Affiliate Summit 2008 East Keynote Address by Cory Booker

by Shawn Collins on September 5, 2008

The following is a transcript of the keynote address delivered by Cory Booker, Mayor of Newark, NJ, at Affiliate Summit East 2008 in Boston, MA.

The speech was delivered on Monday, August 11. Video of Cory Booker is available on YouTube and audio can be downloaded or streamed at http://www.geekcast.fm.

Cory Booker: Good morning everybody.

Audience: Good morning.

Cory: I am so proud of America. No matter what your race, creed, or color is, you can do something and engage in yourself and make a difference in the world. Now, I know it is early. I know this is the first session of the day. I know some of you are thinking “Why is the mayor of Newark New Jersey here at an affiliate summit marketing convention.” Is anybody asking that question at all?

Audience: Yes.

Cory: Yeah? Gosh. Well, good. Hopefully some point over the next 20 or 30 minutes, we can all figure this out together. But, the reality is, I am honored to be here. I am really proud that I was asked. I would like to, if I can, just share a few moments about my life that hopefully will affect some of the things that you all are doing. And actually, not simply about my life or who I am, but I actually grew up with a father who spent his entire life with one sort of overriding dream.

When he was a kid growing up in North Carolina…And I have to tell you, my father’s stories get more and more incredible the longer I hear the same stories over and again. So, at first he would go to school North Carolina in the mountains and the air was thin; it was difficult to climb it. By the end of his stories, now that he is in his 60’s, the stories are usually “It was a snow storm every day, Cory. And the school was a one room schoolhouse. Actually, it didn’t’ have walls. We just sat outside in the snow and learned.”

My father, since he was a little kid growing up in the segregated town in the South, he was a dreamer about being a marketer; being a salesman. He pursued his dream his entire life. By the time I was born, I grew up in a table full of the most colorful stories that, in many ways, my life and my work, that has taken me from my academic world at Stanford University and going overseas and studying as a Rhodes Scholar and back to law school at Yale, to my professional work in inner city New Jersey, so many of the life lessons that I have learned have come from a salesman; have come from somebody who was trying to, in many ways, as he saw it, was trying to improve the world; trying to empower people with his products and ideas, with what he was doing.

One of my father’s earliest stories that I remember about this one room school house was that he was sitting down in the back of the class. My father said he was a hard headed kid; he was a cut up. And this teacher walked in and looked at the class. And she didn’t last that long. She said, “Class, I am here to talk to you all today about self esteem. Anybody here in this classroom thinks you are stupid, I want you to stand up right now.” My father says he just sat in the back of the classroom and didn’t move, and everybody looked at him. My father was sort of the king of the class, and everybody just stayed still looking back at the teacher, just standing there waiting for folks. And she said, “Come on now class. I want to teach you all about self esteem, about loving yourself. If you think you are dumb, if you think you are stupid, I want you to stand up right now.” My father said nobody moved, so finally he pushed his chair back and stood up. And the teacher looks at him and says, “Mr. Booker, boy, what is wrong with you? You think you are dumb? You think you are stupid? And my father said, “Well shucks, ma’am. I don’t think I am stupid, but I didn’t want you to be the only one standing’.”

[laughter]

So, the earliest lessons I got from my dad about success, about making sure that you make your impact on the world, was first and foremost knowing who you are and knowing that this world sends you, constantly, lots of different messages. And too many times, my father said, we are going to make sure our lives are only in tune to the negativity, to the doubts, to the cynicism, to people telling you that you are not good enough. For whatever reason, you are too large, you are too short, you are too small, you are too black, you are too white you name it; they are going to send you those negative messages.

But, what my father said is you have to understand your internal barometer. You have to know who you are. You can’t go about doing anything unless you are firmly situated in the profound understanding that you are a divine creation. You are somebody that the conspirator of the universe created. You are someone with infinite potential.

Now to me, this is a lesson that I have gotten over, and over, and over again. In fact, I changed it as I got older and as my dad’s stories got more interesting, to talk more about this knowledge of self than just simply having a great vision. Not a vision of the world around you; first and foremost, a vision of yourself.

My father once, and rightfully, said the most important conversations you have in your life are the conversations you don’t have with other people or folks that might have titles like Major, Mayor, or whatever.

[laughter]

But, they are actually the ones that you have internally; the voice in your head and what does it say. Look, I have spent my entire professional career working in inner-city communities. And it is in these places that I have probably seen some of the greatest American heroes I have ever met. I have seen people who have such profound wisdom, and have reinforced my father’s messages over, and over, and over again.

When I was a teenager, 18 years old, I was working in an inner-city area called East Palo Alto California. I was going to Stanford University. I went there on a football scholarship. I always tell people I got to Stanford because of my 4.0 and my 1600: 4.0 yards per carry and 1600 receiving yards as a high school student. I decided that my life and so much of what my parents said had to be about service and had to be about giving back. My father used to always say “The universe is a balanced place. The more you give to the universe the more you are going to receive.”

So, I started working in East Palo Alto and found just a rich community of great people and kids I could really connect with. I remember at the end of the summer, I was asked by some of the other counselors to give a nice message to some of the young boys that we were working with.

I had heard this speaker once at a program sort of like this who gave this speech about that you could always do more. Don’t limit yourself. He had everybody stand up in the room, which I will not do to you all. I know you are tired. Everybody stood up. And he said “Now raise your hand as high as you could.” I remember raising my hand as high as I could, stretching it up. The speaker said, “OK. Now raise it three inches higher.” Then I just stood on my tip toes, and a lot of other people did that. Then he gave this powerful message about “You can always do a little bit more. You can always go a little bit further.”

