By Erin Hambidge, Staff Writer
// Arshay Cooper’s documentary “A Most Beautiful Thing” follows the story of the first African-American high school rowing team in the nation and each member’s life growing up in the West Side of Chicago.
The Acalanes High School administration hosted a dialogue with Cooper on Tuesday, Feb. 23 after the Acalanes Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Committee held a screening of the film last week.
The event was part of a month-long effort to introduce Black History and Black voices to Acalanes students through guest speakers and other activities.
Acalanes Leadership selected sophomore Ava Freeman, junior Franny Daughters, and senior Miles Burger to moderate the conversation due to their involvement in Black History Month activities and Equity Council meetings. The panelists met several times beforehand to plan the discussion, highlighting the need to dig deep into Cooper’s childhood and his perception of America.
“I remember us talking a lot about getting below surface levels. We really wanted to get more information than just what was shown in the movie or just what people already would know or assume,” Daughters said.
The dialogue began with a background on Cooper’s upbringing in the West Side of Chicago, where he explained his experiences with the constant violence and lack of support at school.
“One of the most important things about these types of events that I really appreciate is that it shows our school a different perspective, and I think for a change to happen, these stories have to be told. [Cooper] said he felt like he was living in a ‘different America’ growing up on the [West] Side of Chicago, and he was,” Burger said.
Cooper emphasized that he initially did not want to row because of his fear of water.
“I had never been out of town, I had never been anywhere. I feared the water and so it was basically going to face your fears. What I learned through [the coach’s speech] was on the other side of that fear, on the other side of that choppy water, on the other side of this foreign sport, on the other side of this opportunity would be greatness,” Cooper said at the dialogue.
In addition to explaining the importance of facing fears, Cooper stressed the need for bridging racial divides in the community through equity work and uncomfortable conversations.
“You can’t wake up tomorrow and say we’re going to build this bridge, and school is going to be awesome, and we’re all going to understand diversity and inclusion and equity. If we can get every individual to lay one brick as perfect as they can… [we can] figure out how to give as a school,” Cooper said.
Cooper’s experience as an athlete, filmmaker, and leader covered a wide array of interests that attracted a large audience to the event.
“I think that there were community members and students who were on that call that I have not seen at some of the other equity events that we’ve hosted, and that’s awesome. I love that [the dialogue] may have been an entry point for them, and those are things that I just want to be mindful of as we continue to play with feature speakers,” Leadership teacher Katherine Walton said.
Many student attendees found Cooper’s words moving and easily applicable to their own lives.
“Cooper has such valuable insight, and his story is so inspiring. His words about bridging gaps between people, overcoming hardship, and improving your community were so impactful and are important for everybody to hear,” sophomore Lily Hanzel said.
Attendees and panelists also found that hosting events like this helped create a more aware and accepting school.
“This event meant a lot to me because our community needs to come together. I can feel the divisions of Lafayette due to lack of education around sensitive topics like race, gender, etc. I think the talk was crucial in opening the whole community up to recognizing our privileges living in a wealthy community,” Freeman said.