Advice

Cory Booker to Grads: ‘You’re Going to Make Mistakes’

May 17, 2016

Watch Cory Booker's George Washington University commencement address

Good morning, everybody! It is such an honor to be here. I know the wind is blowing, so I’m going to try to be quick. But I have to just thank this community of incredible folks for inviting me here, especially each and every graduate. Thank you for letting me be a part of this. I also want to thank the entire community, not just the faculty and the staff and the trustees, not just the people who are at the exalted point of this community who are recognized on a daily basis, but I would be remiss if I didn’t thank the entire community, and that includes the people who clean floors and toilets. The people who manicured lawns. And kept the university beautiful. This is a day that all of GW should celebrate and all of those who made it possible should be thanked.

Now, this is not a speech about taking risks and being courageous, but I’m going to do something that is definitely a risk and ill-advised. I am going to be a politician that is going to lead with a joke. But this is a dad humor joke that I hope makes—that I hope makes a good point.

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There’s a story about a church. Let’s say it is from my community in New Jersey, where a pastor was having some trouble with two little boys who were cutting up in church all the time. He asked the deacon, the head of the deacons, to take care of it, and the head of the deacons tried, but the boys kept cutting up. So then he went to a very strict, tough person in the church, the head of the choir. Head of the choir tried to get them to behave, but the kids kept cutting up.

And so finally, the pastor said to himself, “I’ve got to take this into my own hands and do something about this.” So he brought the two boys to his office and sat the youngest one outside of the office, sat the eldest right in front of him inside his
office, closed the door, and that young boy was just so disrespectful. He just stared there at the pastor with his arms crossed, staring down the pastor. The pastor looked at him, and after thinking for a while, he thought to himself, “I’ve
got to try something different.” The deacon failed. The head of the choir failed. And so he saw his bible sitting there on the corner of his desk, and he put his hand on the bible, and he looked at the little boy and said, “My son, where is God?”

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And the boy suddenly snapped to attention. His eyes opened wide. And I don’t know what kind of church or religious institution you might go to, but in my church, if the pastor has something working, he doubles down on it.

So the pastor picked up the bible and waved it in front of the little boy and said, “I don’t know if you heard me, son, where is God?” And now the boy started shaking from head to toe, grabbing the arms of the chair, looking at the pastor. And the pastor now thinks, “I’ve got this now. I’ve got this.” So he stands up real tall behind his desk, takes the bible and waves it in the air and says in his Sunday sermon voice, “My son, tell me right now, where is God?”

And at this point, the little boy jumps up out of his seat, runs out of the pastor’s office, sees his little brother sitting there, and grabs him by the hand and says, “Man, we’ve got to get out of here. God is missing, and the pastor thinks we took him.”

I’m sorry. When I left Newark to run around my state and campaign for what has been one of the great privileges of my life, to serve as a United States Senator, I found a lot of folks that were beginning to question the world we live in, question our nation,
and ask often that question: All this madness, all these challenges, all the gridlock, all the problems, all the continued injustices—where is God? But I was taught all my life, not to ask that question, that that was not the important question.

Read more: Lin-Manuel Miranda to Grads: ‘Your Stories Are Essential’

That in life, the more important question is, “Where are you?” I tell you this, standing on this mall today, I wish my father was here to see it. He died six days before I was elected to the United States Senate. Now, I’ll tell you, death can end a life, but it can’t end a love, and my father had a mighty love. Matched by his sense of humor. My dad would have loved the joke. He has a delicious sense of dad humor. My mom joins him. They would be loving seeing me in this moment. My mom has a saying. It says, “Behind every successful child is an astonished parent.”

But my dad would have loved me standing here because it was along this mall, right by the Jefferson memorial, that my mom and dad had their first date. Yes, yes, my dad got lucky to meet my mom, and my mom had the charity to allow him to marry her. And what would have remarked to my father about this moment, he would have thought it was incredible that here his son, who he never would have imagined until I started running, that I would be the fourth elected African-American in the history of the United States senate. My dad would have joked about that. My dad would have done the math and said, “Son, let’s see. Between the Senate, between the Supreme Court and the White House, there’s only four black folks.”

It looks almost as bad as an Oscar nomination list.

