Brooklyn author’s historic rowing team reunites for documentary film

July 27, 2020 Caleb Miller
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In the late 1990s, Arshay Cooper, now of Brooklyn, lived in Chicago, where he starred on America’s first all-Black public high school rowing team.

Cooper, 38, is the author of a memoir, “A Most Beautiful Thing,” which has just been adapted into an eponymous documentary, directed and produced by Mary Mazzio, a former Olympic rower.

The book and the film illustrate Cooper’s precarious journey: Cooper’s mother battled drug addiction, and the team featured rival gang members. Mazzio says it was crucial to highlight the perils of “intergenerational trauma” and how “talent is equally distributed, but access and opportunity aren’t.”

Most student athletes at Manley Career Academy High School played basketball, football, or baseball. The rowing team was the vision of Ken Alpart, an options and futures trader who devoted his money and free time to working with kids in the West Side.

The “A Most Beautiful Thing” documentary features Cooper’s high school teammates, Alvin Ross, Preston Grandberry, Malcolm Hawkins, and others, as they reunite to race once more in the same Chicago lagoon where they made history two decades prior.

The film’s profile has been boosted by producers Common, Dwayne Wade, and Grant Hill, Cooper said. “Having those guys involved opens more ears.”

“Arshay has a magical quality to how he speaks about issues that makes it very understandable for people who aren’t from these neighborhoods,” says Mazzio. “Arshay is the constant bridge builder.”

Cooper spoke with the Brooklyn Daily Eagle by phone from his home in Brownsville. “I love Brooklyn’s community,” stated Cooper. “It still has that block party feel.”

Arshay Cooper chooses an oar. Photo: Clayton Hauck for 50 Eggs

This conversation has been edited for clarity and space.

What inspired you to write the memoir?

I was teaching a culinary class in the Marcy Houses and a kid talked about losing his mother in that building. Another kid started crying and said, “I lost my uncle in the same building.” I talked about my story and these young Black men had so many questions. That’s when I decided to write this story for young people about how access to the sport changed my life.

How did it feel returning to Chicago for the documentary and rowing with the guys?

It hurt, cause we’re old (laughs). Many things in your life you don’t want to relive, especially growing up on the West Side of Chicago, but there are many things that you want to — brotherhood, friendship, and laughter.

How has rowing changed over the past twenty years in terms of diversity and inclusion?

It’s changed a significant amount but not as fast as we want. There are now places like Row New York that have a staff, academic support, and great partnerships.

But it’s still expensive. We don’t have the best boats or coaches, and we can’t go to the Stanford, Yale, and Princeton camps that a lot of white kids go to. You see us rowing in high school but not at the college level. That’s my fight: how do I get more resources in these programs? How do we get college coaches the coaching competency they need to make their team more welcoming?

In your memoir, Coach Victor and Eugene, the caretaker at the boathouse, were the only Black men you encountered while rowing. How important were they to the team?

They were really able to see the hurt, to identify with the pain. A lot of white coaches have good hearts, but Victor and Eugene could discern what was happening in our lives through our sadness. I could go to them with certain things that I was ashamed to go to white coaches about.

What I learned was that representation matters, just being there and creating more opportunities for people who look like me to be there.

Cooper’s team on the water in Oakland.

What did you learn from Ken Alpart that helps you mentor now?

He asked, “What is the school that needs the most opportunity?” He came into our school, he showed up at our house to meet our moms. He understood how to build relationships and he educated himself on these communities. It wasn’t like a white savior, we didn’t get that from him. He created opportunities for us to take entrepreneurship courses and have summer jobs. He helped us understand the importance of working with kids and starting businesses in our community.

Traveling beyond your neighborhood had a huge impact on you and the team. How important is that for the kids you work with today?

Just the opportunity to let your guard down and not be the tough guy was good for us at the time. Having that experience is so important. What I’m pushing more programs to do now is to cater to the kid and to the family. I felt like if a mom saw a college campus and experienced the beauty it would be hard for the kid to quit the team because the mom would make him or her show up everyday.

What brought you to Brooklyn?

I moved to Brooklyn four and a half years ago from Harlem. I travelled as a chef and worked on movie sets for a while but I started working with a school in Brooklyn by the Marcy Houses, teaching young Black kids how to cook healthy food. When I got back into the rowing world Row New York had a boathouse in Brooklyn, so I worked with kids in Canarsie.

What made you start the rowing program at the East Side Community School in Manhattan?

I did a Meet the Author thing there. One kid asked, “How do I experience what you experienced?” The principal was all for it, so we got machines. We did indoor rowing and mentorship — I’d bring in a speaker every Monday for Motivational Mondays, one of my homeboys or homegirls who went down a great career path would tell the kids their stories. We also added an entrepreneurship program.

The challenge was getting access to the water: it’s expensive to rent a boathouse and buy boats, so we partnered with Row New York. But the kids started seeing success — they won medals, they were in shape. If you start off with the year with 40 kids and end the year with 40 kids, you’ve done something right.

Some students became walk-ons in college. One girl went on to coach rowing for athletes with disabilities. There were some great success stories from kids who really didn’t even spend time on the water, just indoor rowing. That’s how powerful this sport is.

Team member Malcolm Hawkins on the ergometer, surrounded by his teammates.

What work are you doing now?

Most of my work is in boathouses throughout the country, recruiting kids, telling my story, helping raise money for programs, connecting kids with college coaches. Now there’s the A Most Beautiful Thing Inclusion Fund to support boathouses that’ve been struggling, to help them get better coaches and equipment.

In the documentary, you invite Chicago police officers to row with the team. What impact did you hope that would have?

My role is education through conversation and bridging gaps through the water. The biggest disconnect is between the Black community and the police department. It wasn’t popular with the guys at first, but I just wanted to start a conversation.

Training together takes trust and a lot of dialogue. I wanted them to understand that Preston wears a hoodie and sags his pants but he’s still one of the best entrepreneurs on the West Side, that Alvin got into trouble not because he’s a criminal but because he’s a protector and he had to survive. I wanted them to see our face and walk a mile in our shoes. Through practicing and training everyday, they were able to see it.

The goal was that when they pull someone over or they see a Black man, that they see our faces and our stories, Black men, who started businesses and hired those in their communities. I’m hoping there’s a little bit of a ripple, that maybe they can hold their own accountable through this.

Do you feel differently now with all that has happened in the last few months?

I’d do it again. They feel like they have to be accountable to me: they sent me a picture and said, “We’re meeting with all of the Black faith leaders in Chicago now.” We have to defund the police and reallocate those funds to the community but in the meantime I’d rather have dialogue than no dialogue.

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