I live in Brick Towers, a public housing project in Newark's Central Ward. I moved in when the projects were privately owned by a man who the residents and I believed was a grade A slumlord. To fight for change, I worked with the tenant leader, a woman who is fearsome in her love of her community, and dozens of other residents/American heroes. Eventually, the slumlord was convicted for some of his crimes, the rampant drug trade was moved out of the complex, the day care center in the building was revived and some of the folks in our community worked to get Prudential to adopt the local public school and place a health clinic in it.
I've attended a handful of fancy universities in my day, but perhaps the best instructor I've ever had lives on the fifth floor of the Brick Towers projects: Tenant President Mrs. Virginia Jones.
Her finest lesson has been about America. She sees our nation for what it is, an imperfect country founded in perfect ideals that is still fighting to achieve itself. And in our neighborhood, she and others are fighting on the front lines of that American Dream. Langston Hughes wrote poetry that embody Mrs. Jones' deeds:
This dream today embattledI believe that in all of the fights our nation faces, there are none more crucial than the fight for neighborhoods like the one in which Mrs. Jones lives. If you look at great human civilizations, from the Roman Empire to the Soviet Union, you will see that most do not fail simply due to external threats but because of internal weakness, corruption or a failure to manifest the values and ideals they espouse.
With its back against the wall-
To save the dream for one
It must be saved for all
The international threats we Americans face must be met with ferocious force and unyielding determination. However, if we fail within our borders to live up to our ideals and highest values, then we are lost. If we cannot provide excellent educational opportunities to all children, safe communities, quality health coverage, or robust and fair avenues towards wealth creation, then our nation will increasingly be in peril.
Mrs. Jones had a son who served in our nation's military. On a stay with his mother in our neighborhood, he was shot to death, another victim of the random handgun violence that plagues too many American cities. He survived military duty, but not a visit to his mother. He was killed in the lobby of her building.
When Mrs. Jones told me this story, I asked her why she still lived in the building, with her income she could live in hundreds of other locations without having to walk, on a daily basis, through the lobby where her son was killed. Her response to me was a demonstration of the dedication and love our nation so desperately needs. "Why do I still live here, Cory? Why do I stay? Because I am in charge of homeland security."
May we all, as a nation of believers, fight for the achievement of America, may we make sacrifices worthy of those proud men and women who fought for us, labored for us, bled soil from the beaches of Normandy to the fields of Gettysburg for us. May we all realize that the grave urgencies facing us do not simply lie in fighting terrorism abroad but also in ensuring that our children - all of our children - can grow strong, talented, and hopeful in this land that we love.