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Senator Cory Booker to UPenn Class of 2017: ‘I See You, I Love You’

22 minute read

New Jersey Senator Cory Booker delivered the commencement remarks at the University of Pennsylvania on Monday. See his remarks below, as provided by his office.

Thank you very much. It is incredible to be here and I want to thank you all for inviting me to be a part of this day of history in your lives, I want to thank you for allowing me to be a small part of this extraordinary community. I want to congratulate the graduates, and I want to thank everyone who helped to make this possible and when I say everyone, it took so many people to make this day possible. I want to thank the parents and the grandparents, and the family members. I want to thank everyone from the incredible president and astounding provost, all the way up to those people who cleaned floors and manicured lawns and served food to contribute to this community.

And so I confessed to you, when I was graduating from college, I felt like I knew a lot and now that I’m about twice your age, I’m not as confident in what I know. In fact, I am a person who believes I am in struggle, as we all are. The beautiful thing that I’ve realized is that we’re all in this struggle together. We perceive that there are differences between us, gaps and gulfs, but we are far more united, far more indivisible, far more involved in a larger common struggle than we know. And so what I’d like to do very briefly today, is confess to you two things I struggle with and it’s really two stories, one from someone from history who I’ve come to admire and the other one is perhaps one of my greatest mentors ever. The person from history, it’s a short story, I don’t even know if it’s apocryphal or not, but it’s made a point that I struggle with and it’s a story about Mahatma Gandhi. Gandhi was said to be rushing on busy days, running from point to point but now he was said to be running for a train to leap into the third class section that he’s travelled in, people were there to grab him and help him to get on to the train but one of his sandals fell off and everybody watched with disappointment that Mahatma Gandhi had lost his sandal, but before people could settle into their thoughts of disappointment or consolation, or problem solving about how they were going to deal with this one sandaled man, Gandhi reached down, really quickly, grabbed his other sandal and threw it onto the tracks. People were curious, “Mahatma, why would you throw your other sandal out there?” and he looked like it was a confusing and bemusing question. He said, “I threw the other sandal because whoever finds that first sandal, wouldn’t it be nice if they found the other one as well?” I heard that story when I was about your age and I was astounded by the moral imagination of Gandhi in that story. To literally see people who are not there but yet still expand his love, to touch those folks we would never even see, it was the most creative compassion and I wanted to try to live my life in that way. I knew, and I experience now, the same rush of chasing after dreams, of racing around a day, of moving from there to there, but I realized a simple lesson the older I get, that how we live our days, is how we live our lives. And as we’re chasing after our destinations, our goals and our dreams, it actually is those small things we do every single day that define us. In fact, in truth, more than a big speech than you’ve prepared for, more than a big goal or a big dream, more than the big fight, more than our race, more than our religion, it is our actions every day that define who we are, they define us. I’ve begun to learn in my life that perhaps the biggest thing you could in a given day is really just a small act of kindness, of decency, of love, an exhibition of moral imagination, or creative compassion.

I wonder about this when we miss our opportunities every single day with just the people around us while we talk big about changing the world or about what’s wrong with other people, but we forget that we have so much power to make a difference. Now look, I say I struggle with this because I don’t always get it right. Let me give you an example. I had been elected as a United States’ Senator, I still live in the central ward of Newark. We’re not the wealthiest community there in my neighborhood, the median income is about $14,000 per household but my community is rich with spirit, rich with energy, rich with compassion.

