Charles Cooper Jr. grad is quite busy these days. He is pursuing his M.B.A. at Cornell, running the infrastructure development firm AirRail, all while trying to find time to hike and kayak on the side.
Oh, and Cooper is also running for New York City Council.
Cooper is running to be the councilman for district nine — which includes Manhattan neighborhoods West Harlem, Morningside Heights, Manhattanville, and Hamilton Heights — to “make a substantial change” in the lives of New Yorkers.
“When the opportunities come along, we have to take it,” he said. “Because in this life, what we do is bigger than just us. I see the city council race as just that. It is bigger than me — it is for the community and it is about creating substantial change.”
Cooper emigrated from Liberia to New York City at age 12, fleeing a civil war with his mother, two siblings and virtually nothing else.
“It was only by the grace of God that we were lucky enough to have friends and extended family to help us out,” Cooper said. “Because of that I’m here today, so when it comes to community, I’ve always been someone to see the need to give back because someone gave back to me.”
Cooper is a leader in the Harlem community, serving as the vice chair of the Manhattan Community Board 9, where he worked on Columbia University’s $7 billion campus expansion, and focused on ensuring local business inclusion. He also helped to reform the West Harlem Local Development Corporation, a nonprofit tasked with dispensing millions of dollars to the Harlem Community, according to his campaign website.
While working with the African-American clergy and Hispanic business leadership, Cooper continuously leads a push for full minority business participation in New York City. He was directly involved in setting the goal of 30 percent “Minority and Women Owned Enterprises” on all state projects.
On the council, he hopes to continue to help make business diversity in New York City a reality.
“I think this [position would] allow me to … hold city agencies accountable to making sure that minority and women owned business and local businesses benefit from this economic engine of New York City,” he said.
Cooper not only makes a point to give back to the New York City community, but he also spent a year and a half working with the Liberian government on infrastructure development projects four years ago.
“I was happy to see the country that I left as a child and to know that I have the opportunity to create change in the U.S. but to also go back and help folks back home,” he said.
After Cooper and his family moved to the United States, his mother worked two to three jobs to provide for her family. But finding a job was a challenge for her, as it is for many new immigrants, according to Cooper. Cooper said he hopes to open more opportunities for advancement to the immigrant community.
“Whether you’re an immigrant, whether you’re black, white, green or yellow, one of the things that impacts all of our boundaries is jobs and whether we can provide for our families,” Cooper said. “I’m passionate about moving the community forward and to create jobs and opportunities for local businesses.”
Harlem has one of the highest unemployment rates in New York City, and represents an untapped retail market, according to Cooper.
“My goal is to work directly with the local small businesses in a coordinated effort and strategy to market that area — not only city wide but internationally,” he said. “Everyone knows Harlem for its arts, business and entertainment, but it is not being marketed properly.”
As a former New York City middle school teacher who worked for the Department of Education for six years, Cooper is also passionate about education. He sees the formable years of zero to three as fundamentally important to children’s learning, and he said he wants to expand the New York State pre-kindergarten program to include children ages zero to three. He pointed out that studies show that children who lack the proper resources during that stage of development demonstrate a greater chance of needing assistance services in the future.
“If you look at it from an economic standpoint, it makes sense to invest in our children at a very early age than to invest in them at a later age because it will be far more expensive and is will not be as productive as it could be,” he said.
To fellow Cornellians who are considering entering the political realm, Cooper offers words of encouragement, adding, “If you need help, I’m here.”
“The Cornellians I’ve met have been very genuine and passionate, not only for their profession or for their study, but for giving back to the community,” Cooper said. “I can’t see any better reason for getting into politics than that you care about the community and you want to take what you’ve learned and the gifts that you’ve been given and serve your community.”