The Honorable Cory A. Booker, Mayor of Newark, N.J., visited the University for the Third Annual Spotlight on Leadership Event and delivered his keynote, “How to Change the World with Your Bare Hands” on Monday afternoon in the Villanova Room.
In his lecture, Mayor Booker shared his belief in the power of service and social justice, emphasizing each citizen’s responsibility to help America live up to the promises and ideals on which it was founded.
Booker, who is considering a 2014 run for U.S. Senate, knows a thing or two about helping those around him to reach their full potential.
Since becoming mayor of Newark in 2006, Booker has overseen one of the country’s most successful urban transformation projects. Headlining his long list of accomplishments is the significant reduction of crime in one of America’s most traditionally crime-ridden cities, job creation in the city’s port and industrial area and affordable housing reform.
In addition to winning praise for his policy successes, Booker has also garnered a reputation for direct engagement with the people of Newark. Booker takes his commitment to serving quite seriously, whether this means patrolling the streets with police until 4 a.m., helping a constituent shovel snow from her father’ driveway, or saving a woman from a house fire—all things Booker has done.
However, Booker brushed aside any notion of being a heroic figure in his address to the University community, instead asking the audience to take part in a challenge his parents issued to him as a young man on his way to Stanford University.
“You are the physical manifestation of a conspiracy of love,” Booker’s mother said many years ago. “You need to become part of that conspiracy.”
What his parents meant by this “conspiracy of love,” Booker explained, was all the people in history who took risks to ensure that those who came after them would have a better chance of realizing their worth and pursuing their happiness.
Booker used himself and his family as an example, describing, for instance, how neighbors who helped finance his father’s college education—people Booker never knew yet is forever indebted to—played an important role in contributing to the fortunate circumstances into which he, himself, was born.
He said that those who have benefitted from this conspiracy are responsible for striving to improve the “savagely imperfect reality” that exists in a country built upon the “perfect ideals” of “liberty and justice for all.”
It is this sense of duty, Booker said, that convinced him to “metabolize [his] blessings and channel them for a better purpose.”
Next, Booker said he has attempted to carry out this goal in his political career in Newark, first as city councilman and then as mayor.
Despite his initial enthusiasm, he recalled a feeling of helplessness when met with certain challenges in his role as councilman.
In one instance, his self-perceived inability to solve a problem relating to violence in public areas even led him to go on a 10-day hunger strike and sleep outside in a tent, praying for an end to community members having to live in a constant state of fear.
Eventually overcoming frustrating predicaments like this early in his career, though, helped Booker craft a three-step method for successfully affecting change—a method that he shared with the audience Monday afternoon.
First, Booker said, one must recognize where he stands with relation to a problem and how he can fix it.
Then, he must evaluate the “pain, hardship and trauma” involved in addressing the problem, and still find the hope to undertake this work.
Finally, he must allow his desire to produce change move him to the point of bringing people together to fight for the specified cause.
Once Booker grasped this, he became a much more able agent of change, especially when he rose to the mayoral seat.
Instead of viewing Newark’s many problems as hopeless, insurmountable obstacles, he chose to look at them as great opportunities for positive transformation.
“The more we looked around, the more we started seeing the seeds for Newark’s resurgence,” Booker said.
One example of how Booker pooled the necessary people and resources in order to address a problem thought by many to be unsolvable was his administration’s response to prison recidivism and barriers to successful community reintegration faced by former prisoners.
Rather than chalking this issue up to an unfortunate yet inevitable societal ill, Booker and his team collaborated with other city organizations to establish Newark Reentry Legal Services.
ReLeSe, which became the nation’s first pro-bono legal services program providing low-income former criminals crucial legal counsel needed to assure smoother reintegration into society, helped to drastically reduce prison recidivism in Newark.
“My metaphor used to be ‘I’m a prisoner of hope,’” Booker said, reflecting on being optimistic about creating change but not knowing if this was possible in every case. “Now, I’m hope unhinged.”
As he reached the end of his speech, Booker urged individuals to perform small acts of kindness, love and joy throughout their daily lives, stressing how the accumulation of such acts ultimately results in the most transformative changes.
“Now more than ever we need people with a vision and who have courage and who can connect folks to one another,” Booker said.
The real question we must ask ourselves is not “Can we change something?” but “Do we have the collective will?” he said.
“Will we accept things how they are, or will we change them?”
Referring back to the point he made at the beginning of his presentation, Booker reminded his listeners of the power they posses to be agents of real change, whether the fruits of their labor be realized tomorrow or years in the future.
“The light we give off when we’re alive lives on forever,” he said. “Love, love, always love.”