Cory Booker charming the audience

Last night Altschul Auditorium seemed somewhat empty, with just minutes left before the event was scheduled to start. No more than half of the auditorium seats were filled; a major surprise considering the large space and huge name that would soon be speaking. Those who were there, however, were treated to an earth-shaking oratory experience from Mayor Cory Booker of Newark, NJ. This program was brought to campus by the Kenneth Cole Community Engagement Program. Bwog’s Mayor Meister Zachary Hendrickson was there to enjoy it.

Dean Martinez started the night off with a brief introduction for Kenneth Cole. For some reason, Kenneth Cole and Mayor Booker decided to slip in during the first few sentences of Martinez’s introduction. I almost didn’t notice them sneak in from the opposite side of the stage. Martinez continued on, highlighting Cole’s work in AIDS advocacy and youth empowerment.

Kenneth Cole was next at the podium. After a brief bit of background information and some light-hearted clothes puns, he introduced us to the man we’d all been waiting to see. Cole exclaims, “He tweets faster than a speeding bullet, shovels snow faster than a locomotive, and jumps into a burning building in a single bound!”(Literally, he did that.) Needless to say, huge applause followed.

Mayor Booker immediately let us know that he was sorry for the short amount of time he had to meet with us – he had to leave directly after for an interview with Piers Morgan. He also wasted no time in getting everyone laughing. The first thing he said was, “For anyone trying to record this, I’m sorry. I’m going to be running up and down with this mic like Oprah!” Next, Booker asked for someone to turn the lights up. Obviously easier said than done, we spent the next few moments in a room that was darker than it was before. This also garnered some laughs.

After this brief detour, however, Mayor Booker assumed a more serious tone. Three specific motifs appeared throughout the course of the speech. First, Booker discussed the importance of giving back and advancing the needs of humanity. “Patriotism is not just about wearing flag pins and saluting,” he asserted. Second, Mayor Booker continuously made references to his Christian faith. Third, there was a strong emphasis on the power of individuals as members of a community. He referenced everything from Khan Academy to charter school to an elderly man who used his 2008 stimulus check to purchase a lawn mower and clean up a vacant lot that had been housing drug dealers. For every point he made there was some community hero Booker had met who could exemplify it. (I’ll also take this moment to let you know that Mayor Booker’s address was so full of quotable moments that I literally couldn’t keep up. If I were to write up every moment that caused my spirit to soar, then this post would be even longer than the abrasive length it is right now.)

But for all his poetics, his strength, and his powerful physical presence, Mayor Cory Booker made one thing clear – he is just like us. He talked at length about experiences with his family. One story was of particular importance to his grander point. Mayor Booker remarked that throughout his childhood, there was one thing his father would never let him forget. “You are the physical manifestation of a conspiracy of love.” What does that mean? It means that none of us can ever truly know all of the people who have sacrificed and struggled so that we can hold a place of privilege – words that rang clear to the students sitting with me in Altschul last night.

Next, Mayor Booker transitioned from his larger emotionally charged narrative to the more specific issues of crime and mass incarceration. Booker boldly proclaimed, “We say that we are the land of the free and home of the brave, but we are the prison capital of the world!” He quickly commented on the absurdity of drug laws, “We had people getting locked up for selling marijuana to people, maybe, some of you sitting in this room! Now, I’m not pointing fingers. I’m sure this is a drug-free campus!” Massive applause and laughter. Next he pointed out how American prisons have become rotating doors and that a high rate of recidivism is not only bad for the people involved and the communities they are a part of, but it is also bad economically. Therefore the City of Newark has partnered with a number of innovative thinkers to establish everything from pro bono legal services for recently released felons and fatherhood programs to break the cycle of crime.

The crowning achievement came in 2011 after a string of deadly shootings in Newark. Mayor Booker talked about how people don’t like an overbearing police presence, but they also don’t like the violence. He decided then that it was best to give power back to the community. Essentially, the City of Newark gave community members a space to hold a conversation with the established criminals of the neighborhood. “Their pictures were up on a screen. We knew who these people were, and we wanted them to know that we knew,” said Booker. Other than that there was no official presence from the City or police in the room. What emerged was one message: love. The community members had confronted the individuals involved in criminal acts with two options. Option one was to clean up and accept support in the way of financial support, job opportunities, and safe housing. The second option was to be turned over to police. By putting power back in the hands of the community Newark has seen crime drop by an astonishing 50%, recidivism rates plummet to 7%, and has saved millions of taxpayer dollars.

As his time with us came to a close, Mayor Booker ended with a short anecdote. He told the story of Ms. Virginia Jones:

Virginia Jones was an elderly woman living in Newark that Booker had encountered early in his political career. When they met she said, “Cory, before you can help me and this neighborhood, tell me what you see.” The young politician looked around and started listing off everything he could see. He saw poor housing, drugs, violence, dirty streets… Virginia Jones became quite upset and told him that he couldn’t help her. When Booker asked her why she told him this, “The world you see outside of you is what you have inside of you.”

Mayor Booker pulled himself off that street in Newark and back into Altschul to leave us with a final message. If you choose to engage with your “moral imagination,” if you refuse to take the world as it is, “if you are one of those stubborn people that open your eyes every day and see hope and opportunity, then you can change the world.”