2013 Commencement Address

Named one of the most influential people in the world by Time magazine, Cory A. Booker, the mayor of Newark, N.J., was selected to address the Class of 2013 and their friends and family members.


Full transcript of the 2013 Commencement address

Hello! Thank you. Thank you very much. I am incredibly thrilled to be here, and I want to thank people for this opportunity. Really, this day is the result of a grand conspiracy of love. So many people came together to make this day so special for the graduates.

I personally want to start off by thanking all the faculty and staff. This is a university that does not just have teachers of facts and figures, but truly has people who love this community and pour their heart and soul into the academic structure here, and I give them my gratitude.

I also want to thank the trustees. I too sat on the board of a great American university and know how much it takes to keep a university on the cutting edge of excellence like this. And I want to single out one particular trustee, that of Ann Tisch, who not only is my dear friend, but for her, I would not be standing before you today.

I also want to thank those people who don’t get thanked enough. We have an America that is often so rushed that we fail to recognize all the love that goes into a day like this. So I want to give my thanks to all the people at this university who serve the food to our young people, who clean floors and bathrooms, who keep the grounds. Those people are brothers and sisters. They take pride in this day as well.

And then there are of course the parents. I am very excited to be before family members now, because I am tickled that there are so many graduates here that are lucky that you do not have my parents here today. Because I had those crazy parents and family that would make so much noise and ruckus at my graduation that — I’m a very tall guy, but I would sink lower and lower in my seat.

I know there’s a lot of people here that believe like my mother did. She said, “Behind every successful child is an astonished parent.” And the truth of the matter is, I know there’s a lot of astonishment here right now today.

But I bring this up really to get to the point of what I want to discuss briefly with you, which is really these lessons of my family. I want to talk just about this idea of vision today, but I want to say as a prelude that I had two different types of folks at my graduations.

My family, interestingly, separated down by gender in how they greeted me and how they embraced me. My mother and my grandmother, now 95 years old, they were the nurturing force in my life. They would hug me and lift me up and make me feel so, so special on my graduations. But my dad and my grandfather seemed to have a very different mission indeed. Their job was to tease me into humility at every single point.

Let me tell you. On my high school graduation, I was president of my high school class, honor society. I was going on a full scholarship to Stanford. But my dad of course had to come up and remind me and say, “Boy, don’t you get so proud. You got in Stanford because of a 4.0 and 1,600. 4.0 yards for carry, 1,600 receiving yards your senior year. You’re going on a football scholarship, man!”

At my college graduation, here am I again, president of my class, graduating with honors, and my dad comes up to me with the program, points to it, and says, “See, son, you’re not graduating magna cum laude or summa cum laude. You’re just, ‘thank you, lawdy, I’m out of here!'”

And of course, my graduation from law school. The ultimate and final graduation. My grandfather and my father come up to me and say, “Listen, boy. Pay attention now. You got more degrees than the month of July, but you ain’t hot! Go out there and get a job!”

And so my mom and my grandmother, my dad and my grandfather, they just had different ways of being. When my mom and my grandmother tell stories, to this day I sit rapt and ready because they have this penchant for accuracy and detail, even though they’ve been telling me some of the same stories for 44 years. I know some people can appreciate that. The reality is, I learn something every time they speak.

And I love listening to my grandfather and my father speak because they too have a certain knack, but their knack is for hyperbole and exaggeration. I mean, my father, when he starts talking about his background, I just sit back and begin to recognize that this is going to be the most dramatic retelling of his life.

In fact, he tells me stories and forgets midway facts he’s given me. Like he walked uphill, the steep hills in the mountains of North Carolina to get to school, and then by the end of the story, he’s walking uphill again to get home. I don’t know what kind of geographical anomaly that my father lived in!

And the weather patterns would always get worse. It’s North Carolina, but it always rains. And then the hail period went from hail the size of golf balls to every athletic ball possible. Baseballs and soccer balls. Heck, there were beach balls. Hail soon became galactic asteroids hitting the mountains.

And my father, there’s one of the Ten Commandments that I hope you all remember about honoring your mother and father, but I came close to violating that tenth commandment just last year when my dad began to tell about the time when a tsunami hit his town. And I had to say, “Dad, I’m sorry, you were in the mountains of North Carolina. There couldn’t be no tsunami.” And he got mad and indignant. He said, “Boy, it was before the Internet. It happened. You can’t look it up!”

So I simply want to tell you two stories to honor the two oral traditions in my life. One story about vision, how my father and my grandfather saw it. And then one story about vision from the matriarchs of my family, a spirit of unvarnished truth that I think is very important.

