Arshay Cooper gives morning Claiming Williams Keynote

Luke Chinman and Lena Kerest

Arshay Cooper, a rower, author, and motivational speaker, as well as the subject of the documentary A Most Beautiful Thing, presented the morning keynote for Claiming Williams on Feb. 3. Claiming Williams, which occurs on the first Thursday of the spring semester to spark conversation about inclusivity at the College, was born after grassroots organizing by students in response to a series of racist incidents in January 2008. This year, the event’s theme was “Justice & Institutional Power,” and the morning keynote was co-sponsored by the College’s Athletic Department, Student Athlete Advisory Committee, and the Allyship in Athletics (AIA) committee.

“I really doubt I need to explain why the connection of justice and power demands our collective attention,” President Maud S. Mandel said during her introductory remarks, referencing the recent death of Tyre Nichols, a Black man from Memphis, Tenn., who was killed by five Black police officers in January. “Power will always exist. The question is how to ensure that it is exercised justly.”

After an introduction by Mandel, as well as remarks from Adam Roupas ’23, a men’s track and field captain and leader of AIA, and Marc Mandel, the head coach of men’s crew, Cooper took the stage, framing his hour-long speech with the question: “How do I allow this fire inside of me to shine brighter than the fire that happens around me?”

Cooper grew up on the West Side of Chicago, which he described as a community impacted by gang culture and drugs. “You see what most soldiers have seen in war — but before you’re 15 years old,” he said. “I wanted my community to change.”

Cooper’s life was changed when a speaker in an entrepreneurship class shared a vital lesson with him. “[He said,] ‘If you truly want something, you have to get up and go get it,’” he remembered. “That changed me. I said to myself that day that there would be no distance between my dreams and my actions.”

He went on to join — and become the captain of — the first all-Black high school rowing team in the United States. “It was all about the lessons that I learned from the sport that I use everyday now to change the world,” he said. 

Cooper recalled his feelings toward coxswains — the smallest member of the boat who steers but doesn’t row — while on his high school team. “As a rower, you’re like, ‘Shut up. I know what I’m doing. I’m in the boat, and I’m strong, and you’re not doing the work,’” he said. “That messes up the chemistry and connection of the team.” Cooper realized, he said, that he needed to trust his mentors and those who have already done work in diversity, equity, and inclusion, just as he needed to trust his coxswain.

Cooper founded the East Side Rowing Club and self-published his memoir Suga Water, which was subsequently developed into a documentary. He has been a guest speaker at various events for several major corporations including JP Morgan and Microsoft and for peer institutions including Harvard, Princeton, and Yale.

Cooper concluded his keynote by offering his own lessons to students at the College. “What you do now matters for your future and the future of our country,” he said. “If we all lay one brick as perfectly as we can, we will make Williams better.”