The Lasting Impact from Somebody I Never Met – RIP Virginia Jones

by Shawn Collins on January 24, 2011

I got a little teary-eyed yesterday, and it wasn’t because the Jets lost the AFC Championship. No, it was earlier in the day when I read a Tweet from Cory Booker, Mayor of Newark, NJ.

When I read the Tweet, the name sounded familiar. After I thought about it for a second, I remembered Virginia Jones was the focus of Mayor Booker’s keynote speech at Affiliate Summit East 2008 in Boston.

The stories he told about her left a lasting impression with me, and I have thought about them regularly since then.

Here is an excerpt from the keynote that day…

I remember my first time in the early mid 90′s, coming to Newark New Jersey, I thought to myself, “I am going to live my craziest vision of myself.” I was fueled by my father a bit. I moved onto a challenging street in the city with a lot of problems; with drug dealing, and violence, and crime, and high rise projects that were in difficult shape. I remember just being, frankly, overwhelmed by what I was seeing and what I was watching.

I used to joke with a friend of mine that had a pharmaceutical trade on that street that could put Merck and Johnson and Johnson to shame; Rite Aid could learn a couple lessons. I would see lines of people from the suburbs coming in to buy their pharmaceutical products.

I remember, at this point, a friend of mine told me, “Cory, if you really want to make a difference in that neighborhood, you have got to meet the leader of that neighborhood, the Queen Mother.” She happened to live in these public housing projects. I love the universe because it sends you these messages sometimes.

I was growing up as a kid and my parents, even my grandparents, used to tell me, when I was graduating from these Ivy League schools, they said “Boy, never forget that you can learn more from a woman on the fifth floor of the projects than you can from one of these fancy professors.”

Lo and behold, I found out the address of this woman and she lived on the fifth floor of the projects. I went up to knock on her door. I will never forget, I knocked on her door in my youthful arrogance, and it is like this UCLA linebacker voice came from the other side: “Who is it?” And I said, “It’s Cory Booker.” She opens the door and she goes, “Who are you?”

And again, I am an arrogant young man. I pull up my pants and say, “Ma’am, I am Cory Booker. I am from Yale Law School ma’am. I am here to help you out.”

I almost felt like that Western Theme should have gone off: “Doo Doo Dooooo.”

She looks me up and down and she goes, “You want to help me?” And I go, “Yeah.” She looks me up and down, and we exchange some more words, and she goes, “Well if you really want to help me, you have got to follow me first.” I say, “OK.”

This woman pushes past me, closes her door, walks down five flights of stairs, walks through the lobby of the building, walks through the courtyard, walks onto the side of the street, walks through some pharmaceutical salesman, at which point I am standing close to her, and she walks into the middle of the street. Now I am in the middle of one of the largest boulevards in the neighborhoods in Newark.

She swings around and she goes, “Boy, tell me what you see around you.” I said, “What?” She goes, “Tell me what you see around you.”

I said, “OK. Well, I see some high rise public housing.” There was an abandoned building that people use for nefarious things, and I said, “I see that.” And I talked about the graffiti and just described what I saw around me.

She looks at me and shakes her head and goes, “Boy, you could never ever help me.” And she turns around and storms off.

I am standing there in the middle of the street thinking to myself, “What the heck just happened?” So I run after her and I put my hand on the back of this elderly woman and I say, “Ma’am, what are you talking about?”

She whirls around and she says to me, “You need to understand something boy.” I go, “What?” She says, “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 and 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.”

She walks off, leaving me there in the middle of the street.

I tell you, the uncomfortableness of standing there made me go back to my apartment that I had rented across the street from where she lived. The storm of these messages that my Dad had sent me growing up, and quotes I had read from learned scholars from humanity… I remember Emerson said something powerful.

He said, “That only which we have within can we see without.” And I love this. To paraphrase the end of his quote, he says, “That only which we have within can we see without. If we see no angels it is because we harbor none.”

So, there is another angel now up there now in heaven. Let the way Virginia Jones lived and looked at life be an inspiration for you to see hope, opportunity, and love when you look around.

I’d urge anybody reading this to watch the video of Cory Booker keynote from Affiliate Summit East 2008 – it’s a really moving and inspirational talk.

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