But now, let me get to my dad and my grandfather and tell a story in their spirit that does have a — as Stephen Colbert says — a high level of truthiness, but it’s not quite true.

When I was a young man, I was the youngest person elected to Newark’s city council, and at the time I sat on the board of trustees at Stanford University, and I would have to go out five times a year to San Francisco to get to the board meetings. And it was interesting sitting on a city council, which is like the board of a city, and sitting on a board of university.

And one day when I was in the city council chambers and we were in a fight — and I don’t know what it’s like in this city or the cities you all are from. When I say we were in a fight, we were in a real fight. Somebody had me in a headlock and two around the legs, and my staff member bursts into the room and says, “Cory! You got to go! Your flight leaves in 15 minutes.”

And then he scratches his head and says, “You know what? You’re just not going to be able to make it. I’m sorry. You can’t make the plane. It’s impossible.”

Now, this staffer knew exactly the mistake he had made when he uttered that word to me, “impossible,” because he knew he would get my standard reaction. I put my hand on my hip, and I looked at him hard and said, “You know something, man? My mama told me ain’t no such thing as impossible. Get that car. We’re going to make this plane.”

And my staffer rolls his eyes and says, “All right.” And he runs back, gets the car. I run down the steps to city hall. I dive in the car, and we race off to the airport. Now, I’m mayor of the city now, so I can’t tell you we broke any traffic laws, of course. But one or two might have gotten bruised on the way.

And when we arrived at the airport, I jump out of the car, race into the airport foyer, and you all know. Some of you have studied advanced mathematics. You know there’s this formula that says that the more of a hurry you are in, the longer the line at the airport. I know you’ve done research on that.

And so there’s this long line, but you don’t understand. I am being called by a course of cynics to rise up and show that the impossible can happen. I am on a righteous mission. So I do what I must do for the cause of honor. I cut everybody in line.

And now, I’m standing there at the corner. This woman is throwing carry-on baggage at me, screaming at me for cutting in front of her. But I lean forward and I tell the woman behind the counter. I, go, “Ma’am, I am on Flight 2222, going to San Francisco. Give me my ticket!” And the woman looks at me, “Sir, you don’t understand. That plane leaves in 5 minutes. They probably already closed the door. You can’t get on that plane. It’s impossible.”

This woman did not know my mama. So I put my hand on my hips and I said, “Listen, ma’am, my mama told me ain’t no such thing as impossible.” And then I put my hand on my other hip. And I don’t care in this audience if you’re Irish or Italian, if you’re Native American or Cuban, if you’re Korean or you are from New Jersey. Sometimes in life, you got to get ethnic on people.

And so I said, “My grandmama told me that black people been making a way out of no way for a long time, ma’am.” I said, “Give me that ticket!” And she rolls her eyes. She must have known my age. She rolls her eyes, and she hands me the ticket.

And so now I grab that ticket, fueled with the call of doing impossible things. I turn, and I run through the airport, jumping over bags, twisting, and dodging people. I was running through the airport like a man that we don’t talk about that much anymore.

I get about 25 yards from the gate, and I see this woman closing the door with the combination, and I scream at her, and I say, “stop!” And she turns around, and she sees this former tight end from Stanford University rumbling towards her. She drops her clipboard. She pins herself against the wall, and she goes, “What’s wrong?”

And I said, “Ma’am, I’m on that plane!” And she goes, “Sir, you can’t get on this plane.” I said, “You don’t understand! I’ve got to get on that plane!” She goes, “I’m sorry, you can’t. We’ve given away all the seats. It’s impossible.”

I put my hand on my hip. I told her my mama said there’s no such thing as impossible. I put my hand on my other hip and I said, “My grandmother told me black people making a way out of no way for a long time.” And then I put my hand on my other hip again. I said, “My great-grandmama, she was a religious woman, and she said I could do all things. Can I get a witness! I can do all things.”

And before I could go deep into Philippians, she says, “Stop, sir, please stop. We don’t need any air rage here, sir. Calm down. You’re right. Okay. Okay. You’re right. There is a seat on the plane. And, sir, if it’s acceptable to you, it’s in first class.”

Well, I dabbed sweat off my brow. I looked at the woman hard, and I said to her, “That’ll be acceptable.” And she opens the door, and I start walking down. I’m a child of the ’80s. ’80s TV. I had just moved on up, so I did my George Jefferson walk, and I am now walking down.

This woman stops me, and she says, “Sir, where are you seated?” And I looked at her indignantly. I said, “Ma’am, I am in first class.”

