‘One Book’ author Arshay Cooper says the crew helped him learn to direct

In the sport of crew, you come together to get ahead.

It’s one of the life lessons rowing has provided to Arshay Cooper, author of “A Most Beautiful Thing”, the One Book One Community selection for 2022.

In the memoir, Cooper recounts how his involvement with the first all-black high school rowing team at Manley High School on Chicago’s West Side transformed his life. Cooper, who eventually became the team’s captain, went on to fulfill his dream of becoming a leader and is now an activist and motivational speaker.

His journey will take him to Alliance on March 31 and he says he can’t wait to experience a new place.

“I haven’t heard much about Alliance, Ohio,” Cooper said. “And I don’t want Google telling me. I want to show up and see it myself and hear from the good folks at Alliance. I am used to walking in unknown spaces.

Cooper said he often reflects on his efforts to try something new, like the crew.

“Talent is everywhere; access and opportunity are not,” Cooper said. “I want to think I would have been fine, but I was 15 and still didn’t have access to extracurricular activities and I wasn’t good enough for high school sports.”

At the age of 15 in 1997, Cooper was determined to stay away from the drugs and gangs he encountered every day. Instead, he focused on studying the culinary arts and writing poetry. However, it all really started to click when he discovered rowing.

“Rowing helped activate the hidden leader in me,” he explained. “So maybe I would have been fine, but I’m not sure my leadership abilities, commitment and drive that I learned from the sport would have accelerated.”

As Cooper faced his fears of the water and tried something new, he dedicated himself to becoming better and began to get noticed by his coaches. Thanks to their encouragement and some success in competition, he started to believe in himself. Together, all of this made all the difference for Cooper as a young man.

“You can do whatever you want,” Cooper explained. “It’s also critical for us to understand that we get there much faster when the teachers, resources, access and opportunities are in place.”

This is where good role models and mentors, like those who guided Cooper and his teammates in the late 1990s at Manley High, can be the catalyst for success in a young person.

“It’s as simple as a bank account,” Cooper said. “You make deposits, you get withdrawals. No deposit, no withdrawal. The same goes for mentor/mentee relationships.

Cooper and his teammates, some of whom belonged to rival gangs, had to learn to trust each other as a crew, which he describes as the ultimate team sport.

“We could have found that in other sports, but maybe it would have taken longer,” Cooper said. “The difference is that this sport is non-combatant and non-confrontational. While other sports might trigger trauma in such a violent community, this sport calms the daily storms out there on the water.

While building that much-needed mutual trust on the water, the Manley Crew pioneered rowing – something that was hard for Cooper to understand.

“At that time, it was hard to imagine,” Cooper said. “Especially being at a race of thousands of people and not seeing any that look like you. We later found out that there was an all-black rowing team at Howard University (in the 1960s and 1970s), making us the first all-black rowing team in high school. It was great to hear, but it’s hard to get our stories told. It took over 20 years to tell my story. Now that that is said, the doors have been opened to many young people of color. The sport is becoming more and more diverse every day.

Cooper was a force behind the diversification of rowing. A two-time recipient of the Gold Oar for his contributions to sport, Cooper established the A Most Beautiful Thing Inclusion Fund, which aims to bring rowing, academic support and college access to communities. disadvantaged. In 2021, the foundation introduced 2,000 children from underprivileged communities to rowing.

The foundation was created following the success of the highly acclaimed film “A Most Beautiful Thing”, which features Cooper’s story. The film is narrated by Common, produced by NBA stars Grant Hill and Dwyane Wade with Grammy-winning producer 9th Wonder, and is directed by Olympian Mary Mazzio.

The film, which won a 2021 Gracie Award and was nominated for several other accolades, is based on the book of the same title, originally published as Suga Water.

Although Cooper talks about writing poetry in his book and his goal of becoming a chef, he says he never dreamed he would be an award-winning author.

“One author didn’t seem realistic while attending a high school that gets less than 50 percent of its upper class each year,” Cooper said. “Working in a restaurant seemed more within reach.”

Cooper spent two years with AmeriCorps before graduating from Le Cordon Bleu and becoming a personal chef for professional athletes and at events.

Scheduled events

Discover a series of planned events in Alliance dealing with different themes in this year’s One Book One Community selection, “A Most Beautiful Thing”, by Arshay Cooper. A highlight of the program is Cooper’s appearance scheduled for March 31 at Union Avenue United Methodist Church in Alliance. See the list of events at la-revue.com.

Grover Z. Barnes