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Newark Mayor Cory Booker issues ‘greatness’ challenge

Cory Booker-1-600Who is Cory Booker?

A graduate of Stanford University, Yale Law School and a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University, Booker – the mayor of Newark, N.J. – is obviously a brilliant guy.

He is also committed and passionate on the issues and to the betterment of people, living on the equivalent of a food stamp budget to raise awareness for the insecurities that low income families face, shoveling snow from the driveways of constituents, and allowing Hurricane Sandy victims into his home following the devasting impact of the floods in New Jersey.

On this past Friday (May 3), Booker sat down with TSD President and Publisher, Bernal E. Smith II, to talk about his most recent visit to Memphis at Omni Prep Academy Charter School, co-founded by his older brother. Cary Booker.  He spent the better portion of two days with the students of Omni Prep, doing what he seems to do best: sharing, caring and mentoring.

Bernal E. Smith II: Your brother, Cary Booker, runs Omni Prep Academy, a burgeoning charter school here in Memphis. Other than visiting your brother, what was the purpose of your visit to Memphis?

Cory Booker-2-600Mayor Cory Booker: I love my older brother and am inspired that he is living a life of purpose and is focusing on what I believe is one of the most important causes of our country, to make sure that every child has an abundant pathway to nurture their genius and make their contribution, achieve their dreams. So my brother asked me to come down to the school to be a part of the community for a day and get a chance to talk and engage with the kids. I had a great day, spent some time with them at the school on Friday, and a movie on Saturday. I also got a chance to speak with supporters of the school and thank them for contributing to the vision and work of Omni Prep Academy.

BES: Public education has undergone and is undergoing significant and rapid changes. What is your view on education reform, charters, vouchers, teacher compensation based on student achievement, etc? How important is education in your political platform?

Mayor Booker: Education is important to my life's purpose. This country has to move from somewhat of an educational apartheid where kids born in certain zip codes are denied the same access and opportunity as kids living in other zip codes. We've got to make sure we end that. Every child should be able to enter a school of excellence. That is the public's obligation, to support excellence in education. That comes in lots of varieties. It can be a public charter school, a public district school or magnet school.

I support giving kids a strong platform for public education. I think the public should never shirk its opportunities to adequately fund those public institutions. I've always been open to education reform, to innovation to working to develop the best kinds of schools to serve our kids. And that doesn't mean a one size fits all cookie cutter sort of education but one that allows for the customization of education to serve the best interest of each individual child where they are. I celebrate in Newark lots of different paths to excellence for our kids and appreciate what that means in improving educational attainment overall in our community.

BES: You have apparently had a great deal of success during your tenure as Mayor of Brick City, known as one of America's toughest urban communities. Can you talk about some of the success you've had, how you were able to achieve it and what advice do you offer to mayor's of other urban communities?

Mayor Booker: We've been able to make some tremendous changes and improvements in Newark. We've helped usher in the biggest period of economic development in our city since the 1950's and 60's. We've been able to double the construction of affordable housing and create our City's largest public parks expansion in the last 100 years. We created New Jersey's first Office of Re-entry where thousands of people have been supported with their return into public life from the prison system. Through that program, we have significantly lowered the recidivism rate for those individuals.

We're doing lots of exploration in improving our public schools as well as making improvements in our court system. So I am extremely proud of the changes that we're making, and as a result, our population is growing for the first time in 60 years. Businesses are coming back. We're building our first new hotel in 40 years and our first new office tower in decades.

A lot of the ideas that we have applied in Newark were drawn from innovations of other leaders in other cities. For example, the accountability systems that we've put in place in our City Hall we gleaned from Baltimore. Our Fatherhood Center that we established we emulated from Philadelphia. A lot of the innovations that are happening in American government are happening at the local level and being implemented by innovative mayors and leaders. I am in favor of learning and sharing with other leaders so that communities and families across the country have a better opportunity at an enhanced quality of life.

BES: You have become widely known as "the people's" Mayor, putting people up in your home during the flood, shoveling snow from people's driveways, living on food stamps and more. Where does that sincere desire to serve and connect with your constituents come from? What are the foundational principles that drive your approach to governing and your approach to life in general?

Mayor Booker: This is the reality of who we are (Americans). We come from people who looked out for each other. We come from a community of people in America who pitched in, who served each other. There is this idea in America if you want to go fast, go alone; but if you want to go far, go together. Combine your spirit, your energy, your love with positively-directed people. That's the leadership style I witnessed as a young man growing up. That's the leadership style I read about and was so evidenced in some of the greatest chapters in American history – from the Civil Rights Movement to the Workers Rights Movement.

When people band together great things can happen! I feel like I am a modest reflection of "from whence I've come" as a person. I'm excited that I see that spirit thoroughly evidenced in Newark and that so many people are banding together on their blocks, in their neighborhoods and in their schools to help our city move forward.

BES: You have become a "rock star" if you will, certainly a very popular political figure in a time when many political figures are looked at with disdain. What does the political future hold for Cory Booker?

Mayor Booker: I've made no formal decision, but I am exploring running for the U.S. Senate (New Jersey). I will continue the exploratory process and make a decision by the end of this year. In the meantime, I am laser-focused on the 418 days I have left as Mayor of Newark, and I'm not going to count the days. I'm going to make each day count.

BES: When we talked last week we joked about Cary carrying the mantle of growing the Booker family, while you've been focused on your career. Any plans for marriage, children in the near future?

Mayor Booker: I'm a prisoner of hope, not just for the community but also for adding to the Booker family and lineage. I'm a romantic in the fullest sense of the word. I have a romantic view of my country, of my community and our history and I just think that we should have full lives. I believe that God wants us to have life and have it more abundantly. For me that does involve finding my better half and then having children. That is something that I am waiting on, but I have faith that it will happen.

BES: Lastly, you are an inspiration to many just by how you live your life and serve others, but what words of advice or encouragement would you offer to young people here in Memphis and across the country relative to their future prospects and improving their lives today?

Mayor Booker: We all were born for greatness, all of us! We underestimate ourselves in life. We are not kind to ourselves. We don't love ourselves and believe in ourselves as much as we should. All of us need to be committed to living our authentic truth and be willing to give things up, sacrifice in life to better achieve who we are called to be. As one great author said, "If you want to fly, you have to give up the things that are keeping your grounded."

They must resist those leveling forces that try to make us all the same. They must challenge themselves against the forces that make us attempt to simply fit in to society's definition of who we should be. We weren't built to fit in but to stand out. Have the courage to be different, to be great.

In greatness I'm not talking about in the sense of celebrity, particularly in this hyper-celebrity culture in which we now live. No, they must learn that significance is more important that celebrity, purpose is more important than popularity. I challenge this next generation to define greatness on the inside and live their lives in firm allegiance to that unique sense of purpose and greatness.


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