Today, Dream Corps founder and TV personality Van Jones was awarded the Courage and Civility Award by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos on the heels of the entrepreneur’s successful trip to space. As part of the prestigious recognition, Bezos also presented Jones with $100 million to gift to the non-profit organization(s) of his choice. The Courage & Civility Award recognizes leaders who aim high, pursue solutions with courage, and always do so with civility.
The honor comes on the 25-year anniversary of the first organization Jones co-founded – The Ella Baker Center for Human Rights (1996). Since then, Jones co-founded several other organizations, including Color Of Change (2005), Green for All (2007), Dream Corps (2011) and REFORM Alliance (2019). In recent years, Jones and Dream Corps played a vital role in passing one of the most consequential rewrites of federal prison laws in decades – through a polarized Congress – with The First Step Act in late-2018. The New York Times called the bipartisan legislation “the most significant criminal justice breakthrough in a generation.”
Following the announcement of Bezos’ honor, Jones responded with the following statement:
I am beyond honored to accept Jeff Bezos’ inaugural Courage & Civility Award. I do so with a sense of gratitude, awe and wonder. In my 30 years as an activist and social entrepreneur, I have neither heard nor dreamed of a charitable prize of this magnitude. Even the award’s title both inspires and intimidates. After all, nobody is courageous and kind, 100 percent of the time. I get scared and irritable, just like everyone else. But the truth is: the work I do has taught me what courage & civility LOOK like and what grace FEELS like. That’s because I labor so closely with people whose grit and grace are almost otherworldly. Leaders like Alice Marie Johnson, Michael “Harry O” Harris, David Safavian, Topeka Sam, Shaka Senghor, Louis L. Reed, and LaTonya Myers — among many others — blow me away on a daily basis. Out of the nightmare of America’s prisons, they emerged with their dreams and dignity intact. Their efforts today are moving us all toward a more just, humane and merciful society. As the founder of the Dream Corps, I am proud to be their ally in the work of transforming the criminal legal system – and many other dysfunctional systems. From prisons, jails and detention centers … to tough urban neighborhoods … to Appalachian coal country … to Native American reservations … to the U.S./Mexico border — I see too much genius wasted. I have seen too many promising changemakers fail because they could not simultaneously be expert fundraisers. And yet today’s escalating social and ecological crises require us to directly empower more visionaries and solutionaries from struggling communities – and connect them to the resources and networks they need to thrive. Formerly incarcerated leaders often tell me: “Those closest to the problems are closest to the solutions, but farthest from resources and power.” I will use this prize to help reverse that sad irony, as best I can. Breakthroughs of all kinds are just waiting to be discovered — especially at the intersection of advanced technology and community wisdom. When leaders are willing to work together across lines of race and party, they can discover workable solutions to seemingly intractable problems. And when we help grassroots changemakers access (and unleash) the power of technology, finance and media – we can take those innovations powerfully to scale. I have seen that process work, using only modest resources. With major resources, the sky is the limit. Speaking of that: in this time of challenge and peril, I am glad that new astronauts are lifting the ceiling off humanity’s dreams, again. I am inspired whenever someone reaches for the heavens. There is always more heaven up there that the rest of us can reach for – each in our own way. If a small number of humans can make miracles happen in space, then a large number of humans can make bigger miracles happen here on Earth. I thank God for this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to help leaders across the country do just that.