Commencement speech of Mayor Cory Booker

Following is a transcript of the speech made by Cory A. Booker, mayor of Newark, N.J. at the University of Rhode Island’s 125th undergraduate commencement, May 22, 2011

Thank you very much. I am overwhelmed by this honor, but I must get real very quickly with you. I stand here in Rhode Island and I want to thank you all, especially the Governor, for allowing a little more Jersey into your state. Now, I have to say, New Jersey, as one of my friends says, is the Rodney Dangerfield of states, especially with shows that I’m sure some of you will watch, like Jerseylicious and the Real Housewives of New Jersey. Weren’t you guys studying? Please. I tend to go to other states and feel I have to stick my chest out, because they always try to steal our thunder. I went to Colorado and the Governor there told me about how they are the best state for beer, and I had to remind him the first brewery in America was in New Jersey, in Hoboken. I went to North Carolina and the Governor there told me how they were the state that were the first in flight – and I had to remind them that New Jersey actually had technically the first air flight, was a balloon flight, back in the early 1800s. And then when I went to Pennsylvania and they told me – ah, excuse me, when I went to Virginia and they told me that Virginia was for lovers, I thought for a second than had to remind the Governor that New Jersey was the state that invented the drive in movie theatre. My mom likes to tease me that I was conceived in a double feature of Sidney Poitier, In The Heat Of The Night, and of course, Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner.

So, it is an honor to stand here in a state that I feel welcome in. Your two congressmen were teasing me that this indeed is the state of hope. And I’m proud to say today, you all embolden my hope. I want to tell you though that the graduates here, already I can tell, are far luckier than I. You see, graduation experiences for my families were something akin to small nuclear explosions. My family would put fallout everywhere, because they would get so excited about this momentous event, they would make a scene. And it was challenging for me going from my kindergarten graduation all the way through to see my parents and my cousins and my aunts and my uncles behave in this fashion. And God forbid that they would put limits on the amount of tickets that you could have.

In my graduate degree, from graduation, there was a big scandal because it was called the Cory Booker’s Family Counterfeit Ticket Scandal. Night graduations were impossible because we would blind incoming planes, because everybody in my family double fisted their cameras and flashes. But I have to say, the screams and yells when my name was called was not as distracting to me as the end. It would capture my focus, because after all the ceremony and the pomp and circumstance, the proud prodigious patriarch of our posse, my dear grandfather, would come forward and give me his advice. Now, my grand dad is an incredible man. He was born in the Deep South to a single mother. He was born also to a white father who never claimed him as his own. He saw every challenge in America that you could imagine, from difficult health to a great depression. He worked every job, it seemed, that I could think of, from working assembly lines in Ford Motor plants in Michigan, Detroit, to being a school teacher. He was also an entrepreneur, he was also a guy that worked two jobs to send his children to college. And he would come, and my family would part, and he would look at me and then tell me the same jokes he had told me since I was in kindergarten. You see, first he would look at me and he would say, you see, boy, that tassel is worth the hassle. And I’d say, yeah, thanks, Granddad. And then he would look, as I got older, especially when I graduated from college, and he would say, I see you didn’t graduate summa cum laude or magnum cum laude – you were just, thank you lordy. And I would say, yes, Granddad.

And then he would grab my hand and squeeze it tight, and he would look into my eyes, and the way he did for every graduation – and he said, son, I am proud of you. You are living a life that was a dangerous dream when I was your age growing up. You are here because of a grand conspiracy of love. Never forget that the degree you hold was paid for by the blood, sweat and tears of your ancestors – and tens of thousands of human beings who you will never even know their name.

You stand on the shoulders of giants, and now I need to ask you one thing. Please, in everything you do, stand also. Stand up for who you are, from where you come from, stand up in honor of those who came before, and stand up with hope for those who will come after.

I have to say, I could reduce all of my wisdom when I talk to graduates just to that. Because this world has a way of trying to homogenize you, trying to sanitize you, trying to scrub you of your unique, divine genius. This world wants to make you regular. It wants to make you fit in. But never forget – you were born to stand out. One of our great presidents once said that everyone is born an original, but sadly, most die copies. I believe that’s because we forget that we should not be setting our standards without looking to the person to the left or the person to the right – but we should always look to our own moral compass as to what our internal standard is. It is upon this legacy that we stand. People who would not accept what was, but every day, through their consistency of action love are constantly raising that bar and creating an America, a humanity, that was more of what should be.

