April 14, 2021

Arshay Cooper — Author and Protagonist of A Most Beautiful Thing & Captain of the First All-Black Rowing Team‬

Dana Safa

1Huddle Podcast Episode #34

On this Bring It In podcast episode, 1Huddle’s CEO and Founder Sam Caucci sat down with Arshay Cooper, a Rower, Benjamin Franklin award-winning author, and the protagonist of the