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BIDEN INSTITUTE BLOG Leadership Lessons for Post-Pandemic Rebuilding

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Sen. Cory Booker’s thoughts on what the world needs and how you can offer it
Photo of Senator Cory Booker at the Biden Institute event

**The post below was submitted by UD student Mayuri Uttukar, an attendee at a recent Biden Institute event featuring Senator Cory Booker. The views and opinions expressed in this student submission are those of the author's and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Biden Institute and/or University of Delaware.**

By Mayuri Uttukar, PhD Candidate at the Biden School of Public Policy and Administration

On May 7th, I was privileged to be a part of a virtual meet with Sen. Cory Booker, organized by the Biden Institute at University of Delaware. What was to be a career guidance workshop, very quickly turned to an interactive life coaching session. Given the turn of events this year, the change was certainly well received by all students. The world will gradually crawl out of this shelter-in-place situation. When it does, each of us will have a crucial role to play in the rebuilding of society. Sen. Booker’s insights have left a deep impact on the 300 odd students gathered on Zoom. I do think, in addition to the students of my school, much can be shared with students and citizens across the globe, who are unsure of how to go about life post-pandemic. 

Follow your purpose, not a position

Sen. Booker is one of the three African-American politicians in the U.S. Senate. When asked, what motivated him to to put in the efforts needed to be where he is, his response was simple: his purpose of helping people. For him, the position, the office, came on the way, as a means to fulfilling his purpose. This wasn’t a surprising answer, but it was a reinforcing one, especially today when uncertainty is forcing upon us a myopic vision of our future. The one common thing about great people, who have achieved dignified success, is that they are fiercely driven by an outward purpose. In other words, they are energized to make someone else’s life better. I was reminded of Pres. Obama’s humble career beginnings grounded in community organizing in Chicago. Sometimes one’s life purpose is evident from a young age. But more than often, one’s purpose, and the passion for it, are revealed with maturity and intentional nurturing. After gaining his glitzy law degree from Yale, Sen. Booker moved to Brick Towers, an affordable housing development in crime and drug riddled Newark, NJ, a place he lived in even after he became the mayor. Although the building is now demolished, he continues to live in the same neighborhood. His motivation for choosing this neighborhood instead of a swanky apartment in a more glamorous part of town was to gain perspective on the problems faced by average Americans of color. I imagine the decision to move was an easier one, exciting even. But it was his sense of purpose that made his stick there, find hope in despair, work with the people, earn their trust, and finally be honored to represent them.

Courage comes from vulnerability

Sen. Booker shared the story of Hassan Washington, his neighborhood high schooler, who reminded the senator of his father, and in whom he saw more potential than he saw in himself. As Sen. Booker built a relationship with this young boy, he promised himself to be Hassan’s mentor. He began spending significant time with Hassan and his friends. It was also the time the senator was running his mayoral campaign. As things got busy, he dropped the ball on his mentee. Hassan and his crew continued to cheer for him as they saw him in and out of his apartment. Sen. Booker won the election and he became the new Mayor of Newark. One day, as the newly elected mayor, he faced the burden of giving a community message from a site of a homicide. Two boys were killed and Sen. Booker was focused on handling the present and future repercussions of this heinous act, and offering strength and support to the community. It was only after he went back home and read the news, did he find out the names of the victims. One of them was Hassan Washington. Sen. Booker attended his funeral where he was expected to give the community hope, but he, himself, was a lost man. He let Hassan down. As the ensuing guilt came crashing down on his heavy heart, he locked himself in his new mayoral office and wept. He wept for his friend, for all the lost potential. But he also wept for himself. It seemed impossible to go on, but he did; because in that moment of weakness, he found the opportunity to be better, to do better, and to serve better. Referring to one of his favorite authors, Brené Brown, Sen. Booker looked at his screen and said the ultimate truth: “You cannot have courage without vulnerability. Courage is not the mighty roar. Real courage comes in face of pain or shame, and you get out of bed anyway.”

