January 29, 2009

Booker Unites Community

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Nestled beside the shores of scenic Cayuga Lake, minutes from the manicured vineyards of Upstate New York’s tourist-filled wineries, is Ithaca, a city whose small size does not dwarf its complexity. Dubbed the “the urban capital of the Finger Lakes” by The New York Times, this small rural community has fought hard to preserve its peaceful environment amidst tackling grave issues of racism that have targeted its youth population in recent years.

“In Ithaca, we are aware that racial tensions surface periodically, and we looked to [Newark Mayor] Cory Booker as someone who could bridge the divide,” said Allen Green, director of the Ithaca Youth Bureau, an organization that for the past 60 years has provided programming such as recreational sports, youth mentorship and support services to the 18,296 children under the age of 18 currently living in Tompkins County.

[img_assist|nid=34552|title=Uplift|desc=Newark Mayor Cory Booker spoke to the Ithaca Youth Bureau at the State Theatre last night.|link=node|align=left|width=|height=0]

Last night at the State Theatre, before a crowd of nearly 1,200 community members, the bureau’s nine-month effort to hear Cory Booker speak became a reality. Booker’s speech followed two performances by musician Samite of Uganda and the Greatest Common Factor breakdancing troupe from Ithaca High School. Both acts brought the crowd to their feet and highlighted Booker’s “interest in leveling the playing field as the gap between the haves and the have-nots has widened,” Green said.

But when Booker, the mayor of Newark, N.J., took the spotlight, he stood on the unornamented, darkened stage. His anecdotal stories filled the theater with vivid images of his past, present and the future of not only Newark but also of America. He addressed an audience as eclectic as his own background, which includes playing football for Stanford University, earning a law degree from Yale and founding the L’Chaim society at Oxford while studying on a Rhodes Scholarship.

“We are a people that have an obligation, a privilege to stand up for who we are, for what we believe in, for our communities, for our nation,” Booker began, setting the tone for words that bridged cultural, racial, gender and economic divides.

“This nation was founded unlike every other country,” he continued. “It was not founded because everyone spoke the same language, looked the same, or prayed to the same God. It was organized around a set of ideals that were put forth in the most beautiful expressions, that we’re all created equal, that we’re all endowed with universal rights.”

Using history as a guide for future change, Booker extensively quoted Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous words written in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail” and described his mayoral office furnishings that include a statue of Harriett Tubman. He also highlighted the power of youth through their 1963 involvement in Project “C” — for “confrontation” — in Birmingham, Alabama: a hotbed for racism and radicalism during the civil rights era. In a prolonged protest against Birmingham’s racist political official Bull Connor, up to 2,000 children were arrested and placed in jails. Many were the targets of violent dogs and fire hose shootings. During Project C, Booker said, “adults were holding hands with children … In order to make change happen, you must have everyone.”

In confronting challenges such as social inequality, Booker warned the audience not to fall into the trap of cynicism. Upon beginning work in Newark, he met the tenant president of one of the city’s public housing projects who warned him that one’s vision of the outside world is a reflection of one’s inner self. By describing the urban setting as a drug-laden, run down neighborhood and filled with homeless people, the woman told him frankly that his grandiose visions of urban improvement would not happen with such a vision of negativity. “The world you see outside of you is a reflection of the world you have inside,” he recalled the woman saying. “If you see hope and opportunity and love, then you can be one of the people that helps me.” The message was met with applause and shouts of approval from the audience.

Booker concluded by stating that progress grows from injustice. Out of child labor came public education, and out of slavery came racial equality. All it takes is a vision and action — and he told the audience that the time to act is now: “Will we seize America as a nation that can help restore peace, restore human rights? What will we see when we look at America?”

Booker’s focus on youth empowerment and overcoming social divides drew a number of youth organizations to the State Theatre. Sylvia Duran, coordinator for Tompkins County Reality Check, a local organization that helps youth gain experience in community advocacy through anti-tobacco activism, highlighted the positive role model Booker offers to Ithaca youth.

“[Booker] doesn’t smoke or drink and has publicized that he does not accept any funding from the tobacco industry,” she said. “His speech was an excellent event for our organization to co-sponsor.”

Michael Smith, head coach for the IHS’s Men’s Junior Varsity Basketball Team, expressed that the positive values Booker conveys are important for his team to understand. “Booker’s emphasis on coming together for a purpose and bridging racial and cultural divides amidst diversity is an important message for our team,” he said.

The event was co-sponsored by Cornell’s African Latino Asian Native American Students Program Board and the Department of City and Regional Planning.