News & Politics

The Insider: Jake Brewer

As part of the Energy Action Coalition, Jake Brewer helped organize the PowerShift ’09 conference that brought more than 12,000 young leaders to Washington in March to advocate for energy reform and change.

In his own words:

• The Energy Action Coalition is focused on developing a clean-energy economy—it’s very much a social-justice mission because we see clean energy as an opportunity to help lift people out of poverty through new jobs and opportunities. It’s as much about rebuilding the American economy as it is about combating climate change.

• I grew up in a small Southern town—Columbia, Tennessee—and was one of a small number of people in my graduating class who left the state. I was going off to be a fighter pilot at the US Naval Academy.

• When you’re 18, there are lots of things about the idea of flying an F/A-18 that are appealing, though it was mostly the sense of service, of giving back to my country, of protecting the world that I believed in. At a certain point, I realized that my greatest contribution wasn’t going to come from dropping bombs, firing missiles, or flying patrols. I wanted to be working on the ground to help communities. The military is incredible about taking resources and applying them to places that need them—I attribute a lot of my ability to do that to my two years at the Naval Academy.

• The best way I know to remain idealistic in Washington is to talk to lots of people outside of Washington. If you walk around Dupont Circle, it’s hard to tell that we’re in an economic crisis. It feels energized and vibrant, which comes from down the street in the White House. In Columbia, Tennessee, you don’t have that. I have family outside Detroit—you don’t get that there. You have to see how they’re responding, how they’re remaining optimistic, to stay enthused here. You have to be able to channel the energy of other people.

• I’m on the cusp of the Millennial Generation. Much of my work has been working with more established leaders—people in the Boomer generation—and it’s fascinating to see how differently the generations think and work. The way we communicate and educate and relate has changed dramatically through technology and social networking.

• The best parts of the Millennial Generation revolve around this strong sense of purpose, a sense of service to the country and to the world—and in particular how they see our country relating to the rest of the world. What we do here does have an impact on communities everywhere.

• We’re standing on the shoulders of pretty incredible work that our parents did in the ’60s and ’70s. We can take advantage of that new vantage point to move forward in all sorts of ways.

• The whole view on the Hill has changed in the last year. The idea that legislators can actually do something is palpable. When it comes to real change, it can happen. Because people are walking in there with that belief, that has changed the whole starting point. The starting point is now on the side of “we can” instead of “we wish we could.”

• That’s true not just for progressives but for Republicans, too. There’s a legislative lubricant that has been applied that is allowing changes to be made. It’s also precipitated by the dire circumstances that we find ourselves in. The chance to see the bottom—the worst—right now is, in a way, one of the best opportunities for change.

• The stimulus package was more or less the biggest clean-energy bill we could have hoped for. It’s got—depending on how you measure it—up to $80 billion for new energy and projects like rail, smart grids, and other opportunities. Those projects will begin transitioning us to a different economy.

• I come from an automobile-industry family. My father graduated from college in 1974 and has worked for GM his whole life. The system that GM used for decades, which served them so well for so long, obviously no longer works. Manufacturing isn’t going to be coming back in the same way it once was. We need to shift into a system that does work for today’s needs—that our children can someday be trained to do. It’s a painful transition, and we need to look it straight in the face.

• My father always used to tell me, “If you don’t have the time to do it right the first time, when will you have the time to do it right?” We’re at that point today. We need to make sure we get this right the first time.

This article first appeared in the April 2009 issue of The Washingtonian. For more articles from that issue, click here

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