Newark Mayor Cory Booker spoke to the eighth grade assembly at John Witherspoon Middle School Tuesday as part of a school-wide celebration of community, student service, and kindness.
Mayor Booker was invited to speak on the subject of “Making a Difference and Contributing Towards Community” by JWMS Principal Jason Burr, who described the mayor as “an incredible teacher and leader in the State of New Jersey who has advocated small acts of kindness that can lead to significant and powerful change.”
The event opened with a performance of the “Star Spangled Banner” followed by presentations from student leadership groups, and the JWMS “Do Something” club.
Prior to Mr. Booker’s arrival, the assembly gathered in the packed auditorium, watched a slideshow of inspiring images with shots of Mr. Booker interspersed with those of Martin Luther King, Jr, Mother Teresa, Nelson Mandela, Oprah Winfrey, Jimmy Carter, Bono, and others. The words of Maya Angelou, Yo-Yo Ma, Mother Teresa, and Mr. King, Jr. were featured, as were images of soup kitchen volunteers, Red Cross workers, soldiers, flags, and Habitat for Humanity. The slide show opened with Mother Teresa’s words: “It is not how much we do but how much love we put in the doing,” and ended with Mr. King’s statement: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
After being welcomed as a “champion of social change and educational reform,” Mr. Booker received rousing applause from the audience that included members of the Princeton Public School’s Board of Education, Mayor Liz Lempert, and past JWMS Principal William Johnson.
Mr. Booker spoke about his life and his parents. “Feel free to laugh,” he told the assembly as he described personal tales of embarrassment and loss of self-confidence. Although told with much humor, Mr. Booker’s stories had a serious message. His parents , both of whom attended college and went on to work for IBM, had made it clear to him that he was the inheritor of a great legacy. His father, who was born poor in the segregated South, spoke to him of a “conspiracy of love” that had brought people together in hard times and that had financially supported his attendance in college in the -early 1960s. He described his parents’ experiences during the era of “sit-ins” as depicted in the movie Mississippi Burning.
In describing the New Jersey Fair Housing Council that had conducted “sting” operations uncovering the practice of prospective black home buyers being told that a house had been sold when it was still on the market for prospective white buyers, he shared his own story of his family’s move from Washington, D.C. to New Jersey. “This is what happened when I was less than a year old. This is the story of me, standing on the shoulders of thousands of people who struggled for fairness.”
Mr. Booker shared his father’s saying: “You drink deeply from wells of opportunity and freedom that you did not dig” and told the students that they have tools that previous generations did not have.
Speaking of his time as a student at Stanford when his self-esteem failed him, he had everyone laughing as he recalled how anger had prompted him to lash out at a fellow football player: a 350-pound, 6’8 tall mountain of a man whose nickname was “Dr. Death.” “He hit me so hard that 3,000 miles away in New Jersey, my mother felt my pain,” he exaggerated to humorous effect. The experience challenged him to make decisions about his life and he urged students to set goals for themselves and to live with a purpose. “Real poverty is ‘poverty of the spirit,’” he said. “You have to commit yourself to being excellent. None of you were born to be average.”
In closing, Mr. Booker quoted lines from Langston Hughes: “O Let America Be America Again: “O, yes, I say it plain, America never was America to me, And yet I swear this oath — America will be!”
Mr. Booker was elected mayor of Newark in 2006 and is serving his second term. The third African-American mayor of that city, he is a graduate of Stanford University and the Yale Law School. He was a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University.
In 2009, after Barack Obama took office as president, Mr. Booker was offered and turned down an opportunity to lead the new White House Office of Urban Affairs Policy, citing his commitment to the city of Newark.
Over the past few years, Mr. Booker has come to prominence well beyond Newark. He gained a reputation for personal involvement in public service when he took part in a 10-day hunger strike in order to draw attention to the dangers of drug dealing on city streets. He lived on a “food stamp” budget to raise awareness of food insecurity, shoveled the driveway of a constituent who asked him to do so, opened his home to hurricane victims, rescued a dog from freezing winter weather and a neighbor from a house fire.
Last December, he announced that he was thinking about running for the seat in the United States Senate currently occupied by Frank Lautenberg. It was rumored that Mr. Booker might challenge New Jersey Governor Chris Christie when he comes up for re-election later this year. But last month Mr. Booker ended the speculation about a challenge to Mr. Christie when he filed the necessary papers for forming a campaign committee toward his goal to run for the Senate.
Besides Mr. Booker’s talk, two student video presentations, each highlighting a good cause, were shown. Members of “Hands of Kindness,” spoke about giving back to the community. The group’s two constituents, “The Busy Bees” and “The Leaping Frogs,” have written letters to troops, gathered 500 canned food items for Crisis Ministry, raised $300 in cookie sales, and organized clothing drives for families in need. Student Council members described the success of their candygrams fundraiser in support of the annual school’s trip to Washington, D.C. Members of the “Do Something” club, which meets twice a week at the school to plan fundraisers and organize drives took center-stage as teacher Kirsten Riley described and commended their efforts.
Mr. Burr praised a long list of volunteer activities carried out by individual students on their own time out of school, from entertaining the elderly in retirement homes to donating inches of hair to Locks of Love.
“Mayor Booker has become legendary for gestures of care and kindness within his community, and I am impressed by similar activities by our students,” said Mr. Burr.