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February 17, 2012

Uncommon Interview: Cory Booker

Cory Booker, the mayor of Newark, New Jersey, delivered the annual George E. Kent Lecture last night, which was titled “Empowering Urban America,” and was sponsored by the Organization of Black Students. Booker, named one of TIME Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People in 2011, has drastically reduced crime in Newark while committing $40 million dollars to playgrounds and parks, and increasing affordable housing production and security. A former attorney and Newark councilman, Booker has been Mayor of Newark since July 2006, and was featured in the 2002 documentary Street Fight, and 2009 Sundance TV series Brick City.

The MAROON sat down with Booker before the lecture to discuss universities, student activism, and the significance of local government.

Chicago Maroon: What does it mean to you to give a lecture in honor of Professor George Kent, one of the first black professors to receive tenure at the U of C)?

Cory Booker: I just feel really blessed to be included, frankly. It’s just very humbling when you’re taking part in a tradition that’s much larger than you are.

CM: Considering that your lecture is sponsored by the Organization of Black Students here, how involved were you in student groups when you were in college?

CB: I was just like many of us who are over-committed college students. I didn’t really sleep until 1993. So yeah, I was involved. I was a football player, which is a student group of sorts. I ran a crisis hotline, I was president of my class, I was involved in a group of students who were involved in East Palo Alto who were doing tutoring and mentoring there. So you name it, I was sort of over-committed in college.

CM: What do you think a successful partnership looks like between a major city and a large university?

CB: I think Chicago is a good model from everything I know about it. I went to Yale and I was in New Haven, and that was a good model as well…Really the partnerships to me are about students being involved, and service, and volunteerism, leadership, the university being involved, and everything from economic development to research to job creation. It means that faculty and staff are living within the community, living within the city. I think it’s about having a vision that’s not just an ivory tower, but really the essence of academic empowerment is about making an impact on other peoples’ lives.

CM: Do you think there are differences in the ways community colleges and bigger universities work with local government?

CB: No, not necessarily. Look, I think that there are global universities around our country that have big impacts, the University of Chicago obviously being one of them. The size and the scale are very different than a community college. So I think the social responsibility for a university like this is not just to educate its community, but really it’s to empower and be a real part of a city.

CM: And how do high schools relate?

CB: I’m in awe of a lot of high schools around the country now that are finding more and more ways to make a difference. The activism of teenagers, of high school teenagers specifically, is really incredible. I think that one’s purpose, at least the way I see life, is about really two things: making the best out of yourself as you possibly can, and always finding ways to give back and make a difference.

CM: In your August op-ed in the Huffington Post called “A Dream Anew,” you wrote about the challenges in education and political discourse in continuing the work of the civil rights generation. How do you think that struggle has shaped you intellectually and politically?

CB: I grew up [the child] of civil rights activists. For me the discourse around my dinner table, for example, really shaped my view of the world. And I feel very, very indebted to a generation that, without their activism, I wouldn’t be where I am today. And so coming out of sort of this ex-generation…the first generation really to be born and raised after the modern civil rights movement, really shaped my world view. I’m concerned always that I think the greatest threat to our nation always will be not sort of virulent opposition, or negative actors on the national stage; I think the biggest threats to our communities will always be apathy and lack of interest, lack of discourse, lack of engagement…My hope is just that education really inspires and empowers people to be active participants in the unfolding of this democracy, which is still a democracy that hasn’t lived up to its highest aspirations yet.

CM: David Axelrod recently announced the opening of the University of Chicago Institute for Politics on campus in 2013 to promote civic engagement, among other things. How do you think students should get involved in government?

CB: First of all, you look around the globe now, and into history, you really do see college students really being at the core of many movements, uprisings in Soweto, Tiananmen Square, the Solidarity Movement in Poland, the protests in Birmingham in the early 1960s, even currently from Tahrir Square to the Occupy Movement. I just think that young people, and even just political campaigns…the Obama campaign, the lifeblood of that campaign was college students, was young people. To me I think that it’s critical that there are always provocateurs in political activism. I talked to Axelrod a few months back, and he was telling me about this idea, and I think it’s fantastic.

CM: What do you think modern student engagement is like with local government?

CB: I’m hoping it’s more. I’ll confess that when I was a college student, I don’t think I could have told you who the Mayor of Palo Alto was; I had no clue. And I don’t think I was as focused on local elections as I should have been. Now that I know, now that I am a local actor, and hope that the Rutgers students know who I am, that so many of the decisions that affect our lives every day are being made by local actors from education to public safety to health care, are being dominated by who your state legislator is, who your mayor is, what your city council is deciding. And so I just think that it’s critical, and it’s beyond even, you know, whether you have speeding cameras, [which] is one of the big debates out here recently. It’s beyond things like that. It’s really what’s shaping the buildings that are being built in your community, the priorities of, in terms of recreation, education, things like that for kids. I think the scope of issues that we talk about on the national level are really being played out here in local government. We need to start being much more focused on those races.

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