Staff Photo by Tim Barber/Chattanooga Times Free Press/ - City of Newark, NJ, Mayor Cory A. Booker, left, stands with Chattanooga Mayor Ron Littlefiled at a reception at the Patten House on the UTC campus Thursday evening before his lecture at the university.
Newark, N.J., Mayor Cory Booker told an audience of nearly 400 at UTC that it takes bold goals to make change, but what each person does daily matters most.
"We all have the decision to either accept the conditions as they are or go about changing them," Booker said.
The second speaker in this year's George T. Hunter Lecture Series, Booker was invited to talk on community development Thursday night.
The Benwood Foundation, University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, the Ochs Center for Metropolitan Studies and CreatHere sponsored the event.
Booker was re-elected in May to his second term as mayor of Newark. His first, unsuccessful run for the seat was the subject of the Oscar-nominated documentary film "Street Fight."
Since he took office in 2006, shootings have dropped by 40 percent in Newark, which had historically been labeled among the most crime-ridden cities in the nation.
He shared stories of his rise from a Yale University law student living in Newark and becoming active in community organizing to his first term as a city councilman and eventually mayor.
Booker countered what he called a "toxic resignation" of many people who have "resigned to the way things are and lost the vision of what could be" by citing inspiring personal stories of family and people he's met through his life.
Chattanooga City Councilman Andraé McGary said after the speech that Booker showed listeners what the city needs -- imagination.
"We are a community that's sleeping, and it's moments like this that we wake up to the possibilities," he said. "The question is will we fall back asleep or will we continue to struggle to create the reality that we now know is ahead of us?"
The mayor called Chattanooga one of his early inspirations for city revivals when he read of the Scenic City's turnaround through the 1980s and 1990s.
When asked how he thought Chattanooga could maintain momentum to also tackle problems in education, crime and employment he replied:
"I think a lot of it has to do with continuing to put forth a great vision for the city and having it adopted by a lot of different folks will motivate everybody to action," he said. "Where you guys were in the '70s, you're not there now. You've made incredible progress, and I'm hoping in the next decade you guys can continue to challenge Newark to try to keep up or surpass."
The mayor focused much of his talk on stories of others' personal achievement and the work Newark has done to reduce crime, but he also touched on recent news about the city's public education system.
His staff sought out best practices in education and are applying them in the city. Those actions caught the attention of a well-known businessman.
"I stumbled upon this 26-year-old kid who's a billionaire -- Mark Zuckerberg," he said. "And I immediately friended him."
Zuckerberg donated $100 million to Newark schools in September.
Booker arrived in Chattanooga on Thursday afternoon, spoke at a private reception hosted by the event sponsors prior to his lecture and will meet in another private meeting this morning with community leaders and UTC students before leaving for Newark, said Elizabeth Crews, community outreach coordinator for the Ochs Center.
She said sponsors chose Booker to speak on community development as a starting point in a conversation about work to be done in Chattanooga.
"I wish we had more time with Cory Booker," she said. "We are facing some of the same problems."
Following the lecture audience member Travis Upton said he was impressed with Booker's mentioning faith as a driving force for his work.
"We have a lot of religion here but people are not really walking out their faith and that's what he's doing," Upton said.
Tobiah Tillman, a member of chattaction.org, a local community action group, asked Booker his advice for how would-be leaders could first learn to serve those they lead.
"My only advice to you is stay in the struggle, stay in the fight, never give up," Booker said.
Todd South covers courts, poverty, technology, military and veterans for the Times Free Press. He has worked at the paper since 2008 and previously covered crime and safety in Southeast Tennessee and North Georgia. Todd’s hometown is Dodge City, Kan. He served five years in the U.S. Marine Corps and deployed to Iraq before returning to school for his journalism degree from the University of Georgia. Todd previously worked at the Anniston (Ala.) Star. Contact ...