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Virginia Jones lived in Brick Towers, one of Newark’s most notorious high-rises. Only five-foot-two, and in her seventies when she was the tenant president of Brick Towers, Jones was nevertheless a formidable presence. She had lost her son, who had just finished a stint in the Air Force, to a shooting in the lobby of her own building, a front line in the never-ending turf war over drug territory. Jones was unbowed by the tragedy and tirelessly worked to shift the balance in her neighborhood. People called her the Brick Towers’ Queen Mother.

Cory Booker had grown up some thirty miles north in affluent Bergen County, near the palisades of the Hudson River. He earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees at Stanford, where he was a football star, and also worked in a crisis center in urban East Palo Alto. A Rhodes scholarship took him to Oxford, where he earned an honors degree in modern history and took an interest in Jewish spirituality.

In 1996, while at Yale Law School, the twenty-seven-year-old Booker began making trips to Brick Towers, with the intention of starting a nonprofit legal organization to advocate for neighborhood groups. Everyone told him he had to speak to the Queen Mother. When she eventually opened the door to her apartment, he towered over her and said with ebullient confidence, “I am here to help you!” She was not impressed. She grilled Booker, pooh-poohing his good intentions as little but paving stones on the road to hell. “Are you committed?” she asked. Not waiting for his slowly forming answer, she told him, “You and I can work together, but only if you are committed. If not, I don’t have time for you.”

Before he could help her, Jones told him, he would have to follow her—and she meant it literally. She took him down five flights of stairs and out past a wall where, a few days earlier, children on their way to school had scattered to avoid rapid gunfire that had left a wounded man bleeding on the sidewalk. Standing smack in the middle of a boulevard, she asked Booker what he saw around him. He talked about the open-air drug bazaar, an abandoned building that sheltered criminals and victims of drug abuse and sex crimes, and the graffiti that covered every surface.

“Boy, you could never ever help me!” she told him, and stormed off.

He followed her, begging her to explain. “You need to understand something,” she said. “The world you see outside of you is a reflection of what you have inside of you. If you are one of these people who only sees problems or darkness or despair, that is all there is ever going to be. But if you are one of those people who see hope, opportunity, and love, then you can make a change and help me.”

When I spoke with Mayor Booker recently, eight months after his re-election to a second four-year term, he spoke fondly of Virginia Jones, whom he had recently eulogized. She had schooled him in grassroots research and organizing, getting him to talk to tenant after tenant, to read through piles of public documents, to talk tirelessly to city officials, and to keep going to meetings of interested tenants no matter how few showed up. She taught him, he said, that “nothing is beyond the capacity of a community of people acting on a moral imperative.” It was the beginning of his political career.

As a councilman, Booker famously went on a ten-day hunger strike in a tent to draw attention to the need to take back the streets from drug gangs. For five months, he lived in a motor home he parked near the most notorious drug corners. After an unsuccessful mayoral run in 2002 left him out of office, he founded Newark Now to promote creative problem-solving and community leadership. It continues to be one of Newark’s most prominent nonprofits.

Booker, still young at forty-one, bobs and weaves through one activity and event after another, like the tight end he was back in college. He’s not only in Newark, but in places where he thinks Newark’s voice needs to be heard. His national profile prompted President Obama to ask him to head the White House Office of Urban Affairs Policy. He declined the honor, citing his need to continue trying to turn Newark around. Shortly after his re-election last year, he attended a conference in Sun Valley, Idaho, and shared a dinner table with Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. Not long after, Zuckerberg announced he was making a $100-million donation to Newark’s schools.

The peacemakers summit “will help us recognize we’re not alone and see opportunities and assets we may not have imagined,” Booker said. “It will help us understand our interconnectedness and raise our consciousness about the world we share together. We’ll hear about a whole host of strategies for creating peace with our brothers and sisters, our neighbors, our world. His Holiness is an extraordinary soldier for peace, a leviathan of love. To have him bring his spirit to Newark, to mix with the soul of our people, is a very special occasion, brimming with possibility.”

In our conversation, Booker’s thoughts centered on how to cultivate nonviolence. It has long bothered him that “corrections” is such a misnomer. “In the eighties and the nineties,” he said, “we just wanted to lock people up and put them out of mind.” He’s bothered by recidivism rates that are regularly north of 50 percent, and often closer to two-thirds. He feels, though, that we’re in the middle of developing a “more profound spiritual understanding of interconnectedness and interdependence in this and other areas. Convicts can no longer be seen as separate from us. They are us. We have an interwoven destiny. We need our ex-cons to be successful.”

Booker is getting support “from the left and the right for re-entry programs,” he said. “Five years ago in Newark, there were none. Now we have a network of programs to empower people coming home from prison, to affirm their dignity, and to transform their lives. For people in these programs, the recidivism rate is about 7 percent.”

Booker loves creative problem-solving and partnerships. One of his favorites is YouthBuild, which takes at-risk kids, college dropouts, and recently incarcerated teens through a yearlong intensive in which they attend school, learn construction skills (with a focus on green building techniques), and work to improve their communities.

In the end, Booker said, “The issues in our inner cities are pragmatic and require policies, resources, and materials. But we cannot achieve any of our practical goals without spiritual strength. We have great strength, as human beings and as American communities, but there are also spiritual toxins we need to ward off. One is resignation—the thought that there will always be poverty, war, violence, and that there is not much you can do about it. It saps the spirit. Another is sedentary agitation: being regularly upset by all that you see but not getting up and doing anything about it. That’s why we need soldiers of peace like the Dalai Lama and Virginia Jones. They show us what we’re capable of.”


The Alameda County Juvenile Justice Center sits high on a hill in San Leandro, which is ironic, because the hills in East Bay are almost exclusively the province of the well-to-do. The gang turf is in the flatlands. Once you’re inside “juvie,” though, there are no open, airy spaces and sweeping views. It’s walls, lots of doors, linoleum floors, and internal windows so you can be seen at all times. The boys and girls there seem like fish out of water. The prison garb removes a lot of their distinctive style. The blandness and regimentation is in sharp contrast to the showy, righteous feel of their hip-hop street culture.


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