OKG: Tell us a little bit about yourself and your year compared to normal years?
James Cooper: I serve as OKC’s Ward 2 Councilperson. I also teach as an adjunct professor in Philosophy and Film Studies at Oklahoma City University and as an adjunct professor in English at University of Central Oklahoma. Before I took office in April 2019, I served in Oklahoma City Public Schools, specifically as an AVID middle school college preparation teacher.
By January 2020, I was learning to balance council responsibilities with university work, excited to teach on college campuses and serve downtown in our municipal building.
By mid-March, OCU and UCO shifted all classes online. My kitchen table became where I learned video technology on my laptop, specifically Microsoft Teams and Zoom. My workplace became my small Paseo apartment.
Soon, city council meetings occurred via these virtual video technologies and college classroom conversations took place on online discussion threads.
By May—to confront the pandemic at our local government level—council approved several million in funding assistance for small businesses, community support, and COVID-19 testing/tracing efforts.
By early June, historic protests occurred throughout OKC, asking us to reckon with our country’s legal legacy of racism and white supremacy. During three intense, lengthy city council meetings, residents spoke virtually and passionately about their concerns surrounding law enforcement and their vision in the 21st century for public safety.
At the third meeting, councilors voted unanimously to approve a resolution I authored with municipal attorneys to create a working group and conduct a study on six community policing initiatives. An example initiative includes providing mental health care responders and social workers in response to 911 calls related to mental health crises. After meeting with local organizers and community leaders, Mayor Holt also created a task force with residents to study our city’s de-escalation policies and examine best practices related to citizens advisory boards/accountability for police misconduct & excessive use of force. As a result of the June council meetings surrounding the police budget, Councilwoman Nice is also leading a working group to revisit the formation of an OKC Human Rights Commission.
By July 2020–after a contentious six-hour virtual meeting—I joined a majority of councilmembers with 6-3 vote in passing a city-wide ordinance requiring folk to wear a face mask in order to slow the spread of the virus and begin making right our local economy.
By fall semester, OCU returned to in-person classes on campus and UCO created hybrid in-person/online courses.
By Thanksgiving—at the legislative discretion of a majority of state legislators and governor—city council resumed in-person meetings during the pandemic’s heights.
By year’s end, nearly 20 million Americans found themselves infected with COVID-19, and we lost 342,400 people to the virus, including 2,489 Oklahomans.
OKG: What have you been doing to maintain composure and to balance your personal life?
James Cooper: When shelter-in-place began, I convinced myself to set a fairly consistent early morning alarm. So far, I’ve created and maintained a daily routine, starting my day with watering indoor plants and providing fresh water to my cat, Marion. Then, I make coffee at home or enjoy a walk to a nearby neighborhood coffee shop for espresso. Before work, I watch a movie, listen to an audiobook, or play a video game, and eat breakfast.
Basically, I’m learning to begin my day with space for myself. After a couple of hours, this self-care practice shifts to a long day of teaching and council-related responsibilities.
Finally, for my mental and physical health, I ride my bike for thirty-minutes. Each day, I’m still reminding myself to take five deep breathes—learning to slow down, be present, and live in a moment.
OKG: What has 2020 taught you about yourself?
James Cooper: 2020 taught me the importance of dealing with trauma, particularly considering the dramatic number of deaths we’ve experienced due to this historic pandemic. We’re also confronting trauma surrounding our nation’s recent reckoning with its legacy of white supremacy and racism. We have much healing ahead of us in both regards.
To process such traumas, I’m learning to prioritize my mental and physical health. I’m learning to spend time alone, to not always look for the next distraction, and to reflect on uncomfortable matters, whether historical or personal.
To better understand this historic moment, I’ve watched several documentaries, including PBS’ 1918 Influenza, PBS’ Many Rivers to Cross: The African Americans on Black History, and PBS’ Latino Americans. I’ve also re-read with my students the NYTimes bestseller Boom Town and, on my own, Color of Law, re-examining OKC’s history and the laws which created our present racial tensions, respectively.
Daily, I force myself not to disappear into despair, rediscovering the value of movies, music, podcasts, books, cooking, art, walks, trees, and public parks.
OKG: Who have you been leaning on for support this year?
James Cooper: Big fan of my plants, cat, and therapist. I’ve also enjoyed weekly virtual movie watching with close friends. Same with phone calls with mom and occasional FaceTime with folk.
Ward 2 Chief of Staff Boyd Fulton helps keep me sane, organized, and laughing. So, too, do thoughtful texts and emails from Ward 2 residents.
OKG: How do you stay motivated?
James Cooper: I find comfort in the final words of the late Civil Rights leader John Lewis, specifically where he wrote:
“You must also study and learn the lessons of history because humanity has been involved in this soul-wrenching, existential struggle for a very long time. People on every continent have stood in your shoes, through decades and centuries before you.
The truth does not change, and that is why the answers worked out long ago can help you find solutions to the challenges of our time. Continue to build union between movements stretching across the globe, because we must put away our willingness to profit from the exploitation of others.”
OKG: Have you been vaccinated? If so how have you felt?
I plan to take the vaccine when available.
James Cooper: What has been the best thing about your 2020?
The pandemic forced me to re-examine who I am as an individual, what matters in this life, how I want to spend my time, my role in society, and why I do the work I do—whether in the classroom or on council.
OKG: Goals for 2021?
James Cooper: Taking healthier habits I learned in 2020 and strengthening them throughout 2021.
OKG: First thing you want to do when it’s safe to finally do it?
James Cooper: Visit my barber, hug my mom, enjoy a well-made old fashioned in a bar with good friends. See a movie in a theater. Consider dating again. Dance in a club.
OKG: Anything else you’d like to add?
James Cooper: When this pandemic ends—and, it will—we must learn from this experience and not resign it to history’s dustbin the way our predecessors did follow the 1918 influenza. We must grieve, reflect, and honor those we’ve lost, if we’re to heal as a city and people.