But what I really want to do is tell you about my father’s admonitions, and frankly, I want to tell you a story about how I failed to live up to my father’s instructions. But first, three things about my dad: You see, he would tell me, “Son, it’s about you. It’s not about this world.”

He says, “You have a decision to make. There’s two ways to go through life: You can go through life as a thermometer or a thermostat. A thermometer just reflects the world that’s out there. If it’s hot, you get hot. If it’s cold, you get cold. You’re just a reflection of what is. But a thermostat, it changes the temperature. It focuses on itself. It sets the level. That’s what I want you to be. You got to be you. You’ve got to be one that, wherever you are, like a flower, you’ve got to blossom where you’re planted. Tell your truth in this moment.”

And if I had to summarize my father’s guidance about “it’s about you,” it would be he would worry about three things: The first, he would worry about me becoming cynical about the world. “You can’t control the world,” he would say, “Son, but you can control your reactions, and don’t give in to cynicism. Cynicism is a toxic spiritual state. Cynicism—it’s erosive and corrosive to who you are, not about the world.It actually clouds your vision. It makes it hard to see faint possibilities amidst glaring problems. Cynicism is a choice that you make that actually is disempowering. There’s not one statue built on this mall to anyone who was a cynic. It was people in our history that, despite overwhelming challenges, despite frustrations, despite the bad actors here in Washington or where they live, they never chose cynicism.

They kept believing in freedom, even if it’s slavery, they kept on believing in the right to vote even when women were denied it, they kept believing in the end to sweat shops and child labor. Even though they were frustrated about that, they kept believing. They never became cynical. They kept working and trying.”

The second thing my father said that’s related to that: It goes to this idea by Alice walker, who said so clearly that the most common way people give up their power is not realizing they have it in the first place. My father would say, “It’s not about the world. It’s about you. Don’t surrender your power to someone else. Just because they’re mean doesn’t mean you have to be.”

Now, I see this amongst myself the temptation online when you’re communicating with people and you see somebody saying something bad, that doesn’t mean that you have to be mean.

In this world, it so urgently needs kindness, love, generosity. We cannot let ourselves in any way reflect that negativity with our own. Right now, more than ever, in this political climate, I’m tired of people complaining about what others do and not looking about how they’re living in their lives. We have a choice to make in every moment. Why not blossom in this moment? By making sure you’re kind to people who are right in front of you.

I love that advice that was given by a man who once said, “Someone who is nice to you but not nice to the waiter is not a nice person.”

Don’t complain about meanness in the world if you’re not manifesting kindness in your own. Don’t call out for the world to be more MERCIful if you can’t manifest mercy. Don’t say we need more hope in this world if you are not an instrument of hope in someone’s life. You have power in your choices. Right now, planted where you are, don’t miss those opportunities.
But it’s more than that.

My father was someone who said not to be cynical, was someone who said not just don’t reflect the world around you, but all of this to him was about staying faithful to your ideals and not in any way allowing yourself to give in to that darkness.

Read more: William Foege to Grads: ‘Every Day We Edit Our Obituaries’

Now, in that I mean a couple things. Look, I graduated with a S.T.E.M. degree in the best kind of science there is, political science. Now, I may not know all there is to know about physics, but I do know this: You can look at the history of this country, and you cannot eliminate darkness. You cannot banish it by cursing darkness. The only way to get rid of darkness is light and to be the light yourself. So many people want to talk about the problems and not be about the solutions themselves. I tell you this right now. I’m tired of this call in our country, for this idea of tolerance. That’s not the aspiration. We have a nation right now that seems to think the greatest and highest achievement is for us to be a tolerant nation, but I say no. We’re not called to be a tolerant nation. We’re called to be a nation of love.

You see, we know that tolerance to me is a floor, but love is the ceiling. Tolerance says that I’m just stomaching your right to be a different American. If you disappear off the face of the earth, I’m no better off or worse off because I was just tolerating you in the first place.

Really what we need to do is understand that we have to love each other, that we have to see each other have worth and dignity and value, and that if you disappear off the face of the earth, then I am worse off for that. If you don’t cultivate your genius, then I’m worse off for that. If your children don’t thrive, then I am bereft of their genius, of their artistry, of their teaching, of their glory because ultimately tolerance does not recognize the truth of who we are, that we’re all in this together, that we need each other to be successful.

