Anything is possible
Rita Papazian
Norwalk-Citizen News

He's intelligent, respectful, articulate, caring, funny and a former community activist now in a responsible elected office. No, I am not talking about President Barack Obama. I am talking about Corey Booker, mayor of Newark, N.J. He was considered for the position of Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, but told Obama's "people" decided he was fine where he was. And Newark is happy about that. In fact, citizens concerned about the future of urban areas are happy about that also. Since 2006, concerned citizens and city officials in other urban areas have been watching carefully the inroads Booker is making in turning the city around.
I have listened to Booker on many talk shows, especially the "Rachel Madow Show" broadcast weekdays at 9 p.m. on MSNBC. Recently, I had the opportunity to be in the audience at Fairfield University's Open Visions Forum when Booker took to the stage to do what he does best - talk on his feet.

He had the attention of his audience right from the beginning, partly due to the fact that as he came on stage, he bypassed the podium and went to the center of the stage a few feet from the edge to talk to the audience. I thought this was an interesting style, one that I often mention in my public speaking class that I teach at a community college.

I talk about how the podium can be a crutch. It can become a resting place for hands, sometimes arms, the shuffling of papers and the depository for eyes trying to avoid the audience. On the other hand, talking before an audience without a podium is more personal, immediate, friendly, intimate and engaging. The barriers are down. The speaker gets to stand tall in many ways. On this particular, cold, snowy, icy evening, Booker, indeed, was standing tall. He had the command of his talk and the attention of his audience and they loved him. Two people especially appeared enthralled. They were Booker's parents to whom he referred many times with love, honor and a bit of self-deprecation. In fact, Booker likes to self-deprecate and that is what makes him even more charming.

Booker told his audience, "Behind every successful child is an astonished parent." He credited his parents with teaching him values. "That should be the foundation for everything that is taught," he said.

He pointed to this country's founding, which was also on core values-"a country founded by ordinary people doing extraordinary things in pursuit of the ideals that the nation claims to have."

He said that those words are not true yet, but he is hopeful.

However, the self-deprecating does not distract from the Booker's message and the life he has led since receiving his B.A. and M.A. from Stanford, a B.A. in modern history at Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar and a law degree from Yale University. Upon receiving his first degree his grandfather said, "The tassel is worth the hassle."

His grandfather also said: "Never forget that the degree you are holding is paid for by the blood, sweat and tears of your ancestors, and that you have an obligation to go out in the world and stand up for who you are, stand up for those who have stood for you."

As with Obama, he could have had a lucrative career on Wall Street (at least a few years ago). Instead, he headed for Newark. He first served as staff attorney for the Urban Justice Center in the city. He became a Central Ward Councilman where he earned a reputation as a leader with innovative ideas and bold actions, from increasing security in public housing to building new playgrounds. He is committed to improving the lives of this New Jersey. This suburban native's rise to mayor was not without challenges. As he chronicled in his Fairfield talk, he endured harassment from political rivals, assassination plots from local gangs and life in one of Newark's worst housing projects- the latter was his choice.

His goal is to set a national standard for urban transformation by marshalling its resources to achieve security, economic abundance and an environment that is nurturing and empowering for individuals and families.

Highest on his list of accomplishments is the fact that within two years of serving as mayor, Newark led the nation among large cities for reductions in shootings and murders, achieving decreases of more than 70 percent in murders and more than 40 percent in shootings. This was largely due to a radical transformation of the police department together with the deployment of more than 100 surveillance cameras throughout the city.

Newark is also committed to a $40 million transformation of parks and playgrounds through a groundbreaking public/private partnership. Also, his administration has doubled affordable housing production in the last two years.

In addition, Booker touted Newark's wealth in its cultural centers, especially the Newark Art Museum. He views cultural centers in a city as a strategy for improving the economic climate in urban areas. "Art is the great leveler," he said. "Look at the Depression. Art is such a worthy investment."

When discussing education, Booker noted he is a proponent for increasing the hours in a school day and a supporter of charter schools. He said he is looking at the best alternative models in education across the country with a goal to bring them to Newark.

In an interview with the Yale Law Report posted online Booker quotes a statement about faith: "When you come to the end of all the light you know and you are about to step into the darkness, faith is knowing that one of two things will happen. Either you'll find solid ground underneath you or God will send you people who will teach you how to fly.

"I said, 'I'm going to move to Newark and I'm going to dive into a community and try to be a part of social change within a community.' Once, I made that decision, more and more people seemed to appear to guide me into making things work."

Booker also told the Yale Law Report he is "in the right place at the right time doing the right things. And there's a solace in that. These savage inequalities that still exist in our nation have to be addressed if we are ever to become real, a country that lives up to its creed, to its spirit, to its ideals."

The Newark mayor said he has more hope than he has ever had for Newark.

During a question and answer period at Fairfield, in which Booker explained the term "civil engagement," he touted the importance of mentoring, whether it be coaches, teachers or neighbors and cited his own experience working in communities through programs that help young people one-on-one.

"I'm not trying to create a new Newark, but to reveal the beauty of the Newark that is there-the diversity, the beauty and the advantages."

He pointed out that diversity is one of the strengths of our country. People should not be working to make America homogeneous but to celebrate differences. The approach toward diversity, he said is not "tolerance," but love. He said Obama's election, despite race, is a signpost of progress.

"I rejoice in the fact that people don't get elected anymore because they look like their constituents."

As he continues in his role as mayor, Booker believes it is important to watch others who are governing well, including the mayors of cities in Chattanooga, Atlanta, Indianapolis and New York City, he said.

"It's about sharing and moving forward. Leadership counts and we need to have more great mayors elected."

Booker ended his talk with a quote from James Baldwin's "The Fire Next Time": "I know that what I am asking is impossible. But in our time, as in every time, the impossible is the least that one can demand -one is, after all, emboldened by the spectacle of human history in general, and American Negro history in particular, for it testifies to nothing less than the perpetual achievement of the impossible." .


Copyright 2009 Rita Papazian All rights reserved.