But one day as I was driving home, I felt a little bit like Odysseus, because as I passed this fast food restaurant, I began to hear the Siren call. Now look, I’m a vegan, and listen to these people because how do you know if someone is a vegan? Don’t worry they’ll tell you. And so I’m a vegan and I knew that in my neighborhood, folk know me but I couldn’t resist the call to this fast food restaurant. It was a call in a language that I don’t even speak any of them, it was French and it was French fries that were calling to me and I don’t speak any French but I could swear I heard that song, “Voulez-vous coucher avec French fry” now. And as I told my driver, an incredible officer named Kevin Batts, retired from the Newark Police Department, joined my staff because of our friendship and our bond, I said to him “Kev, we’re almost home but do you mind? We have to swing through the drive-thru.” Now, Kevin, he didn’t say a word but he smirked, he was mocking me and my weakness and we drove around to the drive-thru, I sunk down in the seat, I didn’t want anyone to see me, the person said to me, “May I take your order?” and I used a falsetto voice, I ordered two of the most super-sized French fries I could, we pulled around to pick up the fries, I was still leaning down low, and then they handed these fries into my window and I’m telling you, I’m a Senator now so maybe I could change this, because these French fries could be a schedule 1 or schedule 2 narcotic, I mean they must sprinkle a narcotic on these fries because as soon as they got in I felt this joy and this anticipation, I cuddled my fries like I was from Lord of the Rings, my precious, and we began to move but then I see a guy at the end of the drive way there, a young white man in a garbage, rooting around and I slowed down and I told Kevin to roll down the window and he rolled down the window and I said, “Hey man, anything I can do to help you? Are you OK?” And he turns around and he looks at me and he says, “No I’m OK I don’t need anything” and I go, “Are you sure?” and he goes, “well I’m hungry.” Now I don’t know what religion you all pray to, if you do at all, but I swear Jesus said something like, “If I have two McDonald French fries and my neighbor has none…” And so I reached in my bag as the aroma hit me, I shook as a grabbed that large fries and I reached to him and I swear he put his hand on it to take it from me and I resisted for just a moment. And then he pulled the fries to him, he was happy and I felt some sense of, ok I did the right thing. And then he was about to leave and he turned around and now his face went from appreciation to anguish, almost as if he was in pain and he says to me, “hey man do you have any socks? I need some socks.” And it was a strange question but I knew it must speak to something he was dealing with, some pain, some hurt and I look at him, I wish that I could help him but I don’t carry any spare socks in my car and I said, “I’m sorry I can’t help you,” and he began to leave but then this retired police detective, born in Newark, raised in the projects, threw the car in park, reached down between his legs, kicked off his shoes, pulled off his socks and handed them through the window. I sat back and I realized – wait a minute – I’m a few blocks away from my house, I have so many socks I don’t even wear that my mother gave me on some birthday or special occasion but yet I was not living with that moral imagination, that creative compassion. I’ve come to learn in my life that we have such power that we do not use as we go about our big challenges, our big goals, our desire to make big differences, we forget the power we have right now, we have a choice in every moment if we just look around us, and the choice that we often surrender and fail to make is to accept things as they are or to take responsibility for changing them. And no you may not be able to end homelessness, maybe you’re not going to be able to end hungry but we can never allow our inability to do everything to undermine our determination to do something. We – as great as every one of us are, as much as I spent my life trying to change the world, we cannot forget that our real power is not necessarily to change the world, but to make a world of change to the people we encounter every day, a smile, creative and a kind word, finding a way to throw a sandal onto the track—that is the power we have today and every day. It was Desmond Tutu who said, “Do a little bit of good where you are. It’s those little bits of good, put together, that overwhelm the world.” We’re not here because of the people we read about, history books, yes, that’s part of the story, but we’re here because of little bits of good, of sacrifice, of decency, of mercy and of love. Let me tell you about two Ralphs. And when I was in college, to ralph meant something completely different so let me be more specific. It was Emerson who said very simply, to paraphrase him, “…that only what we within, can we see without, if we see no angels, it’s because we harbor none.” Now I worry because I still see now the words of Ralph Ellison be so true, he said, “I am an invisible man, because people refuse to see me.” I believe that there are so many people we encounter every day that we just don’t see. But what is even worse than that, and I am compelled by that, it is what drives me every day to try to make this nation one more of justice and mercy and decency, but I’m telling you now that I’m in a professional world, I’ve come to worry about a different type of invisibility that actually can’t be best described as invisibility, but maybe it is how we, every single day, reduce people, strip them from their layers of their humanity down to a label or a presumption.