You see, tolerance is becoming accustomed to injustice. Love is being disturbed and activated by another’s adverse condition. Tolerance just crosses the street, keeps its head down. Love confronts and engages. Tolerance builds fences. Love opens doors. Tolerance breeds indifference. Love demands engagement. Tolerance couldn’t care less, but love couldn’t care more. And we are a nation of love. If you walk to where my parents first had their date, right there at the Jefferson memorial, you will see one of our founding documents. Now, I’m a person that’s not afraid to tell the truth. There were flaws in those documents. Native Americans were referred to as savages. In our founding documents, blacks were just referred to as fractions of human beings.

Stokley CarMichael used to always say CONSTITU, CONSTITU, I can only say three-fifths of those words. Women were not referred to much as all in those documents, but if you look at those documents, there’s such profound genius. We’re the first nation on the planet Earth, hey, we don’t have to look alike. We don’t have to pray alike. We don’t even have to be from the same origins, but we are a nation that’s putting forth profound ideals of truth, Liberty and the call to justice. We are a nation that understands that we need each other. Right there at that Jefferson Memorial, if you go there and stand in solemn respect and read the words of the Declaration of Independence, it ends with this call to interdependence. It says for this nation to make it, stop and recognize that we need each other.

We need everybody. It says that we can’t make this country go far if we’re not together like that old African saying, if you want to go fast, go alone. But if you want to go far, go together. At the end of that declaration of independence, that declaration of interdependence, that small words at the end, it says, we pledge to each other. To make this work, we mutually pledge to each other our lives and our fortunes and our sacred honor. Those aren’t just words to be inscribed on a wall. We have to make a choice to live them in our hearts. What does it mean to give forth your sacred honor?

Well, don’t think it means some big speech or a big election or Congressional debates. It’s a choice about what you do right now as you engage the world. Will you show that love for your fellow American no matter what? No matter if they’re not manifesting it toward you. I’m a big believer that we’ve got to lead with love. Even when they criticize you, I say “Love them, for they’re teaching you humility.” When they heap scorn upon you, you have a choice to make, and I say, “Love them for showing you and helping you discover how you are resilient.” When they doubt you, love them for giving strength and courage to your dreams. And when they cast you in the darkness, love them for letting them show you that you have within you an inextinguishable light. We have a choice to make in America.

Will we be people that react to the world, or will we be individual lights that say, “No matter how tough it gets, no matter how dark it gets, I am going to ignite myself and show my truth, blossoming where I am.” But this is difficult. It’s difficult to live your values. It’s difficult to put them into action every single day, and I get weary of people who preach their patriotism and don’t live it. I get weary of people who want to tell me about their faith. I have a saying that I say all the time that, before you speak to me about your religion, first show it to me in how you treat other people.

Before you tell me how much you love your God, show it to me in how much you love all his children. Before you preach to me about your passion for your faith, teach me about it through your compassion for your neighbors. To me, I grow frustrated with folks who don’t understand that patriotism is not just love of country because you can’t just love your country without loving your countrymen and women. You don’t always have to like folks. You don’t always have to agree with them. But how you engage them with just love or grudging tolerance, with love or by spewing out darkness, that’s what defines you.

Now, I told you I would confess to you my mistake, and this is the hardest part for me because what I’ve just told you now was the commands and the calls and the admonitions of my parents. There’s a woman named Alice Walker, who wrote a great book called In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens. And I’m one of those people who was profoundly ambitious in my career, but she admonished me that often those who seek revolutions and scream for them, they’re not often looking at themselves. Alice Walker said, the real revolutionary is always concerned with the least glamorous stuff, with raising a reading level from second grade to third, with simplifying history and writing it down, or reciting it for the old folks. With helping Illiterates fill out food stamps, for they must eat, revolution or not.

Read more: Russell Wilson to Grads: ‘When Life Tells You No, Stay Ready’

The dull, frustrating work of the revolutionary artist means, most of all, being there for people when you need them.
We walk this earth. We walk our nation. And there are people that need us every day. Sometimes we get so ambitious that we’re running to change the world, that we forget that we need to change our world, first and foremost, our world of friends, our world of neighbors, our world that includes strangers and those who are different than us, our world that has people struggling with fights that we’re often not even aware of because of our indifference and our apathy and our most dangerous type of privilege, which says, “Hey, a problem is not really a problem in this world unless it affects me directly.”

