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thomas mancuso

on 15 May 2013

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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. "QUEEN MOTHER" 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. (LOOK AT THE FOLLOWING PICTURES; WHAT DO YOU SEE?) 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.” Cory Booker learned this lesson as he stood in the intersection of a busy street. We, in this country, stand at the intersection not of a busy city but of educational history. The field of American education is changing in ways that are more dramatic and more far-reaching than anything any of us could have imagined.
If we are going to play a role in shaping the future, then we need to take the Queen Mother’s advice to heart.
We need to see hope and opportunity.
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