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Interview: Van Jones on His Latest Endeavor, CNN’s ‘The Redemption Project’

Interview: Van Jones on His Latest Endeavor, CNN’s ‘The Redemption Project’

“I owe a debt that cannot be repaid, but I’m going to spend the rest of my life repaying that.” – The Redemption Project

In a culture where the sins of a person’s past are leveraged against them as a constant reminder of the mistakes they have made, it’s refreshing to finally see a series that demonstrates the act of forgiveness — which seems to be lost in today’s society.

The Redemption Project with Van Jones explores the transformative power of grace and redemption in a profound way through the lens of the criminal justice system.

Offering a rare glimpse into the restorative justice process, each episode of The Redemption Project with Van Jones follows the victim, or surviving family members, of a life-altering crime as they journey to meet face-to-face with their offender in the hopes of finding answers or some sense of healing.  Van Jones will serve as a guide and a conduit for the viewer throughout this transformational experience.

I had the pleasure of speaking to Van Jones, I spoke to him a while back about his work in the technology space, and it was great to catch up with him again on his latest effort with this new series. In conjunction with the show, Van Jones will host the CNN-produced podcast, “Incarceration Inc. with Van Jones”. Van Jones is the host of The Van Jones Show on CNN, he is also a social entrepreneur who has helped create organizations such as Color of Change, The Dream Corps, and he’s the CEO of the REFORM Alliance.

What led you and your team to create the CNN series, The Redemption Project?

The Redemption Project is an unusual piece of television, in that it’s not the classic true crime stuff and trying to figure out who done it and that kind of thing. We already know who did it. We’re talking to eight people who have done really bad things who want to make amends. And then we talk to the person who they hurt or the surviving family member sometimes 10, even 20 years later, and there’s been no healing. And then we film those two people sitting down and talking with each other face-to-face, sometimes almost knee-to-knee, talking to each other about what happened.

I also at a macro level, I have just been watching just grace and empathy and forgiveness and kindness just exit the culture. It is no longer fashionable, it is no longer trendy, it is no longer cool to be empathetic. It is trendy to cancel folks and block folk and tell folk a thing or two, and I just don’t think that that’s what we were sent here to do. I don’t think God put us here to be in a constant food fight and getting clicks and likes based on how mean we can be.

I saw an opportunity to put some medicine back in the culture to show people engaging in Olympic levels of moral courage really on both sides. To go and sit down and talk with somebody who took your child’s life or who permanently injured you, and on the other hand, can go and talk to somebody who you derailed or even ruined their lives and to take accountability and look them in the eye. It’s not a judge, it’s not a jury, it’s not a prosecutor, there’s no investigator, it’s just that human being and you in a room talking. It blew my mind. It changed me as a human being and I’m hoping it’ll be helpful to the country for CNN to put this in prime time as they’re going to do.

I’m so glad that you brought up the fact that our culture right now is less empathetic and we are in this cancel culture especially online, on social media, where people can’t even make mistakes anymore. Do you think that this series will help foster a deeper discussion around forgiveness?

I hope so. Now the point of restorative justice is not necessarily forgiveness, right, because of the eight episodes in two of them, the parents, the surviving parents, they cannot get to a place of forgiveness and that’s perfectly fine because they got other needs in that they got information that they hadn’t had before. But, in three of the eight, the surviving family members and/or victims actually go and try to get the person out of jail and try to get that person out of prison. So, you have the full range and when it starts, you don’t know how it’s going to end up because we didn’t know how it was going to end up when it started. So, each episode is its own kind of crazy rollercoaster.

During each of these episodes, we see you sit in front of a monitor with headphones and you’re watching the interaction between the offender and the surviving family members, can you tell us what was going through your head while you were watching those moments?

It is hard, man, because by the time those two people sit down and talk, I’ve spent hours with each one, so I know how badly the person who committed the crime feels but also where they might be, alone, feel proud, or scared. And I also know the incredible damage, just the wrecking ball this person has been in the other person’s life and the pain there. So, you’re just sitting there literally you’re rooting for both sides to tell their truth, you’re rooting for both sides to be able to get to some kind of peace or just some kind of breakthrough, but you do not know what’s going to happen. For every, I mean, and the first time we got to the end and there was actually a breakthrough and an embrace, I cried so hard my nose started bleeding because my blood pressure was just that high. I mean this is a very, very risky thing.

The offense in each of these cases is never just black and white. Some offenders come from a life of poverty, some come from a good home. Can you share with us the selection process of featuring certain criminal cases in this series?