So, I decided to do this with the kids. I said, “Fellas, gather around. We are going to do a little experiment here on the last day. I want you all to raise your hands as high as you can.” Now these kids were kind of tough, and they were tired at the end of the day. They looked at me and said, “No man. I don’t want to do that. This is stupid. Where is the food? Oh, don’t raise your hand man. You got BO. Stop that!”

So, I decided, not being the best psychologist when it comes to children that there is, I resorted to a very base level of persuasion that some of you might know about. I reached into my pocket and I pulled out a five dollar bill, and I decided to bribe the kids. Please, I am a public official. Don’t use that word too often around me.

[laughter]

But, I offered the kids five bucks to raise your hand the highest. Immediately, these young men, being the great American capitalists that they were, shot their hands in the air. Now they are all comparing themselves to each other, squeezing next to each other to see who has got the biggest arm reach, standing on their tip toes. Then, all of a sudden, as I sat there in smug satisfaction looking at these young people, I looked over to my left and I saw Robert.

Now Robert was the shortest and youngest of the whole group. I am telling you, this kid was one of the cutest kids you will ever see. He looked like a young Emmanuel Lewis and a young Gary Coleman mixed together. His face was sort of all in a pout. It looked like he had just said “What you talking ’bout Willis?” His arms were crossed and he looked down on the ground. I thought, “This was the last one of the whole group who I wanted to squelch his vision of who he was.” This was the last kid because he had a difficult, difficult home life. The last child who I wanted to make not believe in himself that he can compete with other people.

So, I am about to walk over to him and put my arm on his shoulder and say to him, “Look, I am so sorry. I am so sorry about this exercise. Don’t worry about it. You and I can talk while they are doing this.” But suddenly, he turns around and sprints to the door. I run after this kid; sprint after him and grab him from behind and pick him up. His legs are still wiggling around as he is trying to run away from me. And I turn around, and I say, “Robert. What is wrong with you man? Where are you going?” And he looked at me hard as if I was crazy and then looked over at the other kids and then looked back at me with the wisdom that betrayed his age. He said to me, “You said you would give $5 to the kid who can raise his hand the highest, right?” And I said, “Yeah.” And he goes, “Well I know a way to get to the roof!”

[laughter]

I gave him the $5. This to me is a message from out of the mouth of a babe; out of a kid who basically said to me, “Shake your self-image Cory. You think in terms of doing just three inches higher. I think, in terms of getting to the roof. You think in terms of walking or running faster. I think, in terms of flying.”

Now, we are here as a people because individuals in every sector of American society saw themselves as not someone who was going to be good, not someone that was just going to beat somebody else, but they had a transformative vision of themselves, of their families, of their lives, had a transformative vision of their country, had a transformative vision of life.

This is what greatness is. I sat around a table dinner, after dinner, after dinner, listening to one of the greatest dreamers God had ever created, my father. Some of his greatest dreams involved his kids and what they would achieve, and that they would never ever accept anything less than our boldest visions of ourselves and who we can be.

But, why have we gotten to a point to where we so often, every single day, because of limited vision, lack of understanding, a boldness, a lack of boldness, as I often say, a poverty of imagination; Why do we so often sell ourselves short?

Look, I work in Newark New Jersey, and it is the city that I love the most in America. It has a reputation issue that many people tell me, because the vision issue that many people have of it is stuck in a time that doesn’t exist. And as I joined the world of Newark New Jersey, this incredible place, it was people within this city that kept giving me this lesson over, and over, and over again. Challenging me as a young activist coming out of law school. Challenging me as someone who said they wanted to make a difference. Challenging me as someone who said, as many of us might have said in our lives, that I want to change the world.

I remember my first time in the early mid 90’s, coming to Newark New Jersey, I thought to myself, “I am going to live my craziest vision of myself.” I was fueled by my father a bit. I moved onto a challenging street in the city with a lot of problems; with drug dealing, and violence, and crime, and high rise projects that were in difficult shape. I remember just being, frankly, overwhelmed by what I was seeing and what I was watching.

I used to joke with a friend of mine that had a pharmaceutical trade on that street that could put Merck and Johnson and Johnson to shame; Rite Aid could learn a couple lessons. I would see lines of people from the suburbs coming in to buy their pharmaceutical products.

I remember, at this point, a friend of mine told me, “Cory, if you really want to make a difference in that neighborhood, you have got to meet the leader of that neighborhood, the Queen Mother.” She happened to live in these public housing projects. I love the universe because it sends you these messages sometimes. I was growing up as a kid and my parents, even my grandparents, used to tell me, when I was graduating from these Ivy League schools, they said “Boy, never forget that you can learn more from a woman on the fifth floor of the projects than you can from one of these fancy professors.”

Lo and behold, I found out the address of this woman and she lived on the fifth floor of the projects. I went up to knock on her door. I will never forget, I knocked on her door in my youthful arrogance, and it is like this UCLA linebacker voice came from the other side: “Who is it?” And I said, “It’s Cory Booker.” She opens the door and she goes, “Who are you?”

And again, I am an arrogant young man. I pull up my pants and say, “Ma’am, I am Cory Booker. I am from Yale Law School ma’am. I am here to help you out.” I almost felt like that Western Theme should have gone off: “Doo Doo Dooooo.”

