So said Cory Booker, the 36th mayor of Newark, N.J., in an address to the graduating class of Harvard Law School on June 4.
“Our highest calling is not to emulate, but to look for truth inside ourselves and let it emanate,” said Booker, who has worked to transform his city by reducing crime and increasing economic opportunity. He was chosen by the HLS graduating class to be Class Day speaker as part of this year’s commencement exercises.
Class Marshall Pascale Thomas ’08 introduced the mayor as someone who “represents a new generation of political activists and leaders.” She described how Booker lived in a public housing project as a Newark councilman; organized tenants to fight for improved conditions; went on a 10-day hunger strike in front of one of Newark’s worst housing projects; and lived for five months in a motor home parked on the worst drug corner in the city, inspiring residents and businesses to fight against open-air drug dealing.
“He has earned a reputation as a leader with innovative ideas and bold actions,” Thomas said. “He is a man who lives his politics, who has put his life on the line for his principles and who has shown an enduring commitment to public service.”
In his address, Booker drew upon history for examples of ancestors who did not yield. “The history of this country is of ordinary people willing to do extraordinary things, chasing after a vision that they had that was not real,” he said, describing enslaved people who envisioned freedom and sweatshop laborers who dreamed of worker’s rights. “Will we now stand in the gap between where America is as a nation and where we must go in the future if we are ever able to fulfill the largest visions for ourselves?”
Booker earned a bachelor’s degree in political science and a master’s in sociology from Stanford University. He was a Rhodes scholar and studied at Queen’s College, Oxford, where he earned an honors degree in modern history.
After graduating from Yale Law School in 1997, he served as a staff attorney and Skadden fellow for the Urban Justice Center in New York and as a program coordinator of the Newark Youth Project. At the age of 29, he was elected to Newark’s Municipal Council, upsetting a four-term incumbent to become the youngest ever to hold that job. In 2002, he made his first (and unsuccessful) bid to become mayor, in a contentious race that was later documented in the Academy Award nominated film “Street Fight.” He ran again in 2006 and was elected.