Van Jones — who has a long history of starting and working with non-profit organizations — has grown accustomed to asking for grant money. But he never expected the financial windfall he received two years ago from the richest man alive.
In 2021, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos honored the CNN star with the Courage and Civility Award for demonstrating "courage" in his efforts to bring people together in a divisive world. The award came with $100 million in "miracle money." But there was a catch: Van had 10 years to invest the money in various organizations and companies making a difference in the world.
"I knew immediately I wanted to disrupt these systems that have been holding underestimated communities back," Van told Us Weekly. "I knew I wanted to do something to disrupt the for-profit prison system, to disrupt the systems that put a lot of pollution in our communities and lead to poverty."
Keep reading to see how he's spending it…
One of Van Jones' first orders of business with his new "miracle money" was to invest in a Philadelphia-based non-profit called Beat The Block, an organization that works with younger men and rewards them for staying off the streets. "We found an unbelievable program that was incentivizing peace on the streets by going to folks who were hanging on street corners, getting in trouble and saying, 'We will pay you for 100 days to get off the street corner [and] come up with a plan for your life,'" the journalist told Us Weekly. "My theory now is that the financial incentives to do bad are very high in a lot of the communities I care about and the financial incentives to do good are very weak. That's what I want to go after."
"If you want to change the outcomes, you've got to change the behaviors. If you want to change the behavior, you've got to change your financial incentives," he added. The results have been staggering. Of the 58 young men who participated, 88% got jobs, 57% started their own businesses and 100% registered to vote. "These are the hardest to employ young people," Van said. "That's a miracle."
Van Jones also partnered with CodePath, which helps low-income students train for careers in the tech industry. The organization works predominantly with Black, Latino and Indigenous students. CodePath is very near and dear to Van, who can see his younger self in many of the students with whom CodePath works. "In these tough neighborhoods, education is a way out. That's how my family got out of poverty. That's what I focus on with my kids," the father of three told Us Weekly. "But you've got to educate kids in the right stuff. And technology is everything now. So if we are not educating the next generation of Black, brown and underestimated kids in technology, they're going to be left behind."
The CNN newsman has high hopes for CodePath. "Maybe some of those kids who are going to come out as CodePath graduates might go on to be the next Elon Musk," he said, "They might go on to be the next [former Facebook Chief Operating Officer] Sheryl Sandberg."
Expunging records can be the difference between employment and unemployment, but the process of essentially erasing your past can be expensive. Attorney Noella Sudbury founded Rasa, an app that makes clearing your record easy and affordable. The typical cost of expunging records can run upwards of $5,000, but Rasa will clear your name for just $500.
"Getting your records expunged in the few states where you can get your records expunged can be a life-changer. But it costs so much money," Van Jones told Us Weekly while explaining why he decided to invest some of his "miracle money" from Jeff Bezos in Rasa. "[It] means a lot more people can get their records expunged, which means they can get a job, which means you're breaking that revolving door back into prison."
Van Jones also helped out several individuals — many of whom were previously incarcerated — who started their own businesses. A man named Andre Peart founded a business called Untapped Solutions that connects former inmates with service providers and employers via professional networking technology. "[The] app is using AI to find quickly the places that would at least consider hiring you," Van told Us Weekly. "You're decreasing the amount of time you're wasting and increasing your success rate."
"The fact that Van [Jones] was given the opportunity to distribute $100 million to anything that he cared about speaks volumes to who he is and the work that he's done to date," Dr. Topeka K. Sam told Us Weekly. Dr. Sam, who was released from prison in 2015, knows Van's generosity well: The CNN contributor helped with FRSH, the personal financial management platform Dr. Sam created for the "justice-impacted community." (FRSH helps people who have historically not had access to modern banking products and services.)
"For us, it's been life-changing. My life mantra is to whom much is given, much is required. And so you have to pay it forward," Dr. Sam said. "We know how difficult is it for people to reenter [society following a prison stint] so through all of our support we are making sure that we are able to contribute stipends to folks who are leaving prison in their accounts so they'll have something that they can start off [with] and really have a fresh start."
Two years into the venture, Van Jones is "encouraged" by the changes being made with the help of the "miracle money" he's invested. "You're actually helping people. You're shrinking crime, you're shrinking the prison system, you're shrinking the public burden and cost, you're growing opportunity [and] you're using entrepreneurship to do it," he told Us Weekly. "I'm trying to do path-breaking stuff maybe nobody else would be willing to take a chance on. We want every penny to make a miracle if we can. We're really trying to do stuff that if this works, it could create a whole different system."