And this was the first time I had flown first class. And they make seats in first class especially made for former tight ends of Stanford University. There was this wide seat, and I sat down there, and then something else. They offer you a drink before you take off. Now usually I just drink water. But this was first class. And so I looked at the woman, and I said, “Ma’am, would you get me some Perrier, please?”

I am now having my glass in hand. The plane starts moving back, goes down the runway. The captain gets on the announcement speaker and says, “Ladies and gentlemen, I would like to welcome you to Flight 7342, going to Miami.”

I was first class! But I was headed in the wrong direction.

I make this point in the spirit of my father and my grandfather for these reasons. Please understand that this world is going to try to tell you what it means to be first class. They’re going to give you signals every single day bombarding you that first class has to do with the clothes that you wear or the car that you drive or the house that you live in, but first class has nothing to do with those things.

If you want to be first class, it is about the content of your character, the quality of your ideas, the kindness that you have in your heart. This is first class.

Something happened in my generation that we went from the great call of citizenship, where the people in our country now are looked at more as consumers. We are not a consumer society. We are a society of citizenships. And the call of citizenship calls for you not to judge your value on what you have, but to judge your value on what you give.

And let me tell you this: It’s not just about you. If that story tells you anything, it is the African proverb right there that if you want to go fast, go alone. But if you want to go far, go together.

We are a nation that lives this spirit. The story of America often is marked in its early days by a celebration of our Declaration of Independence. But the truth of America, when you look at our history, when you look at our people, it screams to a declaration of interdependence. That we need each other. That we do better when we all do better.

And here we are in a difficult point in American history, where many people are thinking that America is like United Airlines. Some people get to first class. The less will be relegated to coach. Some people will be those that go on your plane and clean it with no pension, no health insurance, and no sick days.

But this is not the nation that we dream of in our common aspiration. This is not the country that calls to the consciousness of our people. We are a nation that cannot allow the current trends to continue. You may be the first generation to have children that have higher obesity rates, higher health costs, worse health outcomes. Higher violent crime in many communities. You may be the generation with greater social stratification, fewer and fewer wealthy people, and more and more poor. We cannot allow this to happen!

We still are a nation that understands, as {Martin Luther} King so eloquently said, that we are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality tied in a common garment of destiny. That injustice anywhere is indeed a threat to justice everywhere.

And so our vision must be bold. It must be great. It must drive us to do the impossible things, but it also must be focused on the true call of citizenship: To be an exemplar of your values, to live your truth, to be authentic in your spirit, and to join with others in substantive ways to take on this world’s challenges.

And now I tell you an unvarnished story in the spirit of the matriarchs of my family.

I moved into some high-rise what became public housing projects in Newark. I lived there for eight years, and I’m telling you, even to this day, it’s the best, best of the communities I’ve lived in. And I say that not because of the greatness of the small town I grew up in. It was incredible, but there were people in this community that had a sense of mission and a sense of purpose.

I always say I got my BA from Stanford but my PhD in the streets of Newark, and these buildings were full of some of my greatest professors.

Some of my professors came at young ages. Children who I watched grow up. Some of them used to hang out in the lobby of my building, and I would come home, and amazingly, I would see my dad.

You see, in the group of these kids, there was a young man that reminded me of my father. My father used to tell me, “Son, I grew up poor.” Actually, he would heckle me if he heard me say that. He’d tell me, “Cory, don’t tell those people I grew up poor. I was po’. P-o. I couldn’t afford the other two letters.”

But my father was like many of these kids. He grew up poor and to a single mother. He grew up in a segregated environment. Back then, de jure. Now, de facto. He grew up with challenges.

And in this lobby, as I went on in years, I saw one particular group of kids that had one leader of the pack that really was like my dad. He had a sharp wit, and he had incredible humor, and he had a good spirit. I would come home, and I would hang out in the lobby before I went upstairs, talking to them, and I would get in the elevator and go.

And one day I started seeing some things that bothered me. I saw them starting to show some colors. I realized that they must be getting involved with the Bloods in our city. And sometimes I would come home and I would smell things that I hadn’t smelled since my dorm days at Stanford. And so I knew immediately what these signs were, so I stepped up.

I asked the kids, “Hey, guys, we talk every night. Why don’t we go to the movies sometime?” And we went to the movies. That’s when I discovered that there was a movie called “Saw” that was something I shouldn’t have been taking the kids to see.

We went out to diners. If you’re in Jersey, you got to go to a diner. And we just hung out. I brought friends of mine that were involved in the drug trade and had gotten out, had been rescued from the death trap that that is, and everything seemed to be going well.