This, to me, has been the struggle of my life, is to live up to my parents’ understanding that, as you run towards your great goals of world change, slow down and look around you and change that world. Well, I was a 20-something ambitious young man and I was going to go change the world, fight the injustices. I followed the call of a great American prophet—some of you might have studied him here at George Washington in your rarified, high-level classes. That prophet’s name is Chris Rock. Now, Chris Rock had a saying, “Why is often the most dangerous street in many cities named after the man that stood for nonviolence?”

And I moved on to Martin Luther King Boulevard in a great city named Newark. Now, King boulevard in Newark has so many, even there in the mid-’90s, so many great testimonies to the greatness of my city, from universities like Rutgers and NJIT to great county college, to some great high schools, arts high school and St. Benedict’s. But I moved to the south end of this street to begin my career, which was a dangerous place with open-air drug dealing, lots of violence. And I decided in 1998 even, to move into some high-rise projects.

I was captured and inspired by these incredible local leaders. I always say I got my B.A. from Stanford but my Ph.D. on the streets of Newark because I met people like Miss Virginia Jones, who was the tenant president of those buildings, and I went to work as a young lawyer trying to change the community, change the neighborhood, change the city. And before I knew it, leaders there were encouraging me in the tenant community to run for city council, and I became a city council person, and then in 2002, with an ambition to change the city, I ran for mayor. I’m going to tell you right now, I lost that election, but this is good advice for you because, if you’re going to have a spectacular failure in your life, have a documentary team there to capture it because it was a good movie.

My shame exposed. But I lost that election, and I went back to work, living in brick towers, living in those projects, fighting and beginning to prepare for my run for office in 2006. But along the way, the kids in my community, I watched some of them grow up, and a group of them used to hang out in the lobby of my building. I’d come home at night, and I would see them, and they were incredible kids.

I knew them well. I knew their families, their light. It was amazing. One of them, Hasan Washington, he reminded me so much of my dad. They both had the same quick wit, the same humor. In fact, both of them had almost the same background. Both were born poor. My dad was a little poorer because he said, “Son, I couldn’t afford to be poor. I was just PO, P-o, I couldn’t afford the other two letters.”

Both of them were born to single mothers. Both of their mamas couldn’t take care of them and were being raised by their grand mamas. In fact, my dad said he’s here today because so many people in that community rushed to his aid, rushed to his assistance, were there for him. And Hasan lived four floors below me where I lived in brick towers. Those kids, I tell you, they got older. They got to high school, and when I would come home, I began to smell things in that lobby I had not smelled since college.

And understanding that that smell of marijuana in that lobby, I knew that there was a problem.

You see, there’s a difference in this country, and it’s a difference that is tragic, that belies what it says on the Supreme Court, this idea of equal justice under law. We live in a nation right now that treats you better if you’re rich and guilty than if you’re poor and innocent, as my friend Brian Stevenson says. And I knew while at college at Stanford, my friends flaunted drug laws and a recklessness without any fear at all of being caught, that for kids in the inner city, flaunting drug laws, doing things that the last two presidents admitted doing, that they would experience a very different type of justice.

That we live in a nation where there’s no difference between rich or poor or black or white for using drugs or dealing drugs.
In fact, young white males deal drugs a little more than young black male, but if you’re black in America, especially if you’re poor, you have about a four times more likely chance of being arrested for drugs than if you’re white.

So when I saw these kids in my lobby, I knew there was a problem and they were in danger because one drug charge, one nonviolent drug charge would mean a world of transformation in the most negative sense. People who come out for nonviolent drug charges in America, they can’t get jobs, they can’t get loans from their bank, they can’t get a pell grant, they can’t get food stamps, public housing, tens of thousands of consequence that’s would crush their young lives.

So I started intervening with them. Hey, guys, fellas, Hasan, let’s get the guys together. I always talk to you when I come home in the lobby, but let’s go out and do something. Let’s go to a movie, any movie you want. I thought they were going to take me to
a home improvement movie when they said, hey, let’s go see this movie called “Saw.” I took the kids after the movies to the diner.