She looks me up and down and she goes, “You want to help me?” And I go, “Yeah.” She looks me up and down, and we exchange some more words, and she goes, “Well if you really want to help me, you have got to follow me first.” I say, “OK.”

This woman pushes past me, closes her door, walks down five flights of stairs, walks through the lobby of the building, walks through the courtyard, walks onto the side of the street, walks through some pharmaceutical salesman, at which point I am standing close to her, and she walks into the middle of the street. Now I am in the middle of one of the largest boulevards in the neighborhoods in Newark. She swings around and she goes, “Boy, tell me what you see around you.” I said, “What?” She goes, “Tell me what you see around you.” I said, “OK. Well, I see some high rise public housing.” There was an abandoned building that people use for nefarious things, and I said, “I see that.” And I talked about the graffiti and just described what I saw around me. She looks at me and shakes her head and goes, “Boy, you could never ever help me.” And she turns around and storms off.

I am standing there in the middle of the street thinking to myself, “What the heck just happened?” So I run after her and I put my hand on the back of this elderly woman and I say, “Ma’am, what are you talking about?” She whirls around and she says to me, “You need to understand something boy.” I go, “What?” She says, “The world you see outside of you is a reflection of what you have inside of you. If you are one of these people who only sees problems or darkness and despair that is all there is ever going to be. But, if you are one of those people who see hope, opportunity, and love, then you can make a change and help me.” She walks off, leaving me there in the middle of the street.

I tell you, the uncomfortableness of standing there made me go back to my apartment that I had rented across the street from where she lived. The storm of these messages that my Dad had sent me growing up, and quotes I had read from learned scholars from humanity…I remember Emerson said something powerful. He said, “That only which we have within can we see without.” And I love this. To paraphrase the end of his quote, he says “That only which we have within can we see without. If we see no angels it is because we harbor none.”

So, here I was being one of those people, those limited imagination Americans, who just does such a good job sitting back and doing color commentary on the world around us; describing things as they are, never changing their sight about what they can be.

This took me back to my kitchen table with my Dad. My Dad loved stories about salesmen; always talking about stories about salesmen. I remember, he tells me this one story where two men are dropped off on an island to sell shoes. And both men, within 10 minutes on the island, are screaming for the boat to come back. One guy calls back and says, “Get me the heck off this island! These are natives here. None of them wear shoes!” The other man calls back and says, “Come back to the island! Bring me six crates of shoes! There are only natives on the island. None of these people wear shoes! I can make a thousand sales!”

It is all about how you see the world. Vision controls reality. I react against this every single day in my community as I look at my state of New Jersey; as I look at our nation. You can’t tell me that we should be satisfied with the way things are. You can’t tell me that we can’t do better as a people. You can’t tell me that we can’t create miracles all around us by first and foremost changing our vision, changing our attitude.

I remember once, when we had finally started working together, me and Ms. Virginia Jones, this profound, powerful woman; at first I started by coming correct. I just sat at her table and listened time and time and time again to her stories. I learned. I always say I got my BA from Stanford, but my PhD from the streets of Newark.

Eventually, we started organizing. As a young lawyer, I started representing the residents against the horrible slum lord, in my opinion, that ran the buildings. Eventually, the slum lord was convicted in federal court for a lot of crimes and we were able to clean up a lot of the neighborhood. We helped some of the guys that were dealing drugs get into other things and cleared many of the other ones off. We got the abandoned building across the street torn down. We were able to make a lot of these improvements in this area.

I will never forget. We had this huge festival, this huge block party you can call it. We had dunk tank, and Ms. Jones made me be the first person that sits in the dunk tank. We had just a phenomenal, phenomenal street party.

I remember talking to the daughter of somebody who had passed away during the time that we were making a lot of these improvements. I remember saying to her, “It is such a shame that your mother couldn’t live to see this.” Now her mother was one of these people who were a major, major part of this tenant coalition. Especially in the beginning, most of the activists that were working with Ms. Jones were other elderly African American women who had this profound vision. I remember saying to her, “It is a shame your mother couldn’t be here to see this.” She sort of laughed. She goes, “Cory, are you kidding me? My mother always saw this.”

This power to see the world as it truly is, not as how it masquerades; the power to see yourself as you truly are; this is one of the biggest challenges. People ask me all the time, “You are a new mayor in the city of Newark Cory. You had this big election that upset the machine that was there.” I am the second mayor since 1970. “What is the biggest challenge you are facing?” I love talking about the challenges we have, because to me, a challenge is just brilliantly disguised as an opportunity. I will tell you about one of them in a moment, but the first thing I would say is the biggest challenge we have in Newark, the biggest challenge we have in my state, the biggest challenge we have in America, in fact, the biggest global challenge that there is, is a challenge of the spirit; is a challenge of vision; is a challenge and a test of our ideals of who we say that we are going to be.

And this is the problem. I am a student of history. If you look at every major civilization that has fallen; you look at Renowa, who is celebrating…If there is anybody who is Jewish in the audience, we just finished…not celebrating, forgive me. Marking a day of fasting in the Jewish faith. It was marking the fall of the second temple in the year 70. Not 1970, excuse me. No temples fell in 1970. But, in the year 70.

