Reflections on Cory Booker’s “United”

November 8th, 2016 left me with a lot of questions, but the one I remember most, and that still sticks with me today, is “How do we move forward?” There’s no easy answer, but I was able to find solace in Cory Booker’s United: Thoughts on Finding Common Ground and Advancing the Common Good.

United has been on my bookshelf since last summer, when I overestimated my reading capacity and freetime, ordering 12 books for the three-month span. In hindsight, I probably could have finished it, but I wasn’t committed.

Fortunately, Semester at Sea has given me a surplus of time to read and reflect on some of the awesome literature I’ve acquired, and of course I started my adventure reading reflections from one of my favorite public servants.

I’ll admit, I was slightly off in my expectations of United. When I first picked it up I thought it would be a more hands on or direct guide, a toolkit of sorts to find middle ground and advance the common good amongst adversaries. While United did address these points in a way, it did so much more indirectly than I initially conceptualized. I appreciated this, though, as it brilliantly weaved compelling moments of Cory Booker’s life with practical lessons on unity.

Booker opened United with a beautiful passage articulating his diagnosis of what are country needs.

What we need now, more than anything else, are people who are willing to do the difficult work of bridging gaps and healing wounds, people in our communities who can rally others together, across lines of division, for the greater good, people who reject cynicism and winner-take-all politics, and instead embrace the more difficult work this generation now faces: to unite our country in common cause (5).

This resonated with me. After the election, I found myself deeply upset, often wanting to direct those emotions towards a group I felt was responsible for an impending tragedy. After a few weeks, and many discussions with peers, I realized that this attitude was moot. Playing the game wasn’t helping anyone; it keeps our wounds from healing. Later in the text, Booker highlights that “Their chains—real or perceived—are our chains” (94). I realize that there is a lot of hurt to go around, and that attempting to discount someone else’s for the purpose of validating my own is both counterintuitive and ultimately destructive. But Booker goes on, stating “The lines that divide us are nowhere near as strong as the ties that bind us” (4).
Booker’s parents offered him a wealth of knowledge from childhood continuing through his adult life and career. His dad seemed to have always had the wittiest but most knowledge packed and thoughtful statements. “Son, there are two ways to go through life, as a thermometer or a thermostat” (88).
His mom, often a spiritual liaison, was quick to pull out a passage from the Bible or offer advice in God. In regard to cynicism and extensive self-doubt, she told Cory:

Son, don’t bury what God gave you. Don’t be the wicked one. This world doesn’t need your self-imposed limitations; it doesn’t need your fear. You were born to magnify the glory of God, not shrink it. You want to serve this world? Well, the world needs the full measure of your faith, your courage, your boldest thoughts, your most inspiring dreams. This world needs you and the talents God gave you (26).

My mother is my biggest supporter—always has been and always will be. She’s given me very similar advice, and it’s a pearl that I take with me in my everyday walk. I’m still trying to figure out “what God gave me,” and I think that might be a lifelong discovery, but I choose not to be my own biggest enemy. In my Interpersonal Communication Skills course, our textbook offered this definition of the “self-fulfilling prophecy” concept: “When a person’s expectations of an event and his or her subsequent behavior based on those expectations make the outcome more likely to occur than would otherwise have been the case.” The concept occurs in four stages.

The first stage is setting or holding an expectation. I relate this rather closely to dreaming. What is the dream? What is the vision? Where do I want to be? The second stage is behaving in accordance with that expectation. What will you do to make that dream a reality? What changes do I need to make in my life? What action steps do I need to reach my goal? The third stage is the expectation coming to pass: meeting the goal or reaching the dream. Lastly, the fourth stage is reinforcing the original expectation. In a sense, it’s reflecting on where you wanted to be, where you are, and how you got there. This is all a bit of academic language for what my mom used to tell me simply: speak things into existence.

Booker’s parents weren’t his only source of wisdom; he frequently received life lessons from his community, and particularly the community of activists he worked with throughout his career. Ms. Virginia Jones, a community leader and activist within her own housing unit, challenged Cory on his perceptions of his new community. “The world you see outside of you is a reflection of what you have inside of you,” she goes on, “you can’t lead the people unless you love the people.”

In my own experience, coming from a privileged background in some respects, this assertion has become abundantly clear. I think of when I volunteered for University Yes! Academy. When I first arrived, I was turned off by a scenario I was unfamiliar with. I’m fortunate in the fact that my mother sent me to private schools all my life, so that was the background I was used to. Reading about the advantages and failures of charter schools, including the oversaturation of the market in Michigan, left me with a single story. Placing myself in that space brought a lot of my preconceived ideas to life. For example, the school seemed rather unorganized and there was evidence of internal qualms. The teachers voted to unionize, and the parent company used deceitful tactics to stomp on that process. What I most regret, though, is what I went in thinking about the kids. Unfortunately, many of them are products of a lackluster education system that hasn’t afforded them the quality of education they need and deserve.

To put it simply, I initially hated my experience. This was a reflection of myself though, as Ms. Virginia Jones would say. Once I changed my attitude to one of love, empathy, and compassion for the very real people I was seeking to serve, my experience changed. Yes, the negative situations persisted, but I found so much life, enthusiasm, spirit, and determination among a group that could have easily and justifiably been jaded.

In my work at University Yes! Academy, a sense of mutuality was eventually formed. A mutuality of love and care. Booker argues that this sort of love, a vision of interpersonal necessity is paramount to any work, cause, or relationship. He writes:

Because love recognizes that every person has value, that we need each other, that we are interdependent—that what happens to you matters to me. Love necessitates extending yourself, often out of your comfort zone, making the conscious choice to see that person, despite his or her circumstances, as worthy and as vital to you (107).

As 2016 moves forward into a new political landscape, adjustments must be made on all fronts. I, as someone with a strong interest in governance and policy making, am working towards taking the steps I need to be a better ally to our common humanitarian ideals. Starting small, I’m reading material from people who are in many ways unlike myself. Understanding is one of the first steps to empathy, empathy builds bridges, bridges lead to connection, and connections leads to a common goal. At the end of United, Sen. Booker poses this very important question:

This is a question, to go together or go alone, that each of us has to answer. The destiny of our country will surely depend on how many of us choose to join forces and fight the battles of our time, side by side. Cynicism about America’s current state of affairs is ultimately a form of surrender; a toxic state of mind that perpetuates the notion that we don’t have the power to make a difference, that things will never change. This idea is not only wrong, it is dangerous (213).

I’m choosing to reject cynicism, embrace love, and confront the pending challenges to the best of my ability.

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