But suddenly I couldn’t follow up anymore because I got busy doing noble things. I was running for mayor. I was on an important mission, a grand goal, and so I didn’t have time to follow up with them, to try to make mentoring connections, to try to be there. I was just racing through the lobby now, dead tired. I would go up.

As my campaign got going, I was Cory Booker, running for mayor! My name was all over the city. And those kids, they rejoiced in knowing that a potential mayor was in their building, and they celebrated me! They catered to my needs, teasing me, and keeping me grounded on tough days.

And on one day I’ll never forget, I came home, and it was like a line of boys holding my lawn signs, cheering me on at the end of a long day. And I felt so good. I was doing my wave and joking with them until I realized, where did they get those lawn signs from?

I did indeed in 2006 get elected to be mayor. Incredible. I’m now the mayor. The biggest city in the state of New Jersey. Man, aren’t I important? I achieved the brass ring, and now I’m going for that next one.

Well, in the time that I was mayor elect, I was getting death threats on my life. The FBI intervened, and I had security assigned to me, big guys with guns. And so when I came home to the lobby, those kids weren’t hanging out anymore. I barely noticed it. But of course they weren’t there. They’re not going to hang out in places with armed police standing there looking at them.

But I lost track because I was on a mission, and the mission then was to stop the unrelenting violence in my city.

Once I got elected and swore the oath, that very night people were murdered. And so I was out on every street corner every time there was a shooting, whether it was at 2 a.m. or 2 p.m. I was there to talk to people about our mission, about our goal. We were going to take on this violence. We were better than this.

On a month into my job, I showed up on a street, Court Street in Newark. And there was a body on the floor, on the ground covered in a sheet, another one being loaded into the ambulance, and I went into mayor mode. I was talking to people, telling them, “This is not Newark. We’re better than this!”

My words trying to be a balm on the wound in this community, in this neighborhood. I was feeling mayoral as I walked around. People were looking at me, waiting for what I would say. I got back to my apartment at the end of the day, going through all the Blackberry messages, and there I saw it!

I — I couldn’t — I couldn’t tear my eyes away, because there it was. The incident report for the murder earlier.

I wanted it to go away, because there I saw on my screen was the name of the boy from the lobby of my building who reminded me of my dad. I looked at this name, and I never — wished that it would just disappear, that it couldn’t be true, the boy from my building.

I’ll never forget that funeral. I’ll never forget going to that funeral home. I did not feel mayoral. I stood in the back. I didn’t go up to people engaging them. I didn’t have one encouraging word. I just stood there.

And I watched everybody show up, community members, political leaders. School classmates, teachers, neighbors from my building packed that small funeral home, and I could only stand in the back and watch, my body filling up with a darkness, with a pain I could not heal.

And I just watched. And I just mumbled responses because I was being haunted. Not encouraged, but haunted by the words of our ancestors. Haunted by Martin Luther King who said, “We will have to repent today, not for the vitriolic words and violent actions of the bad people, but the appalling silence and inaction of the good people.”

I was a good person. I stood there, watching all of those people showing up to deplore the situation, all of those people showing up, me among them, to curse the darkness. But where was our light?

I tell you, I left that funeral home before services were over. I ran. I don’t know if I was running from or running to.

I got to city hall. I walked through the offices to my office, this historic office in New Jersey, where giants and legends have sat. I closed the doors. I looked around at this palatial office. Me, a new mayor, and all I could do was find a corner to sit down and cry. I wept. God had put this child right in front of my face. I passed him by every single day.

And I want to tell you graduates, this is the moment of your life that will matter. When you’re ground down in the foundry of pain, when sorrow seems impossibly hard to shake, these are the moments.

I now realize that courage is not giving the big speech. Courage is not running into a burning building. The courage is when tragedies’ trumpets sound in your life, that you still could hold on to that quiet little voice that tells you to keep going anyway.

Courage is when you wake up in the morning with the weight of shame upon your chest with having made a mistake or done something wrong or being discouraged or feeling the grip of unshakable depression, that you still get out of that bed anyway and keep on going.

These are the moments, I tell you right now, when you’re broken that will give you your most valuable lessons if you don’t stop. Failure is never final if you don’t give up.

And so in that room, in that office, as I sat there with tears in my eyes, I found a lesson. It is a truth of humanity. It is the screaming testimony of American history, that we as individuals are more powerful than we know, that life ultimately is not about the big goal. Life is about the small things.

And I tell you this with all the conviction in my heart, that the biggest thing you can do in any day is a small act of kindness. That every day you’ll be confronted by seemingly small situations, and you can make one choice. Either to just accept it as it is, or to take responsibility for changing it.

Yes, have big dreams and big ambitions, but never forget that even the greatest ambitions must be made manifest in the simplest and smallest of acts.