If you look at the reason that fell, if you look at the Roman Empire and why did the Roman Empire fall, if you look at the Soviet Union and the Soviet Union falling in our lifetime, and you realize that most great civilizations don’t fall simply because of external threats. So, many of them fall because of internal corruption, because of a failure to manifest their ideals, of a failure to be who they claim that they are, a failure to put their lives or their communities, cities, or nations in balance.

I challenge Americans about this all the time. Are we living up to our highest ideals of ourselves? And if we are not, what are you as an individual American doing to try to engage in that process of struggle to manifest your ideals?

In Newark, we are the same thing. Again, I get into office and I am just trying to get people to understand who we are as a people. We are Newark, the nation’s third oldest city. Every century Newark New Jersey was leading American cities. In the 1940’s on the front pages of Harper’s magazine there is the most livable city in America. Do you know who you are? Wake up! You are an American. You are a Newarker. You stand for something.

I remember my father when he was working for IBM, the company he worked for. IBM had a disastrous time in the 1980’s. It was a company that had been at the forefront; had been one of the best companies for the longest time, succeeding in a new industry, but they started to fail. They started to go down tragically and quickly.

I remember reading some great books. One of my favorite authors is a guy named Thomas Friedman who is a columnist for the Newark Times. He writes about the book called “The World is Flat” and talks about the challenges of business and companies and corporations keeping up with the rapidly changing times. I am so honored to be in front of a crowd like this because it seems, in many ways; you all understand how to use technology, new information, the new global economy, to work for you.

But, here is my father. I witnessed this. IBM had to change its entire way of thinking about itself. It had to be willing to change its paradigm. IBM, for example, used to all be about, in fact, the whole world used to all be about how big is your mainframe? IBM used to have these huge mainframes. How big is your company? IBM used to have these large companies; thousands and thousands of employees. And this is what it was about; size. Size wins. The bigger country, the bigger company, the bigger person.

But, the world changed radically in the 80’s and 90’s. It was no longer about the size of your mainframe. It was about the speed of your connections; how nimble you were. Suddenly companies were moving and coming up around IMB that were building smaller computers; laptops, small gadgets that can get the same jobs done.

Suddenly it wasn’t about the size of your company anymore; it was how small you were. People were rolling off divisions, creating a small nimble entity that could react better.

And so this is what I watched around my table with my father. I remember when I got into government, I was so upset because I saw that we were will operating government in a pre 1980’s reality, when the rest of the world had moved on.

Now, some of you who like revenue might think that some of the things we did were great revenue models. Like, for example, I couldn’t understand in Newark why it took so long to pay a parking ticket. You could come to the City Hall and wait in line. You would have to navigate a Byzantine Labyrinth of back offices. And by the time you paid a parking ticket, if you had parked your car in front of city hall, by the time you got back to your car an hour or two later, your meter had run out and you had another ticket.

So, to me, again, a great revenue model, but it wasn’t the way government should move. We started seeing that we had to reinvent the way that we as an institution thought about ourselves; our vision of who we were. We had to get the world, obviously, thinking differently about Newark. We started doing a lot of different things that were so good, so great, but at the end of the day, we had to shake people’s ideas about themselves.

Now, crime fighting, some of you might not know this, but the number one city in the United States of America in reducing violent crime; it’s not Chicago, it’s not Philadelphia, it’s not Boston, it’s not New York, it’s not LA, or San Francisco. The number one city in reducing violent crime in America after two years, and I have been a mayor for two years, is Newark New Jersey. We are down well over 40% in murders, well over 40% in shootings. We are beginning to reclaim the sanctity and the peace of our community.

But, the reality is, is that it was a challenge definitely towards policing. I can give you a PhD thesis on a lot of the things we did to change policing. But, a lot of it was changing the spirit of our community and how we thought about ourselves. I remember going out in 2007 and working really hard to reduce crime. At the end of 2007 people were patting us on the back.

There is a national police organization called The Police Executive Research Foundation that was like, “Good job Mr. Mayor and Newark New Jersey. You guys reduced murders five percent. That is incredible.” They started telling us how great we did.

After hearing all this feedback at the end of 2007, I turned to my staff and my team and I said, “Guys, I am looking for radical change, not incremental change. What can we do as a team to shake the foundations of what people believe is possible, because that is the only limitation we have. What can we do to prove to the world who we really are? What can we do to reveal our true selves? What can we do to create what other people are going to call a miracle and we simply believe is what was possible?

So, I began this year in probably the weirdest daily schedule of any mayor in America. I began doing my job as Mayor. I am very good at cutting ribbons and breaking ground. Guys, I can do that really well. With a flare; doing that ground breaking stuff. You know, managing an entire day.

But then, at night, I would get into a police car and start driving around the city until about four o’clock, five o’clock in the morning, patrolling the city. First, I wanted to send the message to those officers that are out on the front lines at the most difficult times, to let them know that the mayor himself said the number one thing we are focused on is public safety.

People were sort of shocked. I had a lot of fun. If you are a young black guy in America, having been pulled over many times driving a car, now I got to pull over police cars. It was really fun. I would turn my lights on, I would see a police officer, I would pull them over, I would walk over to the car. “Sir, let me see your identification.” And I would pull his log sheet and I would see the kind of things that he was doing. And I would talk to him. I would reinforce to him our ideals; reinforce to him our vision; reinforce to him who he was. I’d recast his whole way of thinking. I said, “You are on the front lines of the fight for America.”

