"When you're speaking extemporaneously, power through. Nobody knows – other than yourself – what you were planning on saying. If you take an exit prematurely, nobody knows! So get back on the road."
Describing his avoidance of notes to better connect with an audience when speaking, Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., serving his fifth term representing New York's 8th District in the United States House of Representatives, shared stories of growing up in 1980s Brooklyn, his love of rap music, his grandmother's insistence that he and his brother complete advanced degrees, and the importance of resiliency and not "peaking too early" in life.
The one-hour conversation with Miguel Martinez-Saenz, Ph.D., president of St. Francis College, on March 15, 2021, was this year's Thomas J. Volpe Lecture, an annual event that brings world-renowned leaders from politics, business, entertainment and the arts to speak before the SFC student body. The online event attracted an audience of more than 200 people.
"With my mother...you were going to memorize your part. You weren't going to have a piece of paper in front of you. I think to this very day, I'm very reluctant to have a piece of paper in front of me whenever I speak," said Jeffries, describing presentations he delivered in front of his church congregation beginning at age 2 and the role that played in his now-famous oratory skills. "One of the things my mom was teaching us is that to connect with those who you're speaking with...leaves a more powerful impression [than] looking down and reading something from a paper, even if it's a heartfelt sentiment."
Crown Heights-native Jeffries painted a vivid picture of the Brooklyn of his youth, a rougher environment than today. "There were not a lot of sidewalk cafes and bike lanes growing up," he said. "I remember even as a young person...dealing with a lot of the drama that was just naturally around us, particularly as crack cocaine exploded on the scene and the levels of violence...increased dramatically in the mid-to-late '80s, at the same time when people from my era were going to high school."
In Midwood High School, Jeffries said he was primarily a B+ student who had friends and "knew everybody" but was not part of the "elite rankings," particularly as an athlete. This meant he did not "peak too early," a lesson he said is valuable to today's youth, who often pursue "instant gratification" rather than putting in the work needed to sustain a lifelong journey towards success.
Jeffries said his grandmother motivated him to remain committed to earning graduate degrees – in his case, both a master's and law degree – by giving him $500 at each graduation beginning in elementary school. "I made the mistake of sharing this story in front of my two boys. 'Dad, you have been shortchanging us our entire lives,'" he said they responded.
Jeffries pointed out that his lifelong love of hip hop music – beginning with icons of the '80s and '90s, including Jay Z, Nas, Notorious B.I.G, Snoop Dog, Dr. Dre – connects him to his position in the House of Representatives, the institution in the federal government he said is "designed to be the closest to the people."
"While [the country's founders] perhaps could never have imagined someone from Brooklyn with the name Hakeem Jeffries serving in the House of Representatives...they did imagine that people would take their upbringing, their connectivity to the communities they serve, to Washington...And that's what I've endeavored to do. And hip hop has been an important part of that."
Resiliency has also been a critical factor in his political success, said Jeffries, especially after he lost two runs for New York State Assembly, his first attempts at elected office. "A knockdown is different than a knockout," he said.
"The most important quality early on is resilience. That ability to...'take a licking and keep on ticking'...I think the ability to do that, which we – growing up in communities of color, immigrant communities, low-income communities -- that's what we do...This is part of what the life in Brooklyn prepares you for."