I love the flowing words of Martin Luther King when he talked about repentance, he says we will have to repent in this day and age, not just for the victory of the violent words and actions of the bad people, but also the appalling silence and inaction of the good people. Well, I’ll tell you, I am compelled to try to motivate and inspire through my action good people to get off the sidelines to realize that this democracy is not a spectator sport, but I also worry about those folks who we assign labels like vitriolic words and we assign conclusions about their souls that they are bad people. We do this in ways we don’t even realize, I remember as a young guy, living in the projects in Newark, I was in New York trying to chase down money for a non-profit, and I was scuttling through, on an awful day, sleet and snow and every street seemed to have curbs of slush and as I walked to this one curbs, I saw what amounted to one of the great lakes of slush and I worried about my shoes, how was I going to get around it, and then I saw an elderly African-American woman, amongst all the hustle and bustle of this fancy New York street, she was carrying a cart, one of those metal carts with wheels, trying to make it across a busy street, with the light about to change, heading towards the ocean of slush, my mama raised me right, I began to dart over to her, but before I could, some guy cut me off. I was angry about it. He was dressed like a Wall Street guy in a coat that was probably worth more than my car. He had fancy shoes on and I looked at this white man, cutting in front of me, just holding back for a second, it’s like he didn’t see me, but suddenly, he does what I don’t expect—he goes through the great lake of slush in his fancy shoes, grabs the woman’s cart, lifts it up, pulls it to the sidewalk, goes back through the slush to grab the woman and take her all the way around, putting his hand up to traffic to get the woman on the curb. Before my implicit biases about this man because of the color of his skin or because of what he was wearing, could fully settle in, he shocked me to the consciousness. I didn’t render him invisible, but I stripped away his humanity because I did not see him. The question we have to ask ourselves about the importance of being good and decent and loving, morally creative, is that do we extend those feelings and those emotions just to people we like, or just to people we deem worthy or just to people who agree with us or just to people who think like us. I don’t understand, and it hurts me that we’re becoming a society, that just because someone has different views, we tend to strip them from their humanity.

I want to talk about us and our daily lives, but let me use the public stage for one moment. One of my lowest points during the Presidential elections, was when I was sitting at home watching the Republican debate. And it was one of those strange moments where I knew a lot of folks, I mean heck, half the America was running for the nomination for the Republican Party at that point, and there was my Governor. Now, I could write a dissertation on my disagreements—we literally fought over policy issues, yet he and I had forged a friendship, we knew that he was the Governor of the state, I was the Mayor of the largest city, we had to put aside the 60, 70, 80% of things we disagreed on because I represented a struggling city in a recession and when the country has a recession, inner cities face depressions. I had to seek the common ground with him to try to find a way to make some difference for my community and as I sat there during a Presidential election, I could not believe my eyes when these other nominees were castigating Chris Christie for hugging Barack Obama. Now let me tell you about this hug. It was after hurricane Sandy. The President flew into the state of New Jersey. So many people died, thousands of people lost their homes. And here is the President of the United States, coming down the steps to meet the Governor and the two of them at the bottom of the steps, they hugged. And I want to tell you something, I’m a hugger, and it wasn’t really a good hug either—it was one of those awkward guy hugs. But what have we become in a society where we are vilifying people so much so that to hug someone of a different party, that thinks different, is a sin! Where have we come as a nation?

But that’s the national stage, I want to take it you. I was just a few weeks ago at a Humane Society banquet dinner. And it’s the humane society, treatment of animals, did I tell you I’m a vegan? And here we are talking about compassion and kindness and treatment of animals and someone comes up to me and says, “Senator Booker, I so appreciate what you’re doing, thank you for being in the fight. Hey, let me show you what I tweeted just now,” and they showed me a tweet to Paul Ryan and it was probably one of the most troll-y, vile, angry tweets I’d ever seen! And the incongruency of the moment really struck me. So this is the challenge – can we be a nation that can disagree but still find common ground? But that’s the country, can you be a person whose love is so great that you love those people you disagree with, you love those people who curse you, you love those people who you see even as an obstacle to justice. Now, I’m not asking folks to do what my heroes did like Mandela did in prison who found a way to love his captors and eventually forgive them or Gandhi with the oppressive, imperialistic regime, but still found a way to love his enemy, or Martin Luther King who literally got on his knees and prayed for white supremacists, no. I’m just asking you, hey, can you sit down with somebody that’s wearing a red “Make American Great Again” hat and have a conversation. And, by the way, one of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever been given, was simply this, “Talk to the person, but you don’t have to attend every argument you’ve invited to.” You could look for other common ground.

