Rubén Díaz, Jr.: Young People Needed as Leaders
March 26, 2009
New York State Assemblyman Rubén Díaz Jr. is a Lehman graduate, and his career has helped to inspire many students. Lehman College's Center for Urban Male Leadership invited him to the campus to talk about the importance of leadership in shaping productive citizens.
21 Minutes 31 Seconds
"Inspiring Talks" features faculty, guest speakers, and experts discussing their own stories of adversity and success, as well as hopeful new developments, in a variety of fields.
This is Vince Bracy, a Biology major at Lehman College. New York State Assemblyman Rubén Díaz Jr. is a Lehman graduate, and his career has helped to inspire many students. Assemblyman Díaz advocates for the poor, middle class, and working families of the South Bronx. Lehman College's Center for Urban Male Leadership invited him to the campus to talk about the importance of leadership in shaping productive citizens.
RUBÉN DÍAZ JR.:
The reason why you're here, and the reason why this program exists, is 'cause someday, young man and young lady, we want you to do well off for yourself. And we want you to make all the money that you can make. Once you do that, there's something that you're gonna have to do. And that's pay taxes.
And so when you look at the revenue-- and I'm gonna simplify this a little bit-- when you look at the revenue of the State of New York, taxes and fees and fines and property taxes. We sort of put it all into a jackpot. And then we decide how to spend it. And so that has consumed the last 12-and-a-half years of my life.
When I first got elected up to Albany, I was the youngest elected assembly member or even legislator at the time. I was 23 years of age. I'm 35 years old now. And up in Albany, I've encountered that in that whole process of making laws, making the rules. 'Cause in your life the people who are the most influential. See I don't-- I don't have a chauffeured driven limousine outside. I don't J-Lo. I don't have a mansion. I don't own part of a basketball team. I'm not on videos on MTV.
But what makes my job so important is-- think about this. In your lifetime, everybody who's had some kind of influence, either spent the money or made the rules.
You got to school, and you're being taught leadership. So that some point-- at some point in your life-- you are in a position to-- in one way shape or form, whether you're running a hospital or a school or a law firm or some part of government-- you want to be able to outline the direction of the rules that need to happen. You're gonna do this in your family as head of households. You're gonna spend the money. That's what makes my job so significant. But I don't necessarily, unless somebody wants to ask questions when I'm done. That's not necessarily what I want to address in terms of specifics.
Because this is a leadership session. We're talking about urban leadership. We're talking about that particularly in black and Latino young men. And as a whole with minorities in the Bronx and throughout the city. And in urban America as we move forward. We just came from an important election with Barack Obama winning for President of the United States.
But we have an opportunity now as young people of color. Where America, the most important thing is not necessarily that Barack is a black man who became president. The most important thing here is that you have the majority of people who voted for him. In America, are not necessarily people of color. That America is willing to say that they are going to view us and view you.
Not based on the color of your skin but your presentation. Based on your skill, based on your commitment, based on how much you're willing to put in. Because Barack didn't have a smooth ride. He didn't have a millionaire father. He didn't have a family that started him out in politics.
And then when you look at leadership and when you look at us. I'm gonna tell you right now, we have a whole lot of work to do. I'm gonna tell you right now, that nobody, no elected official in the City of New York--you got this on camera, anybody can challenge me--spends more time with young people in the schools, more than yours truly.
And when I go around to the schools, and I talk to young folks, sometimes I'm bothered. And I don't have to tell you that, because you live in the community. You all have friends, you all have neighbors, you all have cousins and siblings and-- and-- and the extended families. And you see that at times there's something that is missing. And when you look at leadership and if somebody here-- and the-- the-- whether it's the faculty or adults. If they want you to be future leaders, then we got to start now.
And if you want to be a future leader, there's some things you gotta know about leadership. Leadership is about having a vision. Leadership is about talking the talk. Leadership is about sacrifice. Leadership is about following. You can't be a good leader unless you're prepared to be a good follower.
You can't be a principal until you're a good teacher. You can't be the administrator of a hospital until you're a doctor or somebody who's worked their way up. You can't be a good elected official until you start putting up campaign posters on the poles. A lot of times when I encounter young men and women of color-- and by the way I'm a father of two, a 16-year-old son--two sons, 16 and 13 years old. So you know, I got my hands full.
And-- and at times, my own children wanna just be the leader all the time. You know, and we tend to think-- or as adults we say, "Well, don't be a follower." We only say that when you're following somebody who's doing stupid things. We only mean that when you're following somebody who's doing something wrong.
But you have to pay attention. Have a hero, a mentor, somebody who can put you in the right path, whatever that is. So, one, you can't be a good leader without being a good follower. Two, you have to make sacrifices. I left my house at this morning at 6:15 in the morning. Drove both my kids to school. I went out to Brooklyn, I'm in this-- in-- in this retreat that I just told you about. I come from Brooklyn, come over here. I'm gonna be with you.
I'm gonna go back to Brooklyn, then to midtown. And then I have two events in midtown. I'll get home at 11:00 tonight. I will have spent more time in front of you today than with my own children. For today, leadership is about sacrifice. How much are you willing to sacrifice? How much are you willing to put on the line?
