Spotlight Interview with Van Jones: The Redemption Project

Van Jones

Carmen recently spoke with CNN political commentator, author, and social entrepreneur, Van Jones, about his new undertaking, The Redemption Project. The show brings viewers into powerful moments of restorative justice and provokes consideration of how to allow for healing and rehabilitation in our criminal justice system.

Transcript (begins at 21:51):

Carmen LaBerge:  Hey, welcome back to Mornings With Carmen. Privileged to be joined now by Van Jones. You certainly recognize him from CNN. He’s here to talk with us about the Redemption Project. Van, welcome to mornings with Carmen.

Van Jones:  I’m so glad to be on the show.

Carmen LaBerge:  I can’t tell you how excited those of us who are interested in restorative justice, those of us who’ve been engaged sort of on the Christian side of the conversation related to criminal justice reform with our friends, like over at the Colson Center and other partners, to see this series come out on CNN and for it to be so powerful and so widely celebrated. So let’s just jump in and talk about it. Talk about why you did the Redemption Project and what the feedback has been so far.

Van Jones:  Well, I did it because, you know, the culture is so toxic and negative and divisive. It’s actually more trendy to not have compassion and not have empathy and just to cancel people and call people out and block people than it is to actually try to have a conversation. I’m just tired of it. I wanted to put some medicine out in their culture if I could. As somebody who’s done criminal justice work for 25 years or more, I know how many diamonds there are shining behind those walls. Not everybody, but a lot of people that sometimes, frankly, despite the prison, they turned their lives around. They transform, they find faith. They want to atone. They want to redeem themselves. They want to apologize, but they don’t know how.

Van Jones:  So we found that people who have been victims of crime, survivors of crime, who, 10 years later, 20 years later, still haven’t healed, still have questions still wonder why this had to happen, wonder did the person learn anything? We just put those two people together. We share their backstories, they’re very human backstories, and then we just put them in a room and film them face to face, sometimes even knee to knee, having that conversation for the first time about what happened. I’ll tell you, get your Kleenex box ready because it is a powerful show. We have had 99% positive reactions on Twitter, which nobody’s ever seen before.

Van Jones:  You know, Twitter is a tough environment. I call Twitter, hater. They may as well just call it hater because it’s just so negative. And yet I’m past three weeks, 99% positive response on Twitter and five more episodes to go, 9:00 PM Sunday nights, CNN. That’s Anthony Bourdain’s slot, so that’s very, very sacred ground for us at CNN to have these kinds of stories told in that time slot. And we are hoping that people watch, DVR, because after you watch it, you’re going to want to share it with people. So DVR it. I’m just excited about being able to do something positive in prime time.

Carmen LaBerge:  So Van, there’s no question that it’s positive. There’s no question that words that need to be used to describe what’s happening go well beyond the sort of secular vocabulary. I’m aware of that as I watch it. I’m aware that, you can’t have the kind of forgiveness that’s necessary or the kind of transformation that is experienced in these situations, in these scenarios, without… Well it certainly the word grace comes up. I mean you, you can’t access those words purely through secularism. So what has been your experience as you have watched these stories unfold and you have narrated these stories? I mean, I’m certainly aware that God comes up a lot and there’s people of faith sitting on both sides of those tables. Has That surprised you?

Van Jones:  You know, it didn’t surprise me, but I had to make sure that in our secularized culture, that didn’t get edited out because people, you know, it’s such a secular culture now. I think 25% of people in the culture are nonbelievers. So it becomes, we don’t want to offend anybody by you, including any quote unquote God talk. Well in this show, people talk about God and they talk about prayer and we show people in prayer. It’s not a religious show, but to your point, people turn to their faith in tragedy and this is a heartbreak to hope show. In moments of heartbreak, people turn to faith. To get through, they often turn to faith. Then when that moment of hope finally happens in this show, there’s a grace there that’s just impossible to describe.

Carmen LaBerge:  Yeah. I really, I appreciate how sensitive you are to those faith lines, to those faith storylines. I certainly appreciate that you have been right on the forefront of being sure it didn’t get edited out. I do think that that is really significant. I think it’s going to surprise some people who are listening right now on Christian radio. It’s going to surprise some people to hear a CNN host and commentator say those things. So one of the reasons I wanted to have you on, is because CNN gets maligned a lot as, that’s not the Christian station. Or you know, that’s what some people would say. So I genuinely appreciate. I heard Chris Elizah recently just talking about the need for people to talk to one another without first assigning negative, just making all kinds of negative assumptions about one another in advance. I feel like you guys are seeking to, at least at a personal level, if not at a corporate level, change the conversation. Am I sensing that?

