Cory Booker diagnosed some Americans with a problem that he called “sedentary agitation.”
During his appearance for the Max Rosenn Lecture Series at the Dorothy Dickson Darte Center on Oct. 21, the Newark, N.J. mayor describing this ailment as looking at the issues in the world but sitting back and doing nothing about them.
“You’re so upset about what’s happening in the world, but you’re not getting up and doing something about it,” Booker said.
With his speech theme of “How to Change the World with Your Bare Hands,” he talked about how this issue affects cities like Newark and Wilkes-Barre and what people can do to fix this problem.
He said the real obstacle that America faces is with people who surrender to cynicism and negativity. He said he imagined this to be a problem in Wilkes-Barre.
“The challenges actually are not the problems, the challenge is the spirit,” Booker said.
Calling himself a “prisoner of hope,” he said this pessimism is the “only thing that stops us” from making a difference in the community.
With hope, he said American cities have the potential to band together to overcome their problems.
“It is the American ideal, that every generation – in places humble and challenges great – pull together to do more for each other understanding this noble truth that we’re all in this together.”
With this ideal, he explained that the question changes from “can we?” to “do we have the collective will?”
“The problems we have in society are not a reflection of something else, they’re a reflection of us,” Booker said. “Our capacity to come together and solve them. How dare we think in our generation there’s a problem anywhere that’s bigger than who we are?”
He said he has seen proof of that in what his community has accomplished. He cites this community level as where the power stems from rather than with mayors, governors and other government officials.
He also said the power to make a difference lies with individuals. His lecture was filled with examples of these individuals who he encountered throughout his life. He told stories of individuals that independently cleaned up the streets of their cities, women who brainstormed on how to help children in their community and other citizens who met in town halls, dorm rooms and church basements.
Most of Booker’s speech focused on these people who surround him, even though his presentation was prefaced by an outline of his own achievements. During this introduction of Booker, Wilkes President Patrick Leahy posed the question: how has the mayor of Newark, N.J., become a national figure? His answer was simple.
“Cory Booker is not your typical public servant,” Leahy said.
Leahy listed some of the accomplishments that he said makes Booker unique, such as his 10-day hunger strike that he used to bring attention to issues in his city, his late night patrols to help police watch for neighborhood crime and the famous incident during which he ran into a burning building to save the life of a woman.
These acts of public service that Leahy mentioned were as small as when Booker, on request, shoveled snow from the driveways of city residents.
Booker said a small act of kindness is the biggest thing a person can do. Separating icons who do one, major act of greatness from those who strive for smaller acts on a daily basis, Booker referenced the latter type as people he adores.
“Those people that get up every single day and do consistent acts of decency, of goodness, of kindness all through their entire lifetime, are not only ones that make a heroic difference in the world, but they’re the ones who continue, in my opinion, to radiate that goodness.”
The difference between these groups of people comes down to a daily choice, which Booker outlined.
“One thing we have, we can do every single day, every single hour, every single second: We have one choice we can make,” Booker said. “That’s a manifestation of power or surrender to another. And that choice is to accept things as they are or take responsibility for changing them.”
Booker said that many people don’t realize the potential of this choice and the power they have. This lack of recognition is the most common way they give it up, he said.
He said access to this power is something that others, as well as himself, have to learn to appreciate and use.
“I’ve got to recognize the power that I have, the power that we all have, to make a difference in this world, and indeed it’s not just a power that we have, it’s a power that we need and must use.”
To use this power, Booker suggested the simple act of voting but added there is a deeper component involving the privilege and obligation of being American and working toward American values.
Calling himself a “devotee to social media,” he praised the ability of new technologies like social media to fulfill this power and resolve social problems like discrimination.
“These are powerful tools now that are stopping the force of bigotry and bullying in high schools all across America,” he said.
But he admitted that fighting “sedentary agitation” to make a difference in the world is easier said than done.
“This is a difficult path,” Booker said. “Those who choose to walk it are going to get broken and discouraged.”
Using graphic description of a personal situation, he described a time he felt broken in this journey.
He described a situation when he encountered a young man who was shot on the street. He said he held the man’s body in him arms and saw his “white shirt filling up with red blood” and “foamy blood pouring from his mouth.”
After the young man died, Booker said he felt rage and negativity crowd out his hope. But through these severe challenges, he urged to the crowd: “We must stay faithful.”