I get very frustrated now when I see this, emotions that come in the United States – I hear it all the time, it’s almost like a toxic … this cynical surrender to life as it is. Or worse, what I call a state of sedentary agitation where we all sit at night and watch the news, flipping around from cable news show to cable news show, and get so upset about what we’re seeing in the world – but we don’t get up and engage in it, and try to infuse this world with our essence. I believe that the world and its circumstances are nowhere near as important as what is going on inside of you. In fact, what you see in this world is more an indication of who you are than who the world is. To paraphrase Emerson, he said, that only which we have within can we see without, if we see no angels, it’s because we harbor none. I feel blessed that I live in a city where people have stubbornly held on to this ideal that every corner of our country can echo with the highest aspirations of our nation, who’ve refused stubbornly to give in to what is and remember that the story of America is a perpetual testimony to the achievement of the impossible. To not believe in impossible things is an affront to the history of humanity.

And so the challenge for us individually is to constantly see within the truth of who we are. This is what my grandfather says to me consistently – believe in your truth, know you were called to greatness, but more importantly than that, allow your vision to challenge even those around you. Now, I worked all my life, since I was a young kid, with other kids. When I was a college student, I’ll never forget one of my first assignments – I was working in a summer program in a place called East Palo Alto with young kids that came from that inner city. And it was a great summer – we did sports and academic programs. And at the end, they asked me to give a message to the kids – sort of like I’m doing right now, in a graduation of sorts. And I will never forget that when I was a high school football player, I had a sports psychologist come in and speak to our team about achievement. And they gave this wonderful little experiment where they had us all stand up and raise our hands as high as we absolutely could – and I’ll never forget just standing there straining, and then he said, do you have your hands as high as you can? And we all said, all the football players, we said, yeahhh. And then he said, ok, now go 3 inches higher. And immediately we just stood on our tip toes and realized we could reach a little higher. And then he pounced on us with that lesson – you could always go more, you could always do more, you could always go further. Well, here I loved that lesson, it fueled some of my thoughts when I was in high school. Now here I was in college, ready to impart it to these young kids from this inner city community – and I immediately said, guys, I want you to raise your hands as high as you can.

Well, you see, this was the last day, it was their graduation, they were tired, they were hot from a long day of athletic activities. And the first thing they looked at me and they said, no, man, we don’t want to do this, no way. A guy started to raise his hands, they said, put your hands down, you smell, b.o., it’s terrible. We don’t want to do this, Cory. Why are we doing this? They were far less cooperative than you were. Well, immediately I returned to a base form of persuasion that unfortunately has gained some notoriety in my state amongst us politicians – and I reached in my pocket and I pulled out a 5 dollar bill and I decided to bribe them. Well, these young people, these young boys, were capitalists. And they thrust their hands into the air – they started comparing themselves to each other. And I stood there in smug satisfaction looking at these folks comparing themselves to each other, and feeling in my heart that I was ready to impart to them wisdom they would remember for a life time, when I suddenly saw off to my left a young boy who I am telling you was one of the cutest human beings God ever created.

If you took a young Gary Coleman and a young Emanuel Lewis, and a dash of Macaulay Culkin, you would not get somebody as cute as this human being. But the problem was, he came from a tough background. He came from a single family home like my grandfather did. And he was the last kid of all that I wanted to squelch his dreams of how he could compete with the other kids. And I began to say, you know what? I need to walk over and put my hand on him and say, there, there, you can compete. And this kid instead turns around, as soon as I think of walking over to him, and sprints out the door. He’s the shortest and the youngest of the lot, and he’s tearing out of the gym. And I think to myself, this is terrible. And I run after him, catching him in 3 strides, picking him up, and his little legs were wiggling underneath me, and I turn him around and I said, Robert, what’s wrong? And he goes, let me go, let me go. And I said, no, no – you got to tell me what’s wrong – why are you leaving?