Van Jones:  Well look, this show is not a show that you would ordinarily see on television at all. I mean, because it’s not true crime. We’re not trying to sensationalize everything. True crime is often about who done it, you’re trying to be able to exonerate this person. Can we catch the killer? That kind of thing. But you know, this is we already know who done it in these shows, these eight episodes. It’s not true crime, it’s about the truth long after the crime, which is that the person behind bars may have grown or changed and the person who was the victim may still need healing. And so we try to attend to that. It’s a new genre of television. One of the reasons that the reviewers have had a hard time even talking about it’s because they have left speechless by seeing something that, frankly, it’s miracles being caught on camera. We’re catching miracles on film.

Van Jones:  There’s no way to describe when you see someone who has suffered for 20 years have a breakthrough because they finally got some information or they finally, at least got a chance to just sit across the room from someone or a table from someone. These are miracles of human spirit and often of faith. I’m proud that CNN is taking a chance on a show like this. I don’t know if they’re deliberately trying to change the conversation at large, but the fact that CNN is putting something this powerful on the air in prime time, I think is a very hopeful sign.

Carmen LaBerge:  I do too. Hey, let’s take a quick break. When we come back, Van, I would love for you to just share one of the stories. Maybe give us a sense of what we’re going to see this Sunday night when we tune in to the Redemption Project. I’m talking with Van Jones from CNN. We’re talking about the Redemption Project. It is an eight part series airing on CNN on Sunday nights at 9:00 PM Eastern and we’ll be right back.

Carmen LaBerge:  Continuing my conversation now with Van Jones from CNN, we’re talking about the Redemption Project. Van, maybe there is a story that has already aired or maybe you want to give us a little foretaste of what we’re going to experience this coming Sunday night. But I’d love for you to just take us into your own experience of one of these stories.

Van Jones:  Well, this coming Sunday has a really, really powerful show. It’s a mother in Alaska who lost her son to gun violence. She’s white. She’s somebody who, looking at her, you would never expect that she’s somebody who has gone through the kind of life that she’s gone through. She had her own struggles that come out in the show. But she lost her son, her best friend, and she goes to talk to the person in prison who was convicted for that killing. It’s a remarkable show. I don’t want to give much of it away because it’s the kind of show that it’s so many surprises happen, so many things you don’t expect. Our show was a heartbreak to hope show. So some people when they first see, wow, this is dark, I mean this woman’s son died, like do I want to watch this on a Sunday night?

Van Jones:  I promise you if you stick with it, the payoff is unbelievable. Sometimes a breakdown can become a breakthrough if you use it right. This is one of our more powerful episodes. Last episode we had a father who lost his daughter in a drive by shooting, also go to a prison and have the conversation. I think some people may feel, “Hey, wait a minute now, is this some soft on crime propaganda? Is this some kind of, people get away with wherever they want to get away with and give them a hug and it’s all fine?” That is not this show. These are people who have gotten serious prison sentences. They are paying their dues. They would not be on my show if they had not already made a serious change in their life and work to atone.

Van Jones:  And yet how much atoning can you do if you can never look the person in the eyes and apologize? It becomes abstract. It just becomes something that you’re talking about in your group circle or in your journal. Anybody can do that. Can you walk into a room? Can you walk in a room with somebody you deeply disappointed or really hurt and really honestly confess and apologize? That’s something that’s very hard to do in our culture. Also we’ve all had things that have been done to us that we don’t like and it’s been hard to get past. Could you listen to that person apologize? So this is not a criminal justice show. It’s a deeply human show. The stakes are higher because the underlying incidents are so much more serious. But all of us have done things that we need to apologize for.

Van Jones:  All of us have been hurt by someone and have had a hard time moving on. So the reason I think this show has such appeal, and I think the reason why we’re getting 99% positive comments in social media, which nobody gets, because it’s such a human, human show and we capture these miracles on film and we capture these moments. The other thing about this, this show is a quiet show because so much of it is just the looks on people’s faces. We let the moment be real. You’re having a tough conversation. You don’t always know what to say. Sometimes you just look down at the floor. We just let that happen. Sometimes the look in someone’s eye, sometimes just seeing a big, muscle bound guy break down crying, which you don’t expect when he tries to explain why he made these terrible decisions and the words aren’t that long or even that important. It’s the whole moment that we’re able to capture.

Van Jones:  I just think it’s a medicine. We need some medicine. Our society is so sick and we’re so polarized and we label and we blame and we feel superior to each other and we’re just getting smaller every day. This is an opportunity to show people in tough situations trying to be big. It’s a part of my personal ministry. I’m not a minister, but we all have a ministry. It’s a part of my personal ministry to just try to bring grace back into our culture.

