Working with youth should be a top priority for any city, says Newark, New Jersey Mayor Cory Booker, who was in town as the featured speaker at the monthly Westminster Presbyterian Church Town Hall Forum February 25 in downtown Minneapolis.
Before being elected mayor in 2006, Booker served as an attorney for a local urban justice organization and a city councilman. He once lived in a housing project “and learned more than from any undergraduate or graduate program,” admitted Booker, who holds two degrees from Stanford University and is a Rhodes Scholar and Yale Law School graduate.
This, among other factors, was the impetus for his going into politics. “Instead of talking about how bad government was, I decided to do something about it,” he said.
Booker also is committed to transforming Newark, historically marred by crime and economic blight, into an environment that is nurturing and empowering for individuals and families. He has seen a marked reduction in crime over the last four years.
During a February 25 MSR interview, Booker said that there isn’t one single thing that he can pinpoint for turning things around in his city. “Clearly, it was finding ways for people to come together in ways they haven’t before,” he said.
Booker and several city residents last year were featured in Brick City, a four-part documentary that aired on the Sundance Channel. “I think a lot of people felt like their voices, which often get marginized, got into that video, and that was good,” he noted.
However, “Some people were upset with it because it only showed a narrow view of our city around crime. They are now working on the second season. It will be a more panorama view of the city, and stories that show the diversity and the strengths of Newark. But overall, bringing attention to urban issues and showing hope to them is critical, because too many people have resigned themselves to the realities of America.
“I love my job, and the people of the city have given me the biggest privilege of my life,” noted Booker. “Every day has its different set of challenges, but I really do feel that I’m the most blessed in my life.”
Although his Minneapolis town hall meeting speech was titled “Reclaiming and Empowering At-Risk Youth,” the Newark mayor said afterwards, “What we [wanted] to talk about was at-risk communities because it is what we are doing that is causing challenges within our youth. If we come together and really do the things that other people don’t do, we are going to get the results that other folks aren’t getting.”
Booker told an estimated 600 persons inside the downtown Minneapolis church sanctuary that at-risk youth is the U.S.’s “greatest crisis.” Former U.S. Secretary of State and General Colin Powell once told him that the greatest threat to democracy in the next half century is not terrorism, but not properly educating our children. “The question is do we have the collective will. Is this our national priority?” asked Booker.
The mayor continued that urban youth “is critical for any type of transformation” for any U.S. city. “[Are] our children the central focus? Our children are here to teach us, calling us and trying to inspire us. They are trying to lead us as a community to higher ground.”
He told the audience, “We knew that if we did not address the issues that face families that we would not be successful in addressing children. We worked at every single aspect, the whole quality of life from before they are born to literally their 21st year.”
Booker noted that 60-80 percent of kids in Newark that serve time in “youth houses” often wind up in jail as adults within three years after they get out.
“We saw a crazy maze that this child had to go through,” he said. “The local school didn’t want them anymore. They didn’t have an advocate to help them out…not even a bus card to get them around the city.
“We often find it is so easy to belittle or berate young people, or lock them up as opposed to realizing the problems that existing for them are a reflection of the problems with us,” continued Booker. “This wasn’t a problem with the child, but a problem with the community.”
Troubled youth “will make the right decision if they are given the right opportunity,” he said. One-stop resource centers were established as a result throughout Newark to provide “access to resources, services and love that they could [use to] transform their lives,” Booker noted. A grandparent support center also was founded because nearly 11 percent of Newark’s children are being raised by grandparents, and programs were added to work with jailed fathers, he added.
If the community wants change, they must work for it, advised Booker. “We all have a choice; we can either accept things as they are, or take responsibility for changing them… You can’t wait for the president, governor or mayor to bring change; you have to get in there.”
While answering submitted questions from the audience, Booker shared his thoughts about closing the achievement gap between Black and White students. “I have no philosophy of education. I’m just a believer in results,” he responded.
He likes to see parents have more school choices, he surmised.
Whether it is a public school or charter school, “I want more schools of excellence, period,” Booker added. “I think we have to stop paying teachers like hourly workers. We need to start paying them like they are worth it.”
“I think Minneapolis should take note of Newark,” said Mary O’Bannon of North Minneapolis, who attended last week’s speech. She added that Booker’s address “was inspirational” and she wished that more Blacks heard it.
“There is such a need for someone to be proactive in the North Side,” O’Bannon said. “Instead of just sitting back behind a desk, [Booker] is involved in the community.”
Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to challman@spokesman-record er.com.