Very tough, because it’s really a needle in a haystack because you got to find someone who has committed an offense, who themselves has transformed. But, everybody doesn’t transform. Some people still are trying to explain why it really wasn’t them and they didn’t really do it and whatever, so. And then you have to find someone who is on the victim side who is willing to have that conversation because some people just don’t want to ever hear from this person again. And then you have to catch them when they never talked before, which is the whole point of the first conversation they never had, and you’ve got to have people who want to do that on film. Some people are willing to talk, but they don’t want to have it broadcast to the whole world. So, this is a very, very tough process.

There’s still certain kinds of conversations that we haven’t been able to have, so we haven’t been able to find the right cases. But we have a whole team of people that are working really around the clock that are trying to find people who are willing to expose themselves at that moment of maximum pain. Nobody’s getting paid to do this. It’s just an unbelievable experience, I think, for everybody.

Is there an episode or moment while working on this series that still resonates with you?

Yes, doing that first one where, it’s not the first one in the series, but it’s the first one that we shot. You know where there’s someone whose mother had been murdered by someone when she was still a baby and they have to try to have a conversation, and it doesn’t go exactly the way that we thought it might go. It’s a little bit of curveball stuff, but just the fact that we were able to get them in the room together, and I suddenly realized sitting there literally with my nose bleeding, that this is powerful stuff and that the country needs to see. The country needs to see people trying, not necessarily succeeding every time.

Whatever success looks like in your mind when you first start off, but they will be trying to hear each other, trying to get their needs met in conversation, to people and not about people. We are talking about each other, we’re not talking to each other, and it is getting worse and worse. I’m hoping this show can help.

You pulled off a pretty remarkable feat as well in this series because in the episode, “A Mother’s Justice”, you visit Alaska and they previously never had a victim-offender dialogue program, yet you were able to make that happen. How did you and your team pull that off?

Well, you always have to have good allies in government, inside of prisons, who are willing to work with you. And you do have people inside the prison system, I mean those of us who’ve been fighting the incarceration industry, so-called mass incarceration, we used to call it the prison industrial complex, the name changes but the building stay the same, for those of us who’ve been fighting that sometimes forget that there are people inside those buildings who also agree with us.

We got to do something different. We’re throwing people away and brutalizing them and then sending them home expecting them to become perfect people when nobody’s perfect and we have an imperfect system in the first place. So, we were able to find some good allies throughout the system, surprising allies every time to help us get this done.

I know you’re really busy, it seems like you’re just everywhere these days. Can you share with our readers what projects you’re currently involved in and any new ones we should learn more about?

I’m so proud to be the CEO of the REFORM Alliance, that’s You know, Jay-Z and Meek Mill and about half a dozen other heavy hitters got together and said, we’ve got to do more to make the criminal justice system fair and they hired me to be the CEO to get that thing up and running. So people who want to be a part of spreading some of these positive programs, fixing probation and parole, and sticking up for second chances and redemption, can go to or follow us @REFORM on all social media. I’m @VanJones68 on all social media.

Between the REFORM Alliance, working in a bipartisan way, Republicans and Democrats, everybody to fix the criminal justice system, and Redemption. Trying to get people to watch this show, that’s going to be my main focus this year. Listen to Redemption, 9:00 PM, Sunday nights, starting April 28th, Anthony Bourdain’s slot, which is sacred ground for CNN. Up against Game of Thrones, so it’s a tough assignment. If you don’t watch it, please DVR it and watch it the next day.

I think this show has the potential to change people’s lives. Because if somebody watches this show, obviously don’t try to talk to somebody that’s really, really done damage to you because we have a lot of support for our people when we do that. But everybody has somebody they can give an apology to, everybody. Everybody has some conversations they’ve put off for 10 years, 20 years, maybe even in their family. Somebody 12 years ago at Thanksgiving, some cousin pissed you off, you haven’t spoken to them for a decade. Everybody has somebody, a co-worker that they might just try. It may not work out, but just at least try to extend some empathy and grace to, it can change your life. And if the show encourages that, makes people less likely to just blow each other up on Twitter, which they should just change the name of Twitter to Hater now because it’s just all negative, if we can just get a little bit of medicine out into this system, a little bit of medicine can go a long way. I hope people will give the show a chance.

Thank you, Van. Incredible work and it’s a pleasure talking to you again.

Well, thank you so much. Let’s talk again later.

The Redemption Project premieres on CNN April 28th.

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