“This University and this moment fills me with a sense of gratitude. Today is not just a day of celebration but a day of appreciation,” Mayor of Newark, N.J., Cory Booker ’91 M.A. ’92 said during his keynote address to the class of 2012 at Stanford’s 121st Commencement.
Booker’s personal speech focused on his father and grandfather. He also shared extensively from his experiences in Newark.
“They taught me what it means to be a man,” Booker said about the two men, commenting on the overlap of Commencement and Father’s Day. Booker shared a joke his grandfather told him on Booker’s Stanford graduation day.
“The tassel is worth the hassle,” he remembered, to the crowd’s laughter.
Booker framed his speech around an idea he called “the conspiracy of love,” tying it to his family, personal experiences, American unity and the 2012 graduates.
He spoke about his father growing up poor and receiving financial help from his community to pay for his first semester at North Carolina Central University, and his parents’ struggles to be hired and buy a home as African Americans in the 1960s.
He explained how his father would keep Booker’s high school success from going to his head.
“Don’t you dare walk around this house like you hit a triple, when you were born on third base,” Booker recalled.
While at Stanford, Booker received All Pac-10 honors while playing tight end for the varsity football team, volunteered with kids in East Palo Alto, was elected to the ASSU Council of Presidents and earned the James W. Lyons Award for Service.
Booker graduated from Stanford in 1991 with a bachelor’s degree in political science. He returned the next year to earn a master’s degree in sociology before studying history at Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar and attending Yale Law School.
Booker made light of his education, by quoting his grandfather on his own graduation.
“Boy you’ve got more degrees than the month of July,” he quoted. “And you ain’t hot! Get a job.”
Booker has served as mayor of Newark since 2006. He was named one of Time Magazine’s 100 most influential people in the world in 2011. He moved on to discuss working with a tenant leader in Newark to reform their community.
“‘The world you see outside of you is a reflection of what’s inside of you,’” Booker recalled her saying, as a reminder to students to recognize potential for change.
He observed people strategizing how to take care of children in their community and help families who missed rent payments. Booker spoke about the courage, spirit and love of these citizens, again referring to the “conspiracy of love.”
“They embraced discomfort,” Booker said. “They did not seek comfort and convenience. They went to where the challenges were.”
Booker shared an anecdote of a community member who didn’t like the appearance of an overgrown lot full of weeds so he went out and spent paychecks on a lawn mower and made the lot look “like the White House lawn.”
“Democracy is not a spectator sport,” he said. “It is a difficult, hard, full-contact, participatory endeavor. This is critical. People who get comfortable in their spirit miss what they were created for. They were created to magnify the glory of the world.”
Booker then discussed darker parts of his time in Newark, specifically a time when he held a child who had been shot and tried to help him. The child died in Booker’s arms. He spoke about how the event broke him as he went home and tried to scrub the blood off his hands.
“Of all the lessons of conspirators, this is the hardest for me personally,” Booker explained. “To stay faithful in a world that can be so cruel. I have seen things in my life that have broken me in spirit.”
He then shared a more light-hearted example of making the best of uncomfortable seating arrangements on a flight.
“In life you get one choice over and over again,” Booker said. “That is to take conditions as they are or take responsibility for changing them.”
Booker closed by revealing why the two people he framed his speech around—his father and grandfather—weren’t able to be at Commencement. His father is struggling with Parkinson’s disease and his grandfather passed away ten years ago after fighting with cancer. Again, he used these personal anecdotes to direct the class of 2012 to better the world.
“I say to you to join the conspiracy,” Booker urged. “To be a class of people that rejects cynicism…Be lovers. Join the conspiracy and love with all of your heart.”
According to President John Hennessy’s remarks at commencement, 1,763 bachelor’s degrees, 2,302 master’s degrees and 1,026 doctoral degrees will be conferred today.