And he looks over at the kids all raising their hands and looks back at me and with the wisdom that betrayed his age, he said, you told me that you would give 5 dollars to the kid that could raise his hand the highest, right? And I said, yes. And he said, well, let me go – because I know a way to get to the roof. I gave him the 5 bucks. This is what the world will try to do to you. It will try to shrink your dreams. It will try to fit you into the convenient boxes that already exist. But that is not what you can let happen. My father told me, son, you are growing up and you need to understand that you’re here because people thought bigger than most folks thought possible. Every opportunity that you have has been made manifest by people who refused to see what was, and thought exceptionally about what could be. But this is not about the big change or the big fight or the big plan. What my parents, and grandfather especially, would try to make me understand is that actually it’s about the small, day to day moments, of you standing up for who you are and manifesting your truth. That is what my family has imparted to me. That life ultimately does not become transformative in big moments. It’s not about the big battle or the big speech or the big election. It’s about the small everyday moments for you to manifest your truth, that in their aggregate over time, your kindness, your decency, your love, amount to transformative change. I’ve seen this in Newark, New Jersey, by people who just do small things that add up to big differences. That despite where the currents are going, they stand against the tide.

There’s a man in my city who was a retired state worker and was tired of the drug dealing in his community and the overgrown lot where they used to deal their drugs. And one day he got a stimulus check, he went out with his stimulus check just to buy a lawn mower – and his neighbor said that he would consistently go in that lot day after day and clean it – just clean it. Even moving around the drug dealers. And after a long period of time, it ended up being so beautiful and pristine, the drug dealers left his neighborhood. And the activism of his neighbors inspired even more people and generated a community of change and a community of hope. It wasn’t one big fight. It wasn’t one big police raid. It was people living in consistent form with their kindness. But this is hard. I tell you this now. It is incredibly hard. Because the mundane monotony of life often grinds you down. But there are days that you’ll go where you just feel like you lose count of them. There are days when the challenges come so much, that you begin to realize that you’re losing a bit of yourself. It’s in these moments that you must return to your center and to your core. Return to the enthusiasm and the excitement of days like this, to turn as my grandfather would say, to your truth. I tell you – I learned this as a young law student. I’ll never forget (audio …) my first legal cases, I was almost a lawyer, and I was able to represent people in a clinic that we had in law school called landlord / tenant clinic. And I’ll never forget this lesson given to me by my first client. I went to go out and see her and she greeted me at the door in a public housing project that I wouldn’t want my enemies to live in.

And here I was in charge of helping her stay in her housing. And I’ll never forget, she escorted me in and she was an elderly woman, her tongue was a little swollen, so she spoke with difficulty. Her back was bent over, and her face had deep lines of dignity in it that looked like a map of a place of long ago. She sat me down and explained that she was being evicted from her home because housing authorities, as some people here might know, have a very Draconian law that says if one person in a house is caught dealing drugs, then they go to evict the whole folks, the whole home. And I remember sitting with her and listening to her extenuating circumstances. She had a 19 year old nephew that she asked to live with her because she had challenges because she had a disability. She would fall into seizures, and she needed someone to look after her. And her 19 year old nephew was engaged in narcotics trade and got caught, and now they were moving to evict her. I remember thinking this was an injustice, and rushing back to my supervising attorney and telling her that this is an injustice. We’re going to fight this case. I’m going to defend her, and we’re going to fight this case. And she looked at my enthusiasm and she just shook her head. She said, you need to understand something – you’re now representing clients. You don’t represent your own interests and your own agenda. This is a difficult case. You need to go through a lot more hearings, you need to go through a much longer process. And I’ll tell you, if you push her to fight all along the way, and she fights, and she has maybe a 15 or 20 percent chance of winning – if she fights and loses, you’ll go home devastated, Cory Booker. But she won’t have a home to go to at all. And I’m telling you, even if you had Johnny Cochran and the Dream Team, it’s a hard case for you to fight. And so she said to me, go back and pick her up and bring her in and have a conference and tell her what the whole process is – let her make her own choices. And so I went back and picked her up in the beat up car I was driving at that time, put her in my car, drove her back to the legal center, and sat for a conference. And I’m telling you, this was one of the longest hours of my life. I sat there talking to her – but all this woman could do, this elder of mine, who I had been taught to revere and respect – all she could do was cry her eyes out over and over again, and say, like a little girl, I’ve done nothing wrong. Why are they doing this to me? I’ve done nothing wrong. Well, at the end of that hour, something – to me – miraculous happened. And I am a big believer in life’s miracles.

