Booker Challenges Princeton Students to Be Agents for Change

bookerstudentWhen Cory Booker’s father enrolled in college in the early 1960s, neighbors and friends stuffed money in envelopes and gave it to him so he could pay for his tuition.

“People didn’t want to see my father fail,” Booker said. “There were so many people who came together to help him – the result of a conspiracy of love.”

Booker told the story to students at the John Witherspoon Middle School Tuesday afternoon during his keynote keynote speech at a school-wide celebration of community, student service, and kindness. Middle School students have been celebrating “a month of kindness” by making daily pledges to foster a caring environment at school.

Booker, the 43-year-old mayor of Newark, chronicled his parents’ struggles and the acts of kindness show to them by others, black and white, from fellow college students who showed solidarity by protesting  during the Civil Rights movement, to friends who helped his parents get jobs in corporate America at a time when it was difficult for black to do so, to the people who helped them fight bias when they tried to purchase a home in the suburbs of New Jersey in the early 1970s and were repeatedly rejected because of the color of their skin.

“They were all part of the conspiracy of love that helped the this country live up to its promise,” Booker said.

He said his parents always reminded him that he was standing on the shoulders of hundreds of thousands of people from the past who fought for his rights. “We drink deeply from the wells of freedom and opportunity that we did not dig,” Booker quoted his father as saying.

He told students they constantly will face choices in life that offer opportunities to be agents for change.

“You can accept things as they are, or take the responsibility for change,” he said. “You are the future, the next generation. You have the power to change things and you have technological tools to organize that my parents didn’t have during the Civil Rights movement.”

Booker then told students he had a crisis of self-confidence in college. He felt intimidated in the classroom and on the football field at Stanford University, where the other players were much bigger and stronger  than he was. He picked a fight with a 6’8″ football player who then learned about his insecurities and challenged him to commit to a purpose.

Booker said he started started working harder in the classroom and the gym, and constantly reviewed his goals after that encounter.

He challenged students to commit themselves to their studies and to service, telling them no one was meant to be average. People make choices that define who they become and whether they achieve the greatness within them, he said.

“Decisions are made in the small moments of life,” he said, encouraging students not to overlook opportunities for small acts of kindness, small everyday opportunities like stuffing an envelope in someone’s pocket when they are in need.

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