Some people might think it is over in the Middle East. Some people might think it is on any kind of foreign front, but this is right here in America.
It is unacceptable to me that 34 Americans die every single day to handgun violence. It is unacceptable to me that there are thousands and thousands of families all across American who are mourning the deaths and injuries in their families.
I said we here in Newark, NJ were put her for a reason. We were put here for the greatest reason possible. God created this moment, because we are going to prove to America that we can solve these problems. But, I can’t do it. I don’t have a badge. I don’t have a gun. I wish I had a cape. But, I don’t. You are the person who is going to do this. You are the great soldier of America. You are the one fighting for freedom.
I spent my first quarter of 2008 out there in the streets of Newark. I got a stomach virus twice, but I still pushed myself with a great team of people. By the end of the first quarter, we were down 75% in murders in the city of Newark, shocking people about what was possible, because we tried to change folks vision. Not just the police officers in our city, but also even the residents. Why do we tolerate so much? Why do we put up with so much as Americans? We know who we are. We brag about it. There are children every single day that stand up and say the most aspirational things. They say that we are one nation. Why do we tolerate divisions? Under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all. That means something.

So, this has been the engagement that I have had for the last two years of my life; trying to take so many of the messages and the ideals and the visions of my father and to put them in place in the world of Newark New Jersey, this incredible city with incredible city, with unbelievable, untapped, unlimited, infinite potential.

But, the idea alone is not about vision. It is not about knowing who you are. It is more than that. It is not about even recognizing the world around you. To me, it is more than that.

There is something else that I have to say that, to me, is just as important. It is somehow finding the ability, not just with your eyes, not just with your heart, and not just with your spirit, to recognize a world around you. There has to be another step. This is a step I love because I do it with kids all over Newark all the time. I love it because it is my favorite math problem.

Now, my great introducer, Megan, how are you doing? Do you feel thoroughly embarrassed in front of your peers?
Megan: Sure.
Cory: You do?
Megan: I am used to it.
Cory: So, you are used to it now? I am going to give Megan a math problem.
Megan: No! Never!

[laughter]
Cory: How could I just give 20 minute expositions, so eloquently I must say, about vision, belief, understanding who you are? Come on! If you think you can’t, you can’t. You are the math wizard! You are the math master! You are the diva of division, right?

[laughter]
Megan: I’ve got a calculator on my Blackberry.

[laughter]
Cory: All right. So, this is a math problem. I love it. I got it as a little kid. It was a second part; the first is just understanding who you are, remembering the greatness. There is a wonderful book by Carter G. Woodson, who is a phenomenal great American who writes this book called “The Mis Education of the Negro.” And he writes in it this wonderful quote. He says, “The primary cause of human suffering”, that is a powerful thing, “The primary cause of human suffering is forgetfulness; people who forgot who they are.” In that moment, you forget who you were sister.

[laughter]
Cory: You are Pow! Baboom! Don’t you think so?
Megan: Sometimes.
Cory: Sometimes! OK. Well this is a math problem for my friend Megan, the math maven. The master of mathematics. The diva of division. Yes?
Megan: Yes. Bring it on.
Cory: The super star of subtraction! I could go on all day with this.

[laughter]
Cory: All right. So, here I am a little kid. Not as wise; not the sagacious soul that stands to my left. But, here I was, this little kid, and my father and others told me this math problem. Three frogs Megan; that is all that is involved in this story.

[laughter]
Cory: Three frogs! Three frogs, Megan, are sitting on a log. Just three! Not a train moving with 20,000 frogs from the West, San Francisco to….No! Just three frogs sitting on a log. Can you see the frogs? Vision! I talked all about vision. Can you see them? What color are they?
Megan: Greenish.
Cory: You are so boring! This is your world! How could you just….Uh! Einstein said, “Imagination is more important than knowledge.” It is so true!
Megan: OK. They are aqua marine.
Cory: Aqua marine frogs!

[laughter]
Cory: Well, we are getting a little better. Aqua marine frogs. So, you have got these frogs visualized in your mind, right? And they are sitting on a log. Is the log a color?
Megan: Purple.
Cory: Purple log. OK. I’d hate to see where you live, your fashion sense! OK. A purple log clashing horribly with these three aqua marine frogs. OK. These frogs have got to go. Did you name your frogs, by the way? Because I like to personalize my frogs. And if you say Kermit, I am going to say no imagination. That one is taken.
Megan: Shadrack, Meshack, and Abednigo.
Cory: Shadrack, Meshack, and Abednigo. You go girl!

[laughter]
Cory: All right. Now, Shadrack is sitting there on this log and decides to jump off. Usually I give cash to the kids in Newark for this. But, for the honor, respect, and reverence, the approbation of your peers here before you, how many frogs, now that Shadrack has decided to jump off, how many frogs are on that log?
Megan: Two?
Cory: Awww! No! No! Does anybody know the answer to that question? What’s that?
Audience Member: None.
Cory: None? What’s your name?
Audience Member: Rhea.
Cory: Rhea, you are brilliant. You are beautiful. You are phenomenal, but you are wrong.

[laughter]
Cory: OK? I see you for who you truly are. You did not reveal yourself in that moment though, but I see you for who you truly are. Anybody know the answer? Yes sir.
Audience Member: Three.
Cory: Three! Yes! Why are there three frogs on the log?
Audience Member: He decided. He did not jump.
Cory: Thank you very much. Did you hear that? He decided to jump. He did not actually jump. Deciding to do something is a cognitive process. It is not a physical act. He made a decision in his mind. So, this to me was the definition, my dad said, of greatness. Have the vision. Have the ideals. Have the boldest sense of who you are, but unless it converts in a powerful way to action, then you are going to be lost.