Do you want to be a great parent? That’s a wonderful ambition, but it’s about the small things. Do you want to change the world? That is a wonderful ambition, but it’s about the small things.

To paraphrase Alice Walker in her brilliant book In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens, she says, “The real revolutionary is always concerned with the least glamorous of things.”

Raising a child’s reading level from 3rd to 4th. Filling out food stamps for someone illiterate because they must eat, revolution or not. Spending time with your elderly citizens recording their history, because they will tell you truths. It is the small things in life. Live with that kind of focus on the small things. Show your kindness and your decency and love, not only in grand acts, but in the small ones. Let it penetrate your very being.

Like the story about the great Mahatma Gandhi taking on the British empire, who was running for a train and leapt upon the train, pulled into third class. His sandal falls off. Everybody on that train looks in sorrow as the great Mahatma Gandhi’s sandals are disappearing in the distance, but Gandhi doesn’t miss a beat. He reaches for his other sandal and tosses it way out on the tracks.

The man helping him said, “Why did you do that?” Gandhi looked at him, perplexed. “Why? Because whoever finds that one sandal, wouldn’t it be great if they found two as well?”

We have so much potential. Alice Walker said, “The most common way people give up their power is not realizing they have it in the first place.”

And so I want to end with this last thing yet to tie this both together, my mom and my dad. It’s from an old man who I met on the streets of Newark. One of these great professors that didn’t have letters after his name, but he was Newark’s most longstanding tenant organizer.

In the ’70s, he led our city’s longest rent strike under incredibly bad conditions. He found me as a law student working in Newark and immediately, with a vision, saw in me things I didn’t see in myself. He would joke that he knew I was going to go on and lead this city before I even realized it. We worked together, took on battles, took on slumlords, but I tell you something. Days are long, but years fly by.

And before you knew it, years were taking their toll on Frank Hutchins. He was getting old and sick, and his eyesight started to go, and so we started to have this little joke with each other. I would come to his apartment to visit him, to bring food, to talk. And every time I came, I would say, “Frank? It’s me.” And he would look at me, not being able to see me now, but he would say the words, “I see, Cory. I see you.”

I began to love to hear those words from him. I would visit him. I would take him out. We would even — he’d insist on even going to see a movie, and I said, “Hey, man, I’ve got this great movie, Saw IV. You got to see it.”

And always he would say to me, when he saw me and when I left, he would say to me, “I see you, Cory. I see you.”

In his final days, I was visiting him in the hospice time and time again, and I was told that this was probably going to be it. I walked into his room, and there he was lying in the bed and breathing very rapidly, and I sat with him, and I tell you, there were angels around. There was glorious life. He lived a mighty, mighty time.

And when I left him, when I walked out of that room, he had only tried to say two things to me. The last one was very meaningful. He worked hard to force the words out. “I love you.”

But the one he said I’ll remember for the rest of my life. The one he said that was so true, even though his eyesight was completely gone. He said, “Cory, I see you.”

Graduates of 2013, I tell you this with all of my heart. I see you. You’re more beautiful than you realize, stronger than you know, more powerful than you can imagine.

I see you. I see in this dark world that you are the light. I see that in a world where too many are surrendering to cynicism, to doubt, that you are the hope and the faith.

I see you, graduates of 2013. I see the dreams of generations long ago. I see the hope for generations yet unborn. I see you, Class of 2013.

And I tell you this: Have a vision. In fact, every time you hear our national anthem, hear it as a challenge.

Oh, say, can you see a world where in life, as Frederick Douglass says, you don’t get everything you pay for, but you must pay for everything you get? Have it as a challenge to pay with love, to pay with kindness, to pay with decency, to pay with respect.

Oh, say, can you see a world where change does not just roll in on the wheels of inevitability but must be carried in on the backs of soldiers? See yourself as those warriors of love and kindness.

Oh, say, can you see a country that loves every one of its children, where an education like this is not for the privileged few, but abundant for all?

Oh, say, can you see? Can you see an end to the ills of poverty? Can you see global health elevated?

Oh, say, can you see it? Can you see a day when righteousness does roll down like water and justice like a mighty stream? And if you can see it, then be it. And as you be it, as you encounter people in this world, they may look at you and say, “Who is this crazy dreamer? Who is this idealist? Who is this embodiment of hope?”

What you talk about, what you say and what you do, don’t you know that these things are impossible? When they say that to you, I want you to put your hand on your hip and tell them, “My mama said there ain’t no such thing as impossible.”

Congratulations, Class of 2013. Be it! See it! God bless you!