s no excuse for voting for someone like Donald Trump, but we also have to take some responsibility that there was some real pain that was not on our radar screen.”

Do you see signs that this kind of outreach across the political-cultural divide can succeed?

“I’m not reaching out to try to convert anybody to become a left-wing, liberal racial-justice guy like I am. I’m not a colonizer. I don’t look at the red states and say, ‘Oh, well, those people are unwashed heathens and need to be converted to my NPR religion and force fed kale until they are just like me.’ I’m not like that. That kind of elitism in the Democratic party is a big source of Donald Trump’s strength.

We disagree on a whole bunch of stuff in America, and thank God we do. That’s a democracy. But there are areas where we do agree, and we can’t get anything done. Both parties know we’re in the middle of an addiction crisis that’s killing people, but we haven’t done anything about it. Both parties know that the criminal-justice system is completely broken but we’re going backward on something that both parties know needs us to go forward. Both parties know we’re not teaching the kids the skills they’re going to need to strive and survive in the new economy with high technology and clean tech, and we’re not focusing on that.

The stuff we’re going to fight on, let’s keep fighting. I don’t mind that. I’ll fight on immigration and health care for another hundred years, but the stuff where we actually agree? [Laughs] Can we actually agree where we agree?”

Who on the right is working to meet you halfway?

“The American Conservative Union is an organization we’ve been able to work with on criminal justice. Newt Gingrich and I are working together on some of this opioid policy and addiction stuff. I’ve been in conversations with [New Jersey Gov.] Chris Christie. I am not afraid to work with anybody on an area of agreement, and I am not afraid to work against anybody on an area of disagreement. That’s how it’s supposed to be. It’s not supposed to be just shirts and skins. … Who can we help today? That’s the question. Who can we help today? That’s the spirit we’re trying to bring forward.”

Your emotional Election Night speech about what to tell your kids at breakfast — what did you tell them?

“The problem was my kids were in California and I was in D.C., so I was literally talking to my kids while I was talking to the country [laughs], and that was part of why it was so emotional for me. … We have had a lot of conversations and what I told them, is this is what happens when grown people in both parties don’t do their best.

That’s what happened. The Democrats, fine, you can have Hillary Clinton, but you know that Bernie Sanders has 47 percent of the support for your party, so your vice presidential pick needs to be someone who either is Bernie Sanders or somebody who appeals to that part of your party. If you don’t do that, then you’re going to have trouble.

If you’re Republican and you’ve spent eight years trying to convince people that everything is terrible because Barack Obama’s president … and you convince your base that an atheist Muslim terrorist is destroying America and nobody’s doing anything about it, then you open the door for a Donald Trump.

So I told my kids, this is what happens when grown people in both parties don’t do their best. So you have to do you best. Now I’m saying that to the country.”

Many people remember that speech primarily for your description of the election results that used the word “whitelash.” Do you regret using that term?

“Not at all. Not at all. You know, the truth hurts. If you look at what I actually said, I said it was ‘a whitelash, in part.’ It was a whitelash against a black president and a changing country, in part. And that’s true. … I confuse people sometimes because they think that the truth is only going to be one thing. Either you want to fight everybody or you want to sit around and sing ‘Kumbaya.’ No. We’re grown people. The truth is messy.

It’s in fact the case that there are a whole lot of people who voted for Donald Trump who are the salt of the earth, who would help anybody out in a bind and are good people. They just don’t believe that a woman should have an abortion, so they voted for Donald Trump for that reason and that reason alone. There are some people who are in the damn Nazi party who voted for Trump, and you’ve got to be able to talk about both.”

You mention working with New Gingrich on opioids. Does that tragedy, which affects wide swaths of the country so indiscriminately, offer an opportunity to build more bipartisanship in government?

“Prince, who was my good friend, with whom I started YesWeCode.org, and who supported me with GreenForAll.org, died of an opioid overdose. So I personally have been impacted, devastated, by losing one of my closest friends to this crisis. Common pain should lead to common purpose. You had a narcotics epidemic in the black community that was then criminalized, and people are sitting in prison because it wasn’t handled properly. Now you have an opioid epidemic, different drug with the same pain, and people seem like they are willing to deal with this more responsibly and more compassionately. Right now it’s more talk than action.

There should be an opportunity for us to come back around to have a different conversation for everybody about addiction, and a different conversation with everybody about whether the criminal justice system is the right place to try to heal people who have committed crimes based on addiction and poverty. Regardless, we have too many funerals in America now. More than 100 people dying every day, more than half of them because they took a pill the doctor told them to take and got addicted. If that doesn’t bring us to our knees and to our common table, then shame on us.”

Van Jones’ We Rise Tour event begins at 8 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 13, at the Fillmore Miami Beach, 1700 Washington Ave. Tickets cost $20-$59.50 (plus fees). Call 305-673-7300 or visit FillmoreMB.com.

bcrandell@sun-sentinel.com

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