Now, this to me is such an essence of greatness that I witnessed in all my readings of history. My favorite people embodied this very idea of integrity; making your thoughts, your words correspond to your actions. Who is to me the greatest historical figure of integrity there is? It’s a guy that I read so much about in Oxford when I was studying there. I was devouring his books. And I tell you, I started wearing sandals because of this guy, because he wore sandals all over the place. You know who I am talking about?
Audience Member: Gandhi.
Cory: Yeah, thank you. Was that you? I knew it! I saw…. My gosh! Yes, it was Gandhi. I even shaved my head, but that was just a preventative strike on the real thing.

[laughter]
Cory: So, this story about Gandhi, where he is sitting there weaving all this cloth and this woman comes in to see him with her child. She is taking her child with her. She says, “Mahatma, Gandhi sir, you emphasize dietary discipline, but my son, he reveres you, but he does not follow all of your teachings. He eats way too much sugar. His teeth are rotting out. I ask you Gandhi, would you please tell my son; he will listen to you Mahatma. Would you please tell my son to stop eating sugar?”

Gandhi gets up from where he is standing, he stands there humbly and looks at her for a few moments, looks at the boy, and looks back at her and says, “No, I will not do that.” The woman begins to protest and he says, “No, no, no, no. Just come back in two months and ask me again.” She thinks that is a little strange and she leaves disappointed. Two months pass. She waits in this long line to have an audience with Gandhi. She gets back in the tent and she says, “Mahatma, I have returned. My son, his health is deteriorating because of his dietary habits. Would you please tell my son, please tell him, to stop eating sugar?”

Gandhi gets up again, looks at her humbly, and then walks over to her, turns to the boy and puts his hand on the boy’s shoulder. The boy is incredibly moved; the Mahatma has touched him. He says, “My son, you must stop eating sugar.” The boy is obviously affected. The woman is incredibly happy. She turns to leave, thanking Gandhi as she goes. She turns and suddenly she stops. She says, “I mean you no disrespect, but Mahatma, why didn’t you just tell my son to stop eating sugar two months ago?” And Gandhi looked at her and said, almost with an obviousness, he says, “Because. Two months ago, I was eating sugar.”

The most incredible thing I have learned is that if you cannot just have that vision, but if you can find a way to make your life resonates with who you are, not just in your being, but in your doing, that is when things begin to happen. And for me, watching my dad, he worked every single day and wouldn’t even talk about his slips in integrity, but worked every single day to live his life to the wildest extremes.

My father was this guy who believed in kindness and just believed in niceness. He used to be just so torturous to a young boy who did not want to be embarrassed by his parents. I know there are many parents in here who torture your kids, and you will get this.

Now, I realize, it was my favorite quote by James Baldwin who says “Children are never good at listening to their elders, but they never fail to imitate them.” And yes, I am now torturing other young people around me by embarrassing them. But, my father used to talk to me all the time about the power of kindness. But, he would take it to extremes. He would get into 25 minute conversations with the checkout girl at the super market. He would be on the phone asking for information from the operator and the next thing you know he would be counseling them about their problems.

This is my father, who gave me example after example day after day about living your highest ideals; living them to the most logical extreme. And to me, this is ultimately the challenge. I believe sincerely that this is another way of saying that if you can live in a way consistent with your being, your highest being, then you can live in a way that is consistent with the largest love there is.

That may sound corny, but if I can give you one example of this that was another gift to me of someone who I just revere. Now, even in the most difficult circumstances…And I believe, by the way, when everything is going well, it is easy to do the right thing. When everything is going great it is easy to be magnanimous.

When the chips are down, when you are struggling, when you are suffering, that is when it is hard. When you have had a bad day and you come home at the end of the day and somebody does one little small thing that in and of itself wouldn’t annoy you but you explode on them, if you can turn a moment like that into something that is more consistent with yourself and with your being, that to me is a great example of love.

But, the example I give always about living your values to their extreme is probably, the person has the ignominious distinction of being the first person I ever represented as a lawyer. I was assigned to this woman and I remember going to meet my client where she lived. It was in some of the most challenging public housing in this particular city. I remember knocking on her door. She opened the door and I saw a face there that had seen the years, worn with lines. She was hunched over and had a swollen tongue, and spoke with a little bit of difficulty. She brought me into a space, and when I looked at this space I thought, “I am going to fight to keep her in this apartment?”

I sat down and I started talking with her. I found out that she was being evicted from her apartment because of a very Draconian law that public housing authorities have in America. That law basically is if one person in a family is caught dealing drugs or drug possession, they move to evict the entire family.

Now, this woman had very difficult circumstances. She had a disability. That is why she had some scars on her face. She would fall into seizures and she really needed somebody to be around all the time. The only source that she could find to be around was her 19 year old nephew. Her 19 year old nephew was caught with 38 vials of crack cocaine.

So, after listening to this story I thought it was outrageous to take this poor woman and evict her for this problem. So, I went back to my supervising attorney all full of righteous indignation. I told my supervising attorney, I said to her, I told her the facts of the case and I said “We are going to fight this case. I will take it to the Supreme Court if I have to!”

