Monday, May 21, 2012

Cory Booker on the Conspiracy of Love and Finding Your Way

Last Tuesday, I had the wonderful pleasure of watching my younger sister graduate college. The commencement speaker at her graduation ceremony was Newark, NJ's own superstar mayor Cory Booker. His speech was funny and inspiring and his message was positive. It was a call to leadership, one that I hope those of us in the audience (graduates, family and friends, staff, and professors) will answer as we move forward.

photocredit: Teaneck Patch

During his speech, Booker addressed two themes: what he calls "gratitude as gravity" or "the conspiracy of love" and "finding your way."

Booker's idea of gratitude as gravity is simply that we should not imagine that we have succeeded all on our own, but that we have been helped along by those before us, whether we have known them or not.  He calls this "a conspiracy of love, " which he explains as this:
You are here because people dared to love so hard in their lives that they loved generations yet unborn. 
For example, Booker acknowledges those who fought to end racial segregation and those who, despite death threats, went to the voting polls and made sure Black men could vote as those to whom he owes a great debt. In a country where we are taught to compete and be better than others, that we live in a "dog eat dog" world, I think this message is incredibly powerful. It reminds us that, though we are an individualistic society, we are actually part of a communal effort for success.

The second theme was the importance of focusing on who you are and "finding your way," a way to conviction and truth. Booker says:
You are here for a purpose. You did not get here on your own. Standing underneath you, you are on the shoulders-- realize that-- of true heroes, not the kind that you read about in the papers... The people that got you here, you don't even know their names, and your biggest obligation to them is to tell your truth to this world; to have courage to your convictions; to be dedicated to the highest ideal, which is living up to your highest ideals. It is not shrinking, not giving this world a carbon copy... This world needs that kind of leadership..... Find your way to make a change in this world, but remember what King said: 'Change does not roll in on the wheels of inevitability, but must be carried in on the backs of people that are willing to do it.' Find your way because this world is a democracy that we live, and it's not a spectator sport. You have to be in the game. Find your way because you were not build to simply seek comfort and convenience. I would rather have my ship sunk at sea than rot in the harbor.
This points to the difference between leaders and those who simply follow along. Booker encouraged the students to not only do this, but that when they have succeeded, they must inspire others. They must "reach [their hands] back and pull them up." This was probably the most important part of the entire speech, and his ending note. Again, Booker reminds us that success should not be about achieving the most for ourselves, but paying it forward.

For me one of the most powerful ideas was that of the importance of conflict. Tying the gravity of gratitude to finding your way, Booker says:
I think that it is in that moment of contradiction that we get our greatest lessons. I believe that to get wealth, you must give wealth away; to obtain freedom, you have to adopt discipline; to gain tomorrow, you have to sacrifice today; to be secure, you gotta take risks; to get up, you have to lift another; to win you, you have to find every lesson in loss; to fly, you've got to fall often; and to change the world, you've got to change yourself.
I liked that Booker didn't try to fight the conflicts or to change them into disconnected binaries. He shows how conflict is more like two parts of a whole (perhaps evidenced by my need to put them in semicolons). I agree with him completely. I think we learn more not by looking at how things all fit together nicely, but in those moments of conflict or tension, places where things are not so black and white. It is in those gray areas that we begin to question, to challenge, and to learn.

At the end, Booker was given a well-deserved standing ovation by students, professors, and the audience alike. I think it was obvious to the audience that he was not simply giving an exciting speech, which is easy for many politicians to do, but really speaking from his heart, from things he believed truly and with which he lived his life. His speech was a conspiracy of love; he reached out to inspire others he would never know in order to help them help others (though, yes, I'm sure he was paid to do it). For that half hour, everyone in the audience seemed to feel the desire to rise to greatness. In his concluding moments, Booker said that this could be the generation that changes the world for the better. I hope he is right.

You can watch the speech for yourself here: