May 27, 2013

Mayor Cory Booker Stresses Power of the Collective to Graduates

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Addressing a stadium packed with the Class of 2013, families and friends at Convocation on Saturday, Cory Booker, the 44-year-old mayor of Newark, N.J., said to graduates that “nothing we do, however virtuous, can be achieved alone.”

Throughout his speech, Booker encouraged students to work together against what he called the generation’s biggest challenge: cynicism.

Booker said that while other generations have fostered “bold visions that could solve all of America’s problems,” the generation the Class of 2013 belongs to has “resigned itself to poverty … [to the fact] that there will be schools in some places that just don’t work … [and to the fact] that there will be violence some places in our country.”

“That cynicism eats at me,” Booker said.

In a speech punctuated by bursts of brisk wind, Booker began by not only thanking Cornell’s faculty and staff, but also recognizing those he said are often not thanked enough: “people who work on the lawns and the grounds of this University, the people who serve meals, the people who clean bathrooms.” Without all of these people, Booker said, convocation would not have been possible.

Booker said that his belief in the power of the collective comes from a five-foot tall, elderly woman he knew from Newark who is as “tough as nails.”

The woman, Virginia Jones, was a resident and tenant’s rights leader of Brick Towers, a public housing project in Newark, Booker said. Despite losing her son when he was shot and killed in the lobby of the building, Jones refused to move out — telling Booker she had to stay in the building because she had to fight to make the complex a safer community.

Describing her job as being “in charge of Homeland Security,” Jones fearlessly took on responsibility to improve living conditions at the crime-ridden building, Booker said — recalling that Jones even once punched a “slumlord” to try to call attention to the issue.

Booker, who himself lived in Brick Towers until the building was demolished in 2006, said Jones inspired him to “do something” in the face of despair. This attitude, he said, would ultimately permeate his efforts to spark change in his own community; it was an attitude Booker encouraged students to foster in the face of the economic and social problems that he said America currently faces.

Booker recalled that he was struggling through the last few days of his first year in city government, “frustrated because [he] was getting nothing done.” Booker said that councilmembers often voted against him, and the mayor at the time saw him as a threat because he believed Booker would challenge him.

With municipal police tapping his phones and repeatedly ticketing his car, Booker said he felt exasperated when another tenant’s rights leader in Newark called him for help. The woman complained that there were many violent incidents occurring in front of her building, and she asked Booker to send the police over.

Feeling that the police were not on his side, Booker said he told her, “Look, I can’t get the police to stop ticketing my car, for crying out loud.” Booker said that he and the tenant leader yelled back and forth at each other over the phone until they hung up.

“Now I’m done — now I’m really going to quit,” he said he thought at the time. Booker said he trudged back home, but ran into Jones, who said, “Don’t you dare walk past me boy. … Tell me what’s wrong.”

Booker said that when he described the situation and asked her what he should do, Jones took a deep breath and simply said, “You should do something.”

Booker said that although he initially believed he was powerless, he quickly realized, “Heck, that woman’s right. I can do something.”

That, Booker said, is when he decided to set up a tent in front of the crime-ridden building, where he went on a hunger strike for 10 days. Booker said the 10 days showed him the true power of the collective, as community leaders, prison guards and hundreds of others came out to support his cause.

Eventually, on the tenth day, the mayor at the time came out and promised to increase police patrols in the area.

Booker said that, on the last day of the strike, when many community members came together for a final prayer, he saw “the most beautiful vision of [his] nation.”

In addition to gaining public recognition for the hunger strike, Booker has become known for his willingness to get his hands dirty around Newark; in recent years, Booker ran into a burning building to rescue his neighbor, suffering smoke inhalation and second-degree burns on his hand. In his first year as mayor of Newark, he followed police officers on night patrols to ensure that the city was making every effort to reduce crime, according to Time.

As he concluded his speech, Booker stressed the importance of working together to overcome challenges.

“I tell you now, I hope you all have great individual accomplishments,” he said. “But your generation will be determined by how you come together as lovers — lovers of peace and lovers of justice.”

Original Author: Jinjoo Lee