‘Be first class,’ focus on small acts of kindness, Newark Mayor Cory Booker tells graduates

Mayor Cory A. Booker, of Newark, N.J., addresses the 2013 graduates of Washington University in St. Louis as Chancellor Mark S. Wrighton, right, looks on. Booker urged the graduates to be “first class,” to perform acts of kindness and to join with others to tackle the world’s challenges. (Credit: Joe Angeles)

Cory A. Booker, the mayor of Newark, N.J., told the more than 2,700 graduates of Washington University in St. Louis on Friday to focus on being “first class” in the highest sense of the phrase.

“This world is going to try to tell you what it means to be first class,” Booker said.

But that shouldn’t be judged by clothes or a big house or a fancy car, he admonished.

“If you want to be first class, it is about the content of your character, the quality of your ideas, the kindness that you have in your heart,” he told the crowd of about 15,000 gathered on Brookings Quadrangle, to rousing applause.

Named one of the 100 most influential people in the world by Time magazine, Booker, 44, is credited with helping revitalize New Jersey’s largest city with his hands-on and innovative approach.

Booker, now in his second term as Newark’s mayor, has been instrumental in more than doubling the rate of affordable housing production; creating the city’s largest expansion of parks and recreation spaces in over a century; and bringing more than $1 billion of new economic development into the city, including its first office towers and hotels in decades.

Booker urged the Class of 2013 to have a vision and then make it happen, but to remember that it takes lots of small acts to accomplish great ambitions. Simple, unglamorous things, such as helping someone illiterate complete forms to receive food stamps, can make a huge difference in a person’s life.

“The biggest thing you can do in any day is a small act of kindness,” he said.

He also encouraged them to join with others to take on the world’s challenges, referring to an African proverb that says, ‘If you want to go fast, go alone. But if you want to go far, go together.’

“You’re more beautiful than you realize, stronger than you know, more powerful than you can imagine,” he said.

Booker also talked about a challenging time early in his career as mayor. He had taken to talking to residents after killings had occurred and urging people not to accept such violence, that Newark could be better than that.

Then he got word that a boy he knew who lived in his high-rise public housing project had been killed, and Booker was so filled with pain and darkness he could barely respond to those talking to him at the funeral home. Later, as he sat crying in his office, Booker said he realized that it’s in moments of brokenness that we learn valuable lessons.

“Courage is not running into a burning building,” he said. “Courage is when tragedies’ trumpets sound in your life, that you still could hold on to that quiet little voice that tells you to keep going anyway.”

“Failure is never final if you don’t give up,” he said.

Booker, who holds four degrees — a bachelor’s and a master’s from Stanford University, an honors degree from Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar and a juris doctorate from Yale — received an honorary doctor of laws degree from Chancellor Mark S. Wrighton after his speech.

This wasn’t Booker’s first visit to WUSTL. He also delivered an Assembly Series lecture on the significance of community service in fall 2007.

Booker also urged the graduates to hear the national anthem as a challenge. “Oh say can you see” a world where a top-notch education is offered to all children, not a privileged few; where we bring an end to poverty; global health rises; and righteousness rolls down like water, he asked. Be warriors of love and kindness, he urged.

“If you can see it, then be it,” he said, reminding them to be dreamers, and not to lose their idealism.

If cynics get you down, he said, just remember, “My mama said, ‘There ain’t no such thing as impossible.’”

For full transcript of Booker’s address, visit here.

For a full transcript of Wrighton’s address, visit here.