An audience almost filling Altschul Auditorium to capacity listened attentively to its speaker Tuesday night. But he wasn’t a political science teacher. Talking to Columbia students Tuesday night on behalf of the Kenneth Cole Foundation, Mayor Cory Booker of Newark, New Jersey discussed love, hope, change, and this generation’s imperative to tackle the hard issues. The Kenneth Cole Foundation seeks to engage students in civic activity through its fellowship program.
Rebutting the pervasive cynicism and lack of hope in the current political climate, Booker spoke about the importance of the individual. Speaking directly to those cynics, Booker argued we often get “carried away in thinking that change is about the big fight, the big challenge, the big speech, the big election.” Instead, he told the focused audience, “the biggest thing you can do, any day, is a small act of kindness.”
The Mayor populated the rest of his speech with a number of anecdotes, from his own personal experience, to those of random citizens of Newark, explaining his concept of the little changes.
An enraptured audience learned about an old man who bought a rake and lawn mower to clean up the lot across the street from his apartment, the educators who started up charter schools in Newark, a young social activist who founded an organization to connect male ex-convicts to their children.
Following much buildup, Booker arrived at both his logical conclusion, and emotional climax. After discussing the many anonymous people who helped raise and provide college tuition for his father, Booker relayed a phrase his dad used to tell him.
“You are the physical manifestation or a conspiracy of love.”
Sometimes delving outside the scope of his own argument, Booker brought in his city’s approach to crime in perhaps the most political moment during his speech. Aghast at the United States incarceration rates standing higher than every other country in the world, “even so-called totalitarian states”, Booker recoiled at the never-ending game of repeat offenders and high recidivism rates. His most compelling piece of data: “85% of people murdered in [Newark]… …were arrested before an average of ten times”.
He also hinted at his disdain for the War on Drugs in attributing the reason for many of the convicts to violations of non-violent drug laws. While many politicians on the national stage do not confront this issue, Booker tackled it head on.
Booker was certain, however, to verge away from a morose tone. Even when pointing out his deep contempt for aspects of the criminal justice system, Booker cracked jokes – which were very well received – throughout his speech. Most poignant, Booker hypothesized that many of those drug dealers in jail probably sold marijuana to some of the students in the audience at one point or another.
Closing out, the Mayor cautioned against becoming cynical: “Don’t play small”. Humbling himself, Booker retold one final anecdote about a woman he encountered during his first days as Mayor. Virginia Jones asked Booker what he saw when looking around at a beaten up neighborhood in Newark. As he was talking about the crackhouses, and bums, and drug dealers, Virginia started walking away. He caught up to her and asked her why she was leaving, so she set him straight: “You need to understand something, that the world you see outside of you, is a reflection of what you have inside of you.”
She continued, “If you’re one of those people who only sees problems, and darkness, and despair, that’s all there’s ever gonna be. But if you’re one of those stubborn people, who every time you open your eyes, you see hope, you see opportunity, you see love, you see the face of God”, then you can change the world.