Arshay Cooper served as the speaker at the annual Joseph T. Cox Servant Leadership Symposium on May 6. Cooper’s memoir is the basis for A Most Beautiful Thing, a critically acclaimed film about the nation’s first all-Black rowing team.
Cooper was first introduced to rowing when he saw a boat in his lunchroom at Manley High School in Chicago. At first he wasn’t interested, as the people encouraging students to sign up were all white.
“When I was asked to join the rowing team, I noticed that no one looked like me, so I initially said no,” said Cooper.
He eventually decided to learn more about rowing, with the promise of free food and some urging of his friends. He says that decision changed his life, as he shared personal stories about trauma in his neighborhood and how rowing became a healing activity for him and others with similar trauma.
During the discussion, Cooper also discussed racism and representation in the sport. He spoke about the ways in which crew helped forge relationships among teammates from different neighborhoods and gang affiliations.
Cooper also shared how his experiences allowed him to support change and healing in his native city of Chicago. One powerful part of the film and book includes Cooper organizing an opportunity for police officers to row with the kids, building a relationship between the groups.
“I wanted to have a conversation,” said Cooper. “I wanted them to know our names.”
Toward the end of his presentation, Cooper reminded the students to look to “eliminate their dreams,” or to achieve their small dreams so they can work toward a loftier goal.
“If you can eliminate the small dream, you can make room for the bigger dreams,” said Cooper, before using examples of his “small dreams” of getting to see Chicago, then outside Chicago, and then going on an overnight trip with the team. At each step, he eliminated his dream and started to work toward the next location.
Head of School Dr. John Nagl applauded Cooper’s example of compassion, leadership, and relationship-building. Dr. Nagl noted three things about Cooper’s leadership that the Upper School boys should model:
- The power of sport to bring people together and to increase responsibility and accountability
- Cooper’s personal leadership example, as he helped friends make better choices and working toward solutions to problems in his community
- The value of personal relationships to make a difference and his ability to build connection with others to make the world a better place.