She looked at me and started shaking her head. She says, “Cory, look. I have seen hundreds and dozens of these cases. Look, you don’t have that much of a chance of winning. In fact, I would say you have a five to 10 percent chance at best. I don’t care if you call Johnny Cochran and the dream team, Cory. This is sort of iron clad. We have seen these things. The best hope you have is taking the settlement that they offered you.”

And I said, “The settlement?” I was all upset. “The settlement? It is not even worth the paper it is written on. She has to give up all of her procedural protections. Even if a person comes to visit her that she doesn’t know and they are caught with a dime bag full of marijuana then she is evicted. That is not justice!”

And she says, “Cory, Cory, calm down.” She said to me, “Look. If you choose to push her to fight this case, you are not doing your client justice. You don’t represent your own cause of justice. You don’t represent your own ideas. You represent a client. You are a lawyer. And if you force her to fight this and she loses, you will go home devastated, but she won’t have a home to go to at all.” She said, “Cory, you can’t take away this woman’s right to make decisions for herself. She has to decide.”

Now, I remember going over to see her, to pick her up and take her back to the legal center for what was probably the longest hour conference of my legal career. I sat this woman down; this elderly, esteemed, reverential African American Woman that was worthy of all my respect, as my parents taught me. The painful thing about this meeting was here was this woman, that all she could do, as I tried to explain to her a legal concept that I hadn’t even mastered at that point, all she could do was cry and say over and over again “Why are they doing this to me? I have done nothing wrong. Why are they doing this to me?”

And as I worked through that hour, I saw a miracle. Now again, if you haven’t learned already, I am a big believer in the miraculous. The miraculous sometimes is so obvious or so small, the size of a flower that most people just go along the way not noticing them.

But, this miracle came to me in the form of a question. And this woman who was crying there and trying to compose herself, finally she just puts her head down and tries to get me to stop speaking with her hand. And I stop and she seems to gather herself to ask this question. She goes to me; she goes “Well tell me this. If I fight this case, will it help other people?” I looked at her and I can’t believe she is even asking this question, given her circumstances. I look at her and I said “Ma’am, if we fight this case and lose…We only has a five or 10 percent chance of winning.” I said, “But if we somehow win this case, with only about a five or 10 percent chance of doing so Ma’am, yeah, it would give me a precedent that I could use to help other people.”

It almost seemed like all she heard was that three letter word “yes”, because her head goes down again and she puts up her hand for me to stop. She seemed just to sit there for a long period of time. Then suddenly, these fragile old fingers curl up into a fist and she slams it on the table. Her head jolts up and she looks at me with these piercing eyes then. She pushes the chair back and she stands up straighter than I had ever seen her stand. She waves her finger at me and she says, “Five or 10 percent is enough for me. We are going to fight.” And then she strode out of that room with a dignity and regality, even, that I had never seen amidst her spirit before.

I sat there looking at my supervising attorney. My jaw was sort of dropped. She was looking at me and we just stared at each other for a few moments. Then I remembered I had to give the woman a ride back to her house, so I chased after her and put her in the car.

I worked for three days and three nights on this case, everything I could do. I was living in the law library on my phone. I even called Johnny Cochran, God rest his soul. He didn’t return my calls; everything I could think to do. And then on the fourth morning, I am getting up and getting ready to go back to work. I get this call…You know, this is your first case; I am pouring everything into it. I get this call from my supervising attorney, who says to me “Cory, I’ve got some bad news.” I am like, “OK. Go ahead. What is it?” She says, “You don’t understand. I’ve got some bad news.” I go, “OK. What?” She goes, “Last night, your client had a heart attack and died.”

I remember just slamming down the phone, beginning to want to cuss like a sailor and throw things around. I was just so filled with rage about what I thought was a senseless injustice. And then suddenly I realized my arrogance. You see, here I thought that God had put the great Cory Booker there to help the poor client that I had. But, in reality, I really believe that the universe put the great client there to help the poor Cory Booker.

To me, the most powerful thing you can do, and it goes back to the point I made earlier about this idea of a balanced universe, that if you are seeking to have success in any endeavor, if you are seeking to invent something, if you are seeking to be in political office, if you are seeking to have a multi million dollar business, one of the keys to being a successful beyond your wildest dreams is always to find ways to live with a perfect resonance of your highest ideals. The highest of highest ideals, I dare say, is this ideal of love. It is what the Hebrews call Hesed. It is what the Greeks called Agape. It is love that is not transactional: “If you love me, I will love you.” It is understanding that we play a role in this world, that we are intricately combined.

As Martin Luther King said so eloquently in letters from a Birmingham jail, “We are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a common garment on destiny.” Whatever we do resonates out beyond us in profound, elegant, and beautiful ways. And if we do those things with love and find ways to give back to their people, then we all rise up.

I want to conclude with one last note. This woman, Ms. Jones, I remember as we battled through in these projects; I lived there for eight years in this high rise complex. We won the fight against the slum lord, but then the city came in and took over. And now the city was worse, in many ways, that the landlord we had. We went through days without heat and hot water. My elevator, I lived on the sixteenth flight. I think, back in those days I was a lot slimmer because I was walking sixteen flights quite regularly.

I just continued to be blown away by the profound beauty and love, unyielding, uncompromising love, of this person in my life named Ms. Virginia Jones. And I remember when something really bad happened to me, which I won’t go into. But, it was the day that my faith was shaken. My faith was shaken in myself, and I will be frank with you. My faith was shaken even in the larger society in which we live.

