Cory Booker encourages students to use their moral imaginations to work for good

Stanford alumnus and U.S. Senator Cory Booker '91 with ABC’s Nightline anchor and alumna Juju Chang '87 in an OpenXChange conversation at Dinkelspiel Auditorium.  "United: Saturday with Senator Cory Booker" is sponsored by OpenXChange in partnership with the Stanford Alumni Association, the Haas Center for Public Service, Stanford in Government (SIG), and the Associated Students of Stanford University (ASSU).
Sen. Cory Booker with ABC’s Nightline anchor Juju Chang (Photo credit: L.A. Cicero)

At 46, CORY BOOKER has an impressive list of academic and professional accomplishments: He earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Stanford; won a Rhodes Scholarship; graduated from Yale Law School; served as mayor of Newark, New Jersey; and won a seat in the U.S. Senate.

His message to a largely Stanford student audience last Saturday, Feb. 20, was to be faithful, take risks and use the privileges a Stanford education affords to see the humanity in others, especially those with whom you might vehemently disagree.

Booker, a Democrat, was on campus last weekend as part of OpenXChange, a yearlong initiative whose goal is to strengthen and unify Stanford through purposeful engagement around issues of national and global concern. Booker’s new book, United: Thoughts on Finding Common Ground and Advancing the Common Good, was published this month.

His talk was a conversation with JUJU CHANG, another Stanford alum and anchor on ABC’s Nightline.

Booker came to Stanford on a football scholarship and noted that while recruiting visits to other colleges focused on things that “appealed to a 17-year-old pubescent boy,” Stanford focused on its academics and the full experience. He said his five years here challenged him to be a “higher version of myself.”

After attending Oxford on a Rhodes Scholarship and Yale Law School, Booker faced what Chang described as an “existential crisis.” Despite opportunities in the private sector, he wanted to go into the public service. As his anxiety mounted about what to do next, Booker’s mother explained the difference between fear and faith. She asked him: “What would you do if you could not fail? Answer that question, and do that.” That “very reorienting question” inspired Booker to move into a blighted neighborhood in Newark and work with community leaders toward its transformation. He began to understand how “perverse housing policies” are at the root of urban poverty.

“Most people think that these high-density poor neighborhoods, predominately people of color, just came about through some accident of history, but they were the conscious creation” of institutional racism, Booker said.

In 1998, Booker won a seat on the Newark City Council. He described himself as “a jerk” wielding “my righteousness as a sword of condemnation,” severing relationships with his fellow council members. “I was setting records for being outvoted eight to one,” he recalled. One of his colleagues told him he needed to “learn to count to five.”

He ran for mayor of Newark in 2002 and lost in a contentious election that was chronicled in the documentary Street Fight. “If you’re going to have a spectacular failure in your life, have a documentary film crew there to capture it,” he joked. Booker ran for mayor again in 2006 and 2010 and won both of those races. He was elected to the U. S. Senate in 2013.

Finding the humanity in those with whom he staunchly disagrees is a theme that runs through his new book and through his life. He has learned how to reach across the aisle on issues such as mass incarceration and has found allies and real friendships.

“We’re not even listening to each other any more. We’re not even seeing each other’s humanity. We’re judging each other based on very shallow things,” Booker said. Going into the Senate with a very different attitude from the one he had as a new city council member has enabled him to work on solutions to some of the most contentious issues of the day, he said.

Rather than getting “caught up in a state of sedentary agitation,” he encouraged the audience to use their creative energies to foster change.

“We have tools that my parents’ generation – the civil rights generation – did not have to organize, to activate, to inspire, to engage. If we have all these tools, the only thing missing is our creativity in how we can expand the moral imagination of others.”

Watch the video of the conversation with Chang, in which Booker discussed charter schools, football safety, the Black Lives Matter movement and his name being on HILLARY CLINTON’s short list for vice president.