Leadership is about serving, not about being served. Leadership is about listening, not talking all the time. And when you do talk, leadership is about choosing your words carefully. Because another false that we teach our young men and women is sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.
Words are important, man. Words hurt. Words can start wars. Words sometimes and miscommunication, is what's killing our young black and Latino men in the streets. How many times you seen a fight or something jump off because of words? The power of words, choose 'em carefully.
Leadership is lonely. Do you think that Martin Luther King, Jr. was as revered and celebrated in life as we have known him to be revered and celebrated? Do you know how lonely he was? When he was behind, you know, those walls and jails in Alabama. When people were giving death threats on the phone. When many of the same people who are people of color. At the time, the leaders were jealous of him.
Used to talk bad about him. Used to get mad when he used to get all the play in the television. You know, how lonely leadership can be? Let me just give you a for-instance. How many of you here, hang around housing developments or the projects every now and then. Raise your hand. How many of you, when you go into the housing developments, or as I call them, the projects. You go into an elevator or into a staircase and it smells of urine?
How many of you know somebody who will go to McDonald's or buy a bag of potato chips or will go to the Chinese food? And when they're done with whatever they're done eating, they just throw their wrappers and stuff and the bones and everything on the floor. How many of you ever tell them, "Stop doing that." How many times when you tell them to stop doing that, you get laughed at.
How many times when you tell them that's not cool, you're the lone voice in the group. But the fact of the matter is that you're providing leadership at that moment. But you see how lonely that can be? You know, it's like, we live in a day and age, where if you do well in school and you have-- you know, a 90-plus average. You're either called a nerd, or you're not cool enough. Or you're not down, or you think you're all that.
Or you go to college, well, you know, she thinks she all that right now. That's leadership. But it's lonely. How much-- how lonely are you prepared to be? You really want to be a leader, how much of a vision are you gonna provide, first, for yourself and, then, for your community.
And the community can be defined in so many different ways. The community could be your family. It could be the ethnic group. It could be-- if you're a young lady, women. It could be the block that you live on. It could be the borough that you live in. And school that-- where you're a student at. It could be your church.
You provide a vision, and then you got to walk the walk. And you just can't be lip service. In the Bronx and in the City of New York. We have a void in leadership when it comes to young people of color. It seems like we're so blinded. Young folks are so blinded by materialism, and by the rush to get gratification that we sort of close down to everything else.
So it's like we don't realize that in Albany when we are debating legislation and how to spend the money. More people want you to be in prisons than they're willing to pay for you to go to college. We don't realize that decisions are being made and that when a young man thinks that he's all that. And he's cool and he can want-- you know, he wants to commit acts of violence so that he can have a reputation. That every time you get in trouble and-- and the judge bangs the gavel. It means chi-ching, chi-ching, for somebody who's-- who has a some kind of contract in the prison facility upstate New York.
See, 'cause everything around you cost money. You just don't know it, because you're not really paying for it right now. But if what you do pay for, you guard it with your life. You have a nice expensive pair of jeans, if you have a job. If I rip your jeans, there's a problem between us two. You're gonna get your peoples on me, and we're gonna wait for me outside and everything.
If I take a fitted cap and I, you know, demolish it. We have a problem. So when you become a taxpayer, you start to see where your money's going and how people like me, have that type of authority. You're electing us to that type of authority. Or with that authority to spend the money.
And yet, so many of these folks want to put young men, in particular, behind bars. Because there, they're creating jobs upstate. There, everything costs money from the Plexiglas to the bars. To the-- to the food. The uniforms, both for inmates and correction officers. And we're running around dumb, deaf, and blind. With no leadership.
The reason why I s-- and-- and I rather sort of like, if-- if there's an exchange here, I'd rather do an exchange. But the reason why I do these types of forums, and the reason why I said on the outset that I would never disrespect you, is because I'm a proud Puerto Rican young man from the Bronx who got introduced to politics at the tender age of seven. Who ran for my first office when I was 19 years old, which was district leader.
Who got beat the first time that I ran for the Assembly at the age of 22. Who dust myself off, and instead of accepting defeat, ten months later at the age of 23, I decided to run for the office again, and I knocked on 10,014 doors. And I grew up in the hip-hop generation.
And I'm a victim of teenage pregnancy. 'Cause my wife and I were high school sweethearts at Stevenson High School. And yes, I say I'm a victim of it, and I say we were pregnant. And little Ruben now, is a teenager. And little Ruben now is a junior in Cardinal Hayes. And Ryan is 13 years of age.
And I'm telling you that of all of the things that I have on my plate, of all of the things that you may think that I'm going through and the people that are talking, the conversations that I have with governors and presidents and U.S. Senators, and being a husband, and being a provider, the scariest and the most difficult thing for me on a daily basis is being a father. For those of you who are not parents, for those of you who are. Being a father in this day and age, for me is such a scary feeling. Because it seems like there's no code of the streets anymore. It seems like there are no rules. That anything goes.
