Michael Cooper opens up about life, leadership, and long-term goals

ASMC President Michael Cooper poses for a photo surrounding himself with political posters supporting Proposition 16, Black Lives Matter, Black Panther Party and recently elected Oakland City Councilmember Carroll Fife on Saturday, November 21. 2020. (The Citizen/Ivan Chairez)

January 24, 2021

by Ivan Chairez, Photo Editor

Michael Cooper’s path has been drawn with lines that exceed convention, leading to his current role as Associated Students of Merritt College (ASMC) President. “I feel like each person should try and give a little bit more than what they take in this life,” Cooper said.

Originally from Ohio, Cooper bounced around from state to state during his childhood before settling in the Bay Area. Cooper grew up having to battle many hardships. He struggled with autism and Tourette’s syndrome, and also the relentless environment of the foster care system. Cooper was deemed a “problem child.” He dropped out of high school after two failed attempts as a freshman and was placed in juvenile detention centers and on juvenile probation. 

“It was a wild journey for me,” Cooper told The Citizen recently during an interview. “A lot of that involved my struggle with autism and Tourette’s.”

Cooper made his way to the Bay Area in order to escape the hardships he was facing.

“Someone mentioned to me that the Bay Area was almost like an international sanctuary for people escaping abuse of all ages, so I came out west,” Cooper recalled. 

While the move appeared as an escape from his stymies in the East, Cooper would fall into a different hurdle in the Bay, battling homelessness on and off for over a decade. He lived in San Francisco, Oakland, Alameda, before settling in Berkeley. Cooper started attending Merritt College as an early childhood development major. He and his fiancee developed the idea of opening up a preschool, where he would serve as both a teacher and a mentor. This idea expanded into a desire to become involved in national politics. 

“At Merritt, I have collaborated to host voter registration events, to develop a resource network for our students, as well as to sew and distribute face masks for local healthcare workers,” Cooper said. 

“Eventually I want to work towards influencing policy on a national level as well as allocating resources out of taxes and programs and such for children and families.

“I’m a person of service, I really like to be involved.”

Cooper’s previous experience as a student senator at Merritt, galvanized his desire to take more responsibility at the college. When the opportunity to run for student president became available last spring, he was shocked the position was open and unopposed. Cooper later spoke to then president Spencer Staggers-Elmore, and discovered that his ambitions and personal goals lined up with the work being done as Associated Students President of Merritt College. Although initially intimidated, Cooper seized the opportunity.

“In my mind, if I’m part of the leadership team, I’m like the background guy, the advisor, the brain stormer, the networker, getting a hold of everybody and then putting that connection to the forefront for leaders,” Cooper said. “It seemed like the place where I could make the biggest difference. So I went for it and I’m really glad that I did.” 

As student president, Cooper said he is trying to implement as much student presence as possible. He wants students’ voices to be heard and for there to be as much transparency between students and faculty as possible. He said the most important issue that has plagued Merritt College for decades is communication, an issue he is trying to tackle head on.  “It’s nothing new and I don’t think enough action is being done to overcome these communication barriers,” Cooper said.

Cooper has gained momentum from the Peralta District, board of trustees, and administration with the development to create an online student communication platform via Facebook named Associated students of Merritt College. He said that this channel represents students’ needs and concerns. 

“We have no ability to communicate with the students or know what the voices say that we’re supposed to represent. That’s a very difficult thing to do,” Cooper said. “As student leaders, the first and foremost responsibility is to represent the students and their voices.” 

Cooper mentioned how he improved student communication and the accessibility of student services. He highlighted the installation of a chatbot by Merritt’s financial aid department to guide students and the development of Zoom meetings that center on financial aid. 

His goals for this spring are to advocate for the hiring of more staff members at Merritt College and to bring in more full time educators and administrators to help with student services programs with enrollment and the financial aid and counseling departments. He added that Merritt needs more funding if these goals are to be met. “There has been no shortage of challenges,” Cooper said.

Cooper said he is communicating with each department and trying to determine where they get their funding, the types of funding, and how they could improve that funding. He said he is working diligently to try to figure out how to improve student programs and finding more resources is a major goal for him. Cooper hopes this changes in the near future as he continues to pursue his aspirations to make a difference in the lives around him. Cooper believes one should give more than they receive.

“The Student Senate, if it wants to be, has the motivation and the tenacity to be a very influential part of any democratic voting process,” Cooper said. “This is so much more interconnected and there’s so much more that you can actually influence. 

“I like to see that I’m making the world around me a little bit better.”