By Cedric He and Owen Salmon, Staff Writers
// After a two year wait, Arshay Cooper returned to Acalanes High School to share wisdom and guidance about his experience growing up in an underprivileged community.
The Acalanes Union High School District (AUHSD) hosted a district-wide conversation with Cooper on Monday, Sept. 19, at Acalanes High School, following the Black Student Union Summit earlier that day.
Cooper is a motivational speaker, author, and activist for under-resourced youth. He was a former coach at the Chicago Urban Youth Rowing Club and has started several rowing programs for low-income youth. In 2020, Cooper released an award winning documentary, “A Most Beautiful Thing,” which highlights his experiences being on America’s first high school rowing team of all Black athletes.
Representatives from schools within the district, Ellis Burger, Alvaro Ledezma, Tantzie Zamani, and Jordan Stean-Rice, led a discussion with Cooper. Cooper shared his academic and personal struggles during his youth, and experience as an African American rower.
“[Rowing] helped me with the mental space that I was in, [especially] growing up on the west side of Chicago, [amidst] all the violence. And so I think that it was an introduction to wellness. The sport is non-combative, it’s non-conflict. And you have to be a part of a team. I didn’t have a lot of friends, so that [also] forced me to build relationships”, Cooper said.
Cooper’s personal stories motivated some students.
“The thing that I found most inspiring was his ability to continue to move forward and not give up growing up in a violent neighborhood, without a lot of parental guidance or support,” sophomore Miles Blackhart said.
Cooper chooses to hold dialogues at schools, including Acalanes, to address the importance of coming together despite differences that individuals may have.
“I give talks [because] there’s a lot of Arshays out there, I don’t just give talks for people of color. I give talks to schools [whose students] are white or who are of other ethnicities. I think that the message is hope; the message is to break the cycle of division. We can’t move forward alone,” Cooper said.
Event organizers hoped that the dialogue would allow students to hear perspectives that may differ from their own.
“I think it’s really important that students come to these events because we’re bringing in a new perspective that students might not have been exposed to, especially since we live in such an affluent area,” senior Ava Freeman said.
Cooper’s words about personal growth and perseverance were especially meaningful for many students.
“When Arshay Cooper said, ‘There will be no distance between my dreams and my actions’. That really stuck with me because dreams are called dreams for a reason. They seem unreachable, but they don’t necessarily have to be if we can just decide to reach them, and then put in the work necessary. I want to start being intentional about my actions in order to reach my dreams,” Leadership Diversity Board Head and senior Sophia Acuff said.
Cooper hopes to encourage students to face fears that are present in their lives, just as he had done with rowing.
“As young people, we all face self doubt, and fear. And the message is that you have to [be] afraid. Every time you conquer a fear, life gets a lot less scary. If we [can] get over that fear, great things happen,” Cooper said.
Photo by Gabi Gruber, Online Content Manager and Social Media Manager