And when my kids get on the-- on the bus or the train, yes, I'm on them on a cell phone. The reason why I do this is because something has to change. Starting here in the Bronx. It has to be a change of spirit. There has to be change of vision. There has to be a change of outlook. There has to be a change of image. And it can't come from the adults. It has to come from leadership, but from the youth. And if that happens, if you get motivated to get yourselves in order.
I'm not talking about folks here. I'm talking about as a whole. If you get motivated enough, you provide a climate so I don't have to be so scared as a father. You see the selfishness here? You following-- you following me? If you start to provide the leadership, where folks don't think that it's cool to go beat somebody up. Or slash somebody's face. Or stomp somebody out. Maybe the likelihood of that happening to my kids diminishes. And I'm a little happy and less nervous.
If you provide the leadership where it-- you know, it's cool to go out and participate in senior citizen programs. And help those who open the doors for you. Who now can't help themselves. Go feed them, go clean up a park. If you provide the leadership, then you see how-- then senior citizen centers who may not have the money, 'cause we can't provide it because the economy is bad, now they have volunteers so they could-- you-- they could use the help. And they could run with less money. The Bronx becomes beautiful, the streets are cleaner, the parks are cleaner.
See all the selfishness here? As an elected official, you see how that helps. And I'm using selfishness in a good way. Sometimes that's okay. I'm using the word selfish in a good sense.
'Cause we all have selfish motivations. It's the motivation that you have to question. But if we can all provide that, if we can start touching young people in the Bronx on a daily basis, and it starts flourishing from youth on up, we could all feel comfortable. We could all have a great borough. We can all feel safer. We could all feel like there's hope for tomorrow. And it won't be a cliché.
I'll leave you with this, when you speak of the civil rights movement, hen you speak of all of the challenges that African Americans had in the 40s and, of course, for many hundreds of years, but particularly in the 40s and 50s and 60s. Yes, we read about Martin Luther King, Jr. Yes, we read about Rosa Parks and Malcolm X. But when you look at protests, when you look at involvement, the majority of the people there were young folks.
So the question-- it begs the question what-- what do our young folks believe in today? What is it that makes you happy? Who are your heroes? What is it that you want? What fulfills you? What gratifies you? What satisfies you? We had a giant in the Puerto Rican community just pass away on Sunday. And today was his funeral. His name and you should know this, and if not. Please start looking it up.
His name was Ramon S. Velez. Ramon S. Velez was a pioneer in the Puerto Rican political movement. And he provided services for Puerto Ricans and people in the South Bronx. He opened many doors. I went to the funeral today, and it broke my heart. Because he wasn't celebrated. I thought the man should be celebrated.
To see that many folks who provided for their families, sent their kids to college 'cause of the job opportunity that he created. Many folks who got elected because of him, many folks who benefited from his services were not there today. It was heartbreaking. So then who are our heroes? And how do we-- and how do we celebrate them?
I'll smile. Who are our heroes? How do we celebrate that? We, collectively, have a lot of work to do. In the City of New York last year, when you speak of homicides, over 90 percent of all of the victims that got killed in the City of New York were minorities. Seventy-something percent of them from the ages of 24 and down. Over 90 percent of the people who got arrested and went to jail for these homicides. Black and Latinos and 70-something percent of them, from the ages of 24 and down.
We have a problem. We could talk about job opportunities. Fixing the economy. Affordable housing, healthcare. We could talk about all the great stuff. We could talk about Barack Obama winning the-- the presidency. But this is what really hits home. This is what hits home for all of us. And if we're just gonna educate ourselves if we're gonna be parents, who are gonna pay tuition for our kids. So they-- at some point be victims in the streets?
Then what are we doing it for? And adults-- we talk and talk and talk. And we rarely listen. So it is incumbent upon you, young folks, to-- this is what I've noticed. Young people are more vocal than ever. They're more intelligent than ever. Accept that you have selectiveness as to when you want to be heard. And what you want to be heard about.
But when young people focus, and when young people challenge, just like they did in the 50s and 60s. When young people voice their opinions and bond together, and create an academic atmosphere. Whether it's enclosed in doors-- in walls or out in the open. The sky's the limits. When you look all over the planet, Tiananmen Square in China. Who did that? Young folks.
Who challenged the government over there, young folks. It's everywhere. South Africa, yeah, we-- we listen and we-- and we-- and we hear and read about Nelson Mandela. But who helped those movers? Young people This is your time. The temperature is right for you.
When you look at the hip-hop generation. Hip-hop generation has taken over everything. Look at you. You've taken over fashion. Movies. Music. Jewelry. Everything. Except for politics. Except for politics. And that's-- that's probably easier than everything else. If you guys could just band, and you do it with the power of the word.
Expand your vocabulary. Be careful what you say. If I tell you, young man, I owe you. Or if I say I own you, the difference in that sentence is but one letter. And there's a whole difference in me saying I owe you, versus I own you. That's the power of words. And so when you look at this setting, and the fact that you're here and you're listening. And it says to me that there's so much more that you want. Out of what you've been seeing. That many of you want to get involved. And if but just one person here can call me in the office and say, "What else that can I do?" And I think I've already done my job.
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