But that brings me to the last person and who I want to end on. Because this was my mentor who lived these lessons that I am struggling to embody. This man’s name was Frank Hutchins and he was a legend. By the time I was a law student, coming to Newark, the stories of him as a tenant activist and a tenant organizer were legendary. He literally was responsible for the longest rent strike in Newark’s history against the worst of slum lords, the Federal Government and Newark Housing Authority. And he won. By the time I met him, we were organizing these neighborhoods that had high-rise buildings that had some of the most difficult slum lords imaginable, people that were caricatures of slum lords. But I’ll never forget this guy, when we would sit in negotiations and I would be angry and be fit to fight and yet he still found a way to look at them with grace and even mercy. He seemed to understand that you don’t have to be mean to be tough, you don’t have to be cruel to be strong, that you don’t have to curse the person who curses you. I saw Frank now in tenant meetings where we would sit up and have to take people’s complaints, to try to write it down, to fight these battles and it was amazing to me how Frank would sit in the tenant meeting that would go on for hours and hours, I would get restless as another person would get up and tell their whole life story but he never seemed to falter at looking at those people, teaching me that perhaps the most valuable thing you can give someone in your life, is your attention. As he sat there, I talked to him after the meeting and I said, “God that was too long, people went on…” and he goes, “Cory, it’s important that we heal those buildings from the crisis that they’re in but people too need healing, we’re all fighting hard battles, pay attention to people, see them.”

Well I would become a councilman and a Mayor and Frank and I would still work together. And yet, he got older and older and then he started getting sick. His disease took his eyesight from him and I would still take him out to restaurants and I would still take him shopping and he would demand that I still take him to the movies and I was like, “Frank you can’t see man!” And he would say, “No, no take me there I want to listen, I want to listen.” By the time Frank’s health became failing, they put him in hospice but I would still go visit and I confess to you, I was frustrated at times that the hospice room wasn’t full of people. Here’s a guy that thousands and thousands of people relied on, I was frustrated that he was alone. And I’ll still always remember the last day I saw him alive. This is my hero. And I walked into the hospital room after the nurse told me that he wouldn’t last long and I could see his breath was faltering. Now, when Frank’s eyesight started going we started a little joke, I would see him before I would take him out to dinner and I’d say, “Hey Frank, it’s Cory” and he’d push me off and he’d say, “I see you Cory, I see you.” Well it became our thing, hey Frank it’s Cory, and I see you. But now in this hospital room, his voice is not there, his breath is rapid and I said, “Frank, its Cory.” I saw him with such effort, he labored and he said to me, “I see you”. I walked to the side of his bed and I held his hand and I talked to him and as I sat there I felt this peace and I still saw his light and I realized that he was trying to teach me that, Cory I am here and I’ve lived a good life. I felt like he was trying to teach me that ultimately, life is not about celebrity, it’s about significance; life is not about popularity, it’s about purpose; life is not how many people show up when you’re dead but about how many people you show up for while you are alive. I sat with him for as long as I could, I felt such love for this man and I knew this would be our last time. He said no words except for that when I entered, “I see you”. Then I had to go, I told him I was leaving, I stood up and I leaned over and I kissed him on the forehead, I put my hand on the side of his face and I said with all of my heart, I said, “Frank, I love you.” And then as I was beginning to pull away, he wanted to say something again, I lean close to his bed and he repeated my words, he looked at me and with short breaths, he forced out, “I love you.” I walked out of his room, I closed the door, I started crying, I knew it would soon be over and it was, he would die there soon after.

So class of 2017, I got to leave you with those six words that Frank said, “I see you. I love you”. I see you. I love you. I see you! I love you! Class of 2017, you’re going to go out for the big challenges, the big fights, I see you, I love you. You’re going to have tough days, you’re going to fall, you’re going to fail but I see you and I love you. May your vision and your love not just change the world but make a world of change for everyone that you can. God bless you.

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