It was a time that I spent the whole night rolling around, frustrated and angry, feeling overwhelmed by the world around me and what I thought was just this toxicity that exists in our culture that allows the most heinous acts to happen. I remember getting off of the elevator and coming down in the morning, and there I see Ms. Jones, this figure. It only took me seeing the back of her, this powerful woman who embodies all of the ideals I was talking about. It only took me seeing her from behind to suddenly shake myself lose of the negativity and the cynicism that was growing at my core. It was almost like her spirit reached back and smacked me up side of my head.

I remembered in seeing her, a story that she told me when I was interviewing her for Esquire Magazine. Esquire was writing this big article about the 40 best and brightest in America. They called me and they said they wanted to write an article about me. I said “You have got to be kidding me.” I said, “The reality is that in my city, there are so many people that your magazines or newspapers or TV will never take notice of that are the greatest towering Americans I could ever imagine.” I said, “This woman is, to me, one of the greatest Americans who has ever lived.” I said, “Let me write an article about her.”

So, now I was doing more purposeful discussions with Ms. Jones, and I was interviewing her about every aspect of her life. I had, maybe…I don’t know how many column inches I had. It was really small, but I wanted to pack this article with just everything I could to show America that the greatest heroes from our country are not the people we read about in history books; never was the case.

You pick your chapter from America, whether it is the Progressive Movement, the Civil Rights Movement, you name it. The heroes that we hail, that we name days after, are never the greatest ones. America is a wonderful story of ordinary people doing extraordinary things, extraordinary examples of love on a daily basis that make transformation truly possible.

So, here I am interviewing this woman, Ms. Jones, and she tells me a story that I just couldn’t believe. And this was a story I remembered when I was coming out of my own bleakness. She told me a story about her son, who put on an American uniform. I have such reverence for anybody who puts on a…You may not agree with the military action that is going on, but if you put on an American uniform, to me, it is a powerful thing. I just was in Ft. Bliss seeing soldiers, visiting with them before they went overseas, and was just overwhelmed at these young men, 19, 20, 21 years old, young men and woman.

So, here her son put on an American uniform, went overseas, and then came back home. This was in the 80’s and he had a mistaken identity. Long story short, Ms. Jones told me this. She was in her apartment on the fifth floor where she lived for almost the exact amount of years that I have been alive. She got a knock on the door. She opened the door and the person couldn’t even speak they were crying so much. Grabbed her by her arm, took her downstairs into the lobby of the building where I lived, and there on the floor was her son, who was home, with about three or four bullet holes in his chest, bleeding the lobby floor red dead.

So here, this great woman who I revered, who I had known at that point for years, who had never told me this story before; I can’t even believe I didn’t hear it. I didn’t know what to say to her. I sort of put my pen down and my pad, where I had been feverishly writing.

I hate that you don’t have the right words at the right time all the time. So, all I could think to myself to say to her was, “Ms. Jones. I know where you live. I know the money you make.” And Ms. Jones, myself, and a number of others in this building were paying market rent to live in the challenging conditions of which we were fighting.

I said, “Ms. Jones, I know the money you make. You could live anywhere. Why would you still live in this neighborhood? Why would you still live in this community or this building where your son was tragically murdered?” She looks at me and she says, “Why do I still live here?” And I said, “Yeah.” “Why am I still in brick towers?” I said, “Yeah.” “Why do you live on the fifth floor in apartment 5 A?” I said, “Yeah.” She crossed her arms and she said to me, “I live here because I am in charge of homeland security.” I smiled.

This to me is it: having a vision of yourself that is so large that you don’t project the responsibilities onto other people. You take the responsibilities for yourself. That you have this unbelievable, some might call it arrogance, some might call it an astounding miraculous view, that you can transform the world. This view that that is not just a cognitive process, but you can turn that into a physical act. This understanding that you can do anything you want if it resonates with those higher values that you can make a transformation.

My Dad was an incredibly successful salesman. He became a marketing manager, won awards from IBM, and is now retired living in Atlanta. My mom and my dad still are living their lives. My mom ran a homeless shelter for a while in the city of Atlanta. They are still involved. My dad now is recovering from open heart surgery, fighting Parkinson’s, but still lives with this abundant, effusive sense of humor, sense of love, sense of “I may be in my elder years, but I am still going to change this world.”

This conference, and I am so grateful for being invited to share some of my spirit with you, this conference has a very purposeful, purposeful view. You all are here to try to advance your businesses, to try to advance your families. Those are all good things. But, don’t lose the larger context in which we all operate. Don’t shrink your vision of yourself. Understand that you are here for a purpose. There is no mistaking this moment. In this moment and the ones that will follow, you will have the opportunity to unleash yourself unto the world. You have the possibility and the potential to be one of those Americans that truly creates a revolution; a revolution in kindness, a revolution in love, a revolution in vision, and a revolution in imagination.

This is the legacy that we as a people have inherited. We have a statue of Liberty that sits with its back facing Newark. I always say that we should have a Statue of Liberty, but we should also have statues of responsibility. We should have a Declaration of Independence, but we should also have a declaration of inter dependence. We need each other so much. We are responsible for each other. This nation, as great as it is, does not reflect the profound dignity or potential of its people. We all are those people. Let us join together today, not only for individual success, but for the triumph of our ideals in a world that is so desperate, desperate for them. Thank you very much.

[applause]
Man: Thank you very much Mayor Booker.

[continued applause]

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