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An Important Voice - James Cooper - Fall 2021

by Terry Phelps

Man stands in front of Oklahoma City's City Hall
James Cooper stands in front of Oklahoma City's City Hall. Photo by Ian Weston

In his 2013 book “Big League City: Oklahoma City’s Rise to the NBA,” Mayor David Holt (JD ’09) chronicles the city’s recent renaissance. One of the key players in that renaissance in recent years is James Cooper, an OCU adjunct instructor and recipient of OCU’s Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing (’15).

Cooper is a member of the City Council and, as Holt says, “is an important voice in our city and speaks for groups that have not historically had a seat at the table. He’s the first openly LGBTQ member of the council, the first non-white member of the council outside of Ward 7. He represents some history in that regard and the transition of the city.”

A big factor in the renaissance has been the MAPS (Metropolitan Area Projects) initiatives, which began in 1993, followed by MAPS 2, MAPS 3, and MAPS 4, to improve life in the city. Mayor Holt says, “Cooper’s leadership on MAPS 4 was valuable in the City Council. He really helped us get to a 9-0 unanimous vote.” MAPS 4 was then approved by city voters with 16 projects, including parks, public transportation, recreation, and centers for youth, seniors, mental health and the homeless.

Holt spoke to Cooper’s Arts & Human Values class about the Oklahoma City renaissance. In that class, Cooper tries to make a connection between the arts and life. They watch various movies from different time periods, seeing how they reflect life in those times. They read “Boom Town: The Fantastical Saga of Oklahoma City, Its Chaotic Founding…Its Purloined Basketball Team, and the Dream of Becoming a World-Class Metropolis,” and then watch TV episodes of the documentary “Medici: Godfathers of the Renaissance” and compare the Italian renaissance to the Oklahoma City renaissance.

Cooper also teaches classes in philosophy, film and English. He says, “I hope students leave my classes understanding the stakes of acquiring knowledge and always being ready to revise knowledge – that life itself might very well be about the pursuit of knowledge, the pursuit of open-mindedness. I want students to understand how to communicate their thoughts, to be able to understand what a liberal arts education is. To read, write and think so someone can’t pull the wool over their eyes. To understand that education is lifelong.”

Novelist and MFA instructor Lou Berney says, “James was a terrific student. His creative thesis for me was a literary crime novel based on the Oklahoma City steakhouse murders of the 1970s. His fiction is hugely ambitious and also – a rare combination – beautifully executed. And he’s one of those writers (also rare) with a genuinely open mind, a strong desire to learn and get better. Those valuable qualities have also served him exceptionally well in his life of public service.”

Former MFA classmate Mark Stewart, OCU adjunct English instructor, praises Cooper’s involvement in their classes.

“In workshops he had so many ideas that elevated everything about wider issues that all tied into what we were talking about,” Stewart said. “It was like he threw a line out and reeled in all these interesting ideas and brought them into the pond with us. James always brings all of himself to whatever happens, and he totally engages in it and adds to the tapestry. Always had perceptive ideas in discussions.”

Cooper has championed several causes on the City Council. He authored a resolution for six public safety proposals, which passed unanimously. His experience as a teacher in a low-income middle school inspired him to promote the MAPS 4 youth centers to provide after-school and summer programs in arts, athletics, family, health and education. As a trustee of the Central Oklahoma Transportation and Parking Authority, he strongly endorsed the upcoming rapid transit system, which will go from downtown to the Northwest Expressway and Meridian Avenue.

This NW Bus Rapid Transit (NWBRT) will travel along Classen Boulevard near OCU and provide students easier access to points all across the city. Working with Mayor Holt, Councilwoman JoBeth Hamon, and the Embark public transit authority, Cooper ensured MAPS 4 funds for two additional BRTs, which would prioritize expanding and connecting the upcoming NWBRT to Northeast and South Oklahoma City.

Cooper is very visible in mass media. In a 2018 New York Times video on Oklahoma politics, Cooper talks about lack of communication between political parties, and he extols the nonpartisan election of City Council members as the video shows him campaigning for City Council and talking with voters at their homes about their concerns.

In the Huffington Post he had an article, “An Oklahoma Perspective on Tornado Alley,” in which he discusses the “Oklahoma Standard” – resilience in the face of adversity – demonstrated after the 1999 tornado in Moore, Oklahoma, as countless people and organizations volunteered, contributed and supported victims, similar to the Murrah Building bombing of 1995.

“We help because that’s who Oklahomans are,” Cooper said. “We are a resilient folk. It’s our DNA, from the Native peoples who first settled this land to the Dust Bowl to this very moment. We stare horror in the face, and we persevere because we know that the skies will clear again. That’s what being an Okie is all about.” He has published frequently in the Oklahoma Gazette, including articles about the history of the Oklahoma City LGBT community, about the LGBT Pride Festival, about the Keystone XL fuel pipeline, and about Oklahoma’s Promise, a program for students from families with income under $60,000 to earn college tuition scholarships.

When he first ran for City Council, the Oklahoma Gazette published an article about Cooper, in which he says, “I believe that my base is young people, LGBT folks, senior citizens, women, African Americans, young professionals, all types of people. Maybe I’m being just too optimistic, but I think we are all invested in this city’s future, no matter the demographic, and I relate to them all.”

Cooper’s perspective about the diversity of his constituency is reflected in comments by Mayor Holt that Cooper “still tries to find common ground rather than have it be an antagonistic fight between different groups. He recognizes that in recent decades Oklahoma City’s political culture has best succeeded when people work together and set aside things that divide them. And even though he's passionate about many things, he still recognizes that the people he represents are not going to see better outcomes unless he is willing to sometimes accept incremental progress.”

Man in glasses
James Cooper. Photo by Ian Weston
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