Ground yourself in service; don’t give up

That brings us to the more practical stuff. How can you constructively respond to the curve ball thrown by the pandemic? His advice to students of public policy, though I believe it applies to every citizen of the world, is to ground yourself in service. He spoke about his long time associate, mentor, and friend, Virginia Jones. Ms. Jones had been a community leader when Sen. Booker landed himself in Newark. His earliest memory of her is when he went knocking on her door, introduced himself and said that he was here to help. She walked him outside and asked him to tell her what he saw. Sen. Booker described the sight as he saw it: a desolate neighborhood in despair. Ms. Jones then said to him, “what we say about other people, says more about who we are than they are.” Since then, Sen. Booker has looked upon her as his mentor, his guide through the world. There are many things about Ms. Jones that the senator finds inspiring. But perhaps the most inspiring of all is the fact that every single day he observes her walk out of her door, and into the very corridors where her son was murdered. She walks those corridors helping people, never resting, not really. She could have stopped. She could have moved. But from her profound personal pain, she drew the motivation to change the conditions that caused her that pain. The world needs healing, today more than ever. And it is going to need rebuilding. Offer your creativity, your services to a cause, an organization, a person. Make calls, have discussions, reach out. There may not be an opportunity to get things done right now, but there’s always an opportunity to build relationships. So, build those relationships right now. 

Demonstrate integrity by standing up

Let’s get the hard truth out of the way. The world as we know it has, at the very core, ceased to exist. We are in a post-apocalyptic life that has as much drama and theatrics as life can offer in reality sans CGI. We all have a choice: (a) to carry on deterministically, that is, to drag our baggage of norms and habits from the earlier world to the new one, or (b) to transform ourselves and shape a newer, ideal society. If we choose to do the latter, one of the things we must do is to open ourselves to new knowledge, sensibilities, and sensitivities. In the age of information, ignorance is not an excuse for lack of integrity. Sen. Booker illustrated this argument by confessing his prior ignorance of LGBTQ issues. He was exposed to them during an internship at a crisis center. While accepting his lack of understanding of their nuanced pain in a heteronormative society, he quickly let himself be open to learning. He added that one might think one is accepting of diversity, that one is not racist, or sexist. But it is not enough to not be sexist, or to not be racist, or not be homophobic. One has to be anti-racist, anti-sexist, anti-homophobic. It is not enough to say you don’t participate in the marginalization of a people. Silence in the presence of violence makes you complicit in the violence. Being and believing is not enough. We need to learn to stand up for what we believe in, so that the world that is to come is filled with newer, inclusive beliefs.

You cannot lead unless you heal

We all are hurting. Some have been suffering from the disease. Some have loved ones suffering. Some have loved ones who are vulnerable. Some lack medical insurance. Some don’t know where their next meals are going to come from. Some don’t know whether there will be jobs at the end of their graduation and have no idea how they will pay their student debt. Some are overwhelmed by the amount of organized work the rebuilding of our world will need. The world is lamenting the demise of normalcy, while starving for new leadership. We are this leadership, but we are not immune to the emotional toll this takes. Valerie Biden-Owens, one of the organizers of this virtual event, cited the maxim “you cannot lead unless you heal.” Sen. Booker spoke of his recent experience with healing. He had mental fatigue when faced with the torrential increase of Covid-19 cases in the NY-NJ region in March of this year. There came a time when he gave in to stress eating, not sleeping, and living with anxiety, a terrible combination when you have to lead your people in the most creative way possible through an unprecedented crisis. Until one day, when we got up and decided to be kind to himself. He got his eating back on time, scheduled time for meditation and prayer, and did the one thing he could do: make a list of everything creative solutions he had to offer at various scales. Sometimes when we think we are out of options, it helps to take a deep breath, look inward, and draw strength from our values. After all, one cannot pour from an empty cup. 

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