I brought friends of mine who had been involved with drugs or thankfully got out and had horrible stories to tell. I told them I was going to start up mentoring programs so we could really start intervening. I’ll tell you what, I started to follow through, but then I got busy chasing after my big dream to change the world.

You see, it was coming to 2006, and I was running for mayor, and I got so busy I couldn’t follow through on what I said I was going to do. I never connected these kids with their mentors. I never followed through and began the informal programs of pulling them out of a lobby with marijuana onto their dreams, like had been done for my father. But yet these kids, they never gave up on me. I came home into the lobby every night, tired from campaigning, and they would see me, and they would cheer me up. Sometimes they’d applaud when I’d come in. Sometimes they’d tell me, “Hey, man, we got your back. We’re going to get everybody to vote for you.”

One night I came in, and as I walked through the lobby, they pulled out lawn signs with my name on it, and they started chanting what I wanted to hear so badly, the title I longed for, they were chanting, Mayor Booker, Mayor Booker, and I walked through them with my swagger and waving to them like I was in a parade. Those project elevator doors opened up, and I stepped in. I don’t know if the elevator was working or not that day, but they lifted me so much, I was rising. Until I suddenly thought to myself, “Wait a minute.”

Where did they get those lawn signs from? They’re expensive. I won the election. I was mayor. I had death threats right away. So they surrounded me with police officers. The police officers were even stationed in the projects when I wasn’t there. It’s the safest they were for a long time.

But suddenly, those kids that were hanging in my lobby didn’t want to hang out anymore where there were police officers now all the time, but I barely noticed. As mayor-elect, I was racing. I was going to change the world. In the back of my mind, I thought, “You know what? I’m going to make things better for these kids and all the kids in the city.”

I was racing around. I got sworn in. It was a time of rising violence in the city. I would run to street corners and talk to people at the sight of shootings with blood often on the sidewalks. I would tell them, “This is not who we are. We’re going to rise above the violence in Newark.” I would give street-level sermons.

One day, I got called to come to a shooting about a month into my time as mayor. There was a body covered up on the ground. Another one being loaded in an ambulance. I barely even affirmed the humanity that was there. I was too busy rushing to the groups of people, telling them my plans for prisoner re-entry programs, my plans for more police on the streets. And before you knew it, I was off doing the next thing during the day. And by the time I got home at night to try to steal a few hours of sleep because I was so busy and so important, I sat down on my bed and was scrolling through my email, and I saw the police report from the shooting.

And I glanced at it, but then I got stung at what I saw, and I stopped and kept looking and looking and looking at my phone. It said the name of the person that was murdered, it said homicide, teenage victim, and the name was Hasan Washington. From my building. From my lobby, four floors below me, it was Hasan.

I’ll never forget his funeral. I hated going to this room in Perry’s funeral home. It was in the basement, and every time I walked down those stairs, I felt like I was descending into the bowel of a ship, narrow and Rickety. There we all were chained to each other, piled on top of one another, chained together in grief and mourning, moaning and groaning, at a reality that is all too common in America. Another boy in a box.

I did not feel like the mayor. I didn’t feel powerful or important. I felt shame pressing on my chest. I couldn’t comfort others. I couldn’t do my duties. I stood in the back of that funeral home, and all I could do was just try to hold it together as people came over to me. I didn’t comfort them. I leaned on their light. I leaned on their love. But finally, it was too much, and I’m embarrassed and ashamed to admit I didn’t wait around for the service.

I turned to my newly assigned security guard, and I said, “We got to get out of here.” And I ran out of that funeral home, jumped into my newly issued SUV, sped to City Hall, ran up the steps. I didn’t want to ride the elevator and have to look anybody in the eye. I got into the mayor’s office, this new palatial office. I slammed the door. I sat on my couch, and suddenly for the first time as a mayor of New Jersey’s largest city, all I could do, like a child, was sit there and cry and sob. God had put this kid right in front of me every day.

He was my father! And while his community and his town, they didn’t let him down, I failed Hasan. I failed to honor my dad, that commandment, thou shall honor thy mother and father.

It’s not about being nice to your parents or obedient, it’s about honoring the legacy of our ancestors, not with the mountains you climb or the battles you win, but of the people around you right now. I did not honor my parents. And all of us crowded right into that funeral home, we were all there for his death, but where were we for his life?