But I often think we get too consumed with life to even notice the glory that is around us. And this miracle came in a simple question – this elderly woman seemed to retreat within herself and then open her eyes and look at me. To stop me from talking, she raised her hand and she said, would you please tell me something? If I decide to fight this case, will it help other people? I looked at her and I said, well, I don’t know if you heard me, but we maybe have a 5 or 10 percent chance of winning a case like this, ah, and I need to explain to you more of the process. But eventually if we do decide to fight and win, ah, yeah, it will set something called a precedent, and yes, we could use that – and she put up her hand to shut me up again. And she had heard that word, yes. And she closed her eyes tight, and almost as if she was grasping those three little words eh, that 3 letter word, she grasped it in her hand and slammed it on the table in a fist. She opened her eyes, and she looked as if she was possessed. And she pushed her chair back and she –

I remember slamming down the phone and feeling like I was ready to cuss like a sailor and explode in anger and rage. But then I suddenly realized in my arrogance, I thought God had put the great Cory Booker there for my client – but in reality, God had put this great client there for the poor Cory Booker. You see, this is what life affords you in every moment – simple choice, to accept things as they are, or take responsibility for changing them. If you choose change, it’s not a onetime thing or a once a month thing. It’s not a grand career to pursue for the next 15 or 20 years of your life. It starts right now. It starts in those small things that most people might not notice – the smiling at somebody and giving them your smile even though, because they don’t have one of their own. It means extending small acts of kindness because, in their aggregate, they are great things. In fact, the greatest thing you could do almost every day is a small act of kindness. It’s understand that we live in a balanced universe, and what you send out in energy will always come back to you, even if it doesn’t look that way in the immediate moment. It means looking around at savage circumstance and not accepting it. It means hearing a chorus of cynics and not listening. It means confronting the darkest of nights and still insisting that you will shine your own. It is realizing that courage often is best shown in the determination just to get out of bed in the morning, with the same persistent, courageous attitude of love, day after day. My first client showed me this. I remember putting flowers before her door, and someone came over to me and said, are you that lawyer boy that was helping her out? And I said, yes. She goes, oh, I don’t know what you did for her, but the last three days of her life were the happiest that I’ve ever known.

I want to conclude with a very personal story. My grandfather, who has been at every graduation, the man who in many ways his vision shaped who I am – he gave me some words once. He said to me as I was leaving him, as he was battling cancer yet another time, he was weak and he was failing – I went to hug him and he reached up and grabbed my shoulder and looked at me and said, I love you, I love your children, and I love your grandchildren. I thought for sure he was dealing with delirium or dementia, because I still to this day am not married, and most certainly do not have children or grandchildren – and I remember leaving feeling confused and almost seeing my mighty grandfather in this state, feeling – feeling hurtful for what he was enduring. A month later I was campaigning for that big election in Newark, running for Mayor my first time, and I got a phone call from my family member who said, call your grandmother right away, your grandfather has died. I’ll never forget exactly where I was. I didn’t listen – I pulled over to the side of the road and I wept like a little child, like the child he met on his first graduation, like a child who felt rudderless, like my hero had been taken. And as I sat there looking for meaning in all of it, I remember his last words. He said he loved me, he loved my children and he loved my grandchildren. I was told once by an astrophysicist that if you look in the sky, you can see the light of stars, but many of them are dead and long gone, but their light and their energy lives on for eternity.

This was my grandfather’s way – while he was here, in every moment he infused it with his unique energy and spirit and light. He faced segregation, he faced depression, he faced discrimination, he faced financial hardship – but every day, he stood for his truth and his light. And the one thing he asked his grandson on the most memorable moments, my graduations, we that I would stand up and love the way that he did. Love a way that is so bright and enduring that the children yet unborn will be affected by your love. He said, stand up, because people stood for me that I’ll never know. They fought for me, they struggled for me, they scrubbed toilets for me, they bled the soil of this nation red. We must stand up.

Class of 2011, you must stand, because this world needs you. It needs your uniqueness, it needs your divinity, it needs your love. You must stand up because change will not roll in, as King said, on the wheels of inevitability. It must be carried in on the backs of soldiers who day in and day out stand up for it. You must stand. Because as Frederick Douglas said, in life you don’t get everything you pay for, but you must pay for everything you get. You must stand up. And don’t give in to the cynical surrender of others. You must stand up and not give in to those whose fear has grown bigger than their faith.