Carmen LaBerge:  That’s a profound mission statement. If each and every one of us were living out that mission statement in whatever vocation we are in, I would argue that you, as a part of the priesthood of all believers, you certainly have a ministry, and it’s a Ministry of reconciliation. And that’s what you’re doing. You are walking it out in your life, in your area of influence, in your particular vocation, in a way that is bringing the gospel to the surface. What people choose to do with it is, I think you and I would both acknowledge, their own business. But you do bring it to the surface in such a way that if people are going to be honest with themselves, they’re going to have to deal with it.

Van Jones:  Well, I appreciate your encouragement and I appreciate everything that you’re doing with your platform. You know, I think that we have a mistaken idea in our country now, which is that these awful people, these awful people. Everybody on both sides of the political divide, “Oh, those people over there are so awful.” I think we forget that, yeah, of course there’s awful people in all political parties, and all races, or all classes. That’s just reality. But the real tragedy in America is not what the awful people are doing, it’s that we have so many awesome people in both political parties and in all races and classes who honestly just don’t know what to do. We don’t know how to help each other. We don’t know how to listen to each other. We don’t know even find each other.

Van Jones:  It become so easy to just snuggle up in our little smart phone cocoon and have the algorithm just give us only things we want to see. We forget that life is not as simple as liking and swiping on stuff that you like. We’re human. We’re complex. People make mistakes. People misunderstand. People need each other. We need each other to grow. The disagreements could help us grow. The fact that we’re different can help us grow. We’ve forgotten that.

Van Jones:  I’m proud of what you’re doing. I’m doing my part as best I can, but let’s spread that and if you want to vote for something positive in our culture, 9:00 PM on Sunday nights, there’s Game of Thrones and everything else going on, but if you can’t watch it, at least DVR and watch it the next day. You want to DVR it because you’re going to want to share it. Some people, after they watch this show, they have so much that they want to talk about and sometimes the family members weren’t there. Your best friend wasn’t there. Your roommate wasn’t there. DVR this whole series, and I think you’re going to get a lot of good out of it.

Carmen LaBerge:  Van, I’m actually advocating that people watch it with a small group of people who maybe they are like-minded with, and maybe a diverse group of people with whom they have some disagreements. But this could be the subject matter sitting on the other side of the table that we can sit on the same side of table and we can talk about it. Because it is very provocative. It is very powerful. It is smart, but it’s just brutally honest. It’s brutally honest about the reality of the world we live in and the need for compassion and forgiveness and mercy. As you say, these people are paying their debt to society, but at some point you get to the place where you can’t pay what is owed. So forgiveness has to be a part of this process of restorative justice. All right. You and I are going to have to leave it right there. Van Jones, thank you so much for joining us on Mornings With Carmen, and thank you for the Redemption Project.

Van Jones:  Well thank you for the opportunity.

Carmen LaBerge:  Okay. So if after that conversation you are wondering how you’re going to walk that conversation out into the world, let me just go ahead and say you’re overthinking it. Because as Christians, we know what redemption is. We know what the act of saving grace is in Jesus Christ. We know what it is to turn to repent. We know what it is to experience forgiveness. And you cannot have a conversation about restorative justice or racial reconciliation or the kind of forgiveness that is happening in the Redemption Project. You really cannot have those conversations in a substantive way apart from a conversation about God. So the culture is now having a conversation about the Redemption Project. Just consider that for a moment. Consider for a moment that right now the culture is having a conversation because CNN is producing a series called the Redemption Project.

Carmen LaBerge:  So it’s an opportunity for you and I to get into a conversation that the culture is already having and to be the people who bring God back into that conversation. You’re going to watch the show and then you’re going to ask questions like, “Wow, where do you think that forgiveness comes from? Wow. That’s a real turnaround. That’s real transformation in a human life. Where does that come from? What is your experience of that?” This is not just recovery. This is redemption. This is radical transformation. This is forgiveness. This is grace.

Carmen LaBerge:  All right, friends, so it is Friday. We are not going to be together for a couple of days, but if you missed a show this week, please go to and grab the podcast. This one will be up in a couple of hours. Have a great weekend, and God bless.

Carmen LaBerge:   Thanks for listening to this podcast of Mornings With Carmen LaBerge from Faith Radio. If you haven’t, you can subscribe to automatically receive the podcast through iTunes or the Google Play music app. That way you never miss an episode. It’s also available anytime at

For more on criminal justice reform:

Religion’s Historical Influence on Criminal Justice

The First Step Act

Second Chance Month

Resource Page: Justice