We are Americans, one to another. Yet we lose thousands of our children because of indifference, because of apathy, because we’re just tolerating each other. We’re not linked by love. We’re not recognizing worth. We’re letting too much injustice go on. But how can I curse the darkness if I myself can’t be light? Graduates of 2016, I hate to tell you this, but you’re going to make mistakes too.

You’re going to fail to live up to your own standards. Your moral compass will go off-kilter. In this world, it’s tough. It’s going to break you at times. I wear scars and wounds of my own making, but I tell you this: If you’re conscious, if you’re truly conscious, your wounds can become wisdom, your scars can become strength. Even when you get beat down, that beatdown can be a blessing. If you remember failure, it’s not final if you don’t give up.

I want to end with the words of one of the Elders from Newark, New Jersey, and what she said to me when I was crumbling inside, when I felt like I was a thousand feet under water with my own shame and frustration and anger. She’s a testimony that love does not always leap canyons of injustice. Sometimes it’s small steps, doing small acts of kindness, decency and love.

Sometimes that’s what’s most needed in this world. Helping a child. Being nice to your neighbor. Waking up to the hidden pain that too many of us carry. This woman who saw me suffering across a courtyard after a child’s death, she looked up and saw me, and I saw Miss Jones, like she could read my heart. All she did was open her arms, and it’s exactly what I needed. That small gesture that sometimes we all just need, and I ran over to her across the courtyard like a child.

I’m 6’3″, and she’s an Elderly 5′ woman, but when she hugged me, I disappeared into her arms, and she just said two words. She said them over and over as she rubbed my back, and I wept like a child in her arms. And these are the two words I want to leave you with. And they’re words that—don’t be mistaken. They’re not about religion. They’re about how you’re living your ideals and your values.

These two words are not about divinity.

They’re about right here on Earth and how you choose to go about life. These words are not about God, but about you.

She rubbed my back over and over again as I cried. She nurtured me with these words. She said them over and over, these two words. She said, “Stay faithful. Stay faithful. Stay faithful.”

Graduates of 2016, stay faithful because you have come this far by faith. Faith in each other, faith in yourselves, faith in our country. Stay faithful because you are the living evidence and substance of things hoped for by your parents and ancestors past.
Stay faithful, not just in the big things, but in the small things, understanding that faith, the size of a mustard seed can move mountains.

And I want you to know that the world, it’s calling you.

Where is the Class of 2016? Hear that. Your nation is calling you.

Where is the Class of 2016? Heed that.

But there are also small voices calling you too right in front of you, right next to you, right around you.

Heed that call.

And understand that you may not be called to change the whole world, but to one person, this day you could make a world of difference. God bless you. Way to go, Class of 2016!

Read more 2016 commencement speeches:

 

 

Anne-Marie Slaughter: ‘Care Is as Important as Career’

Barack Obama: ‘Passion Is Vital, But You’ve Got to Have a Strategy’

Condoleezza Rice to Grads: ‘Don’t Let Anyone Else Define Your Passion’

Darren Walker to Grads: ‘Stand For Something’

Earl Lewis: ‘Never Confuse The Attainement of an Education with What It Means to Be Educated’

Eboo Patel to Wake Forest Grads: ‘The Only Shame Is in Stagnation’

Hoda Kotb: ‘You’re the Sum Total of the Five People You Spend the Most Time With’

J.K. Simmons to Grads: ‘Live in the Moment’

Jane Goodall to Grads: ‘Remember to Live to Your True Human Potential’

Jill Bolte Taylor: ‘We Have the Power to Choose Who We Want to Be’

Lin-Manuel Miranda to Grads: ‘Your Stories Are Essential’

Madeleine Albright: ‘Everyone Must Participate in Solving Shared Problems’

Michael Bloomberg: ‘An Open Mind Is the Most Valuable Asset You Can Possess’

Michelle Obama to Grads: ‘Excellence Is the Most Powerful Answer You Can Give’

Obama to Grads: Building Walls Is ‘A Betrayal of Who We Are’

Russell Wilson: ‘Go Make It Happen’

Sheryl Sandberg: ‘Finding Gratitude and Appreciation Is Key to Resilience’

Vivek Murthy: ‘Live a Connected Life’

William Foege to Grads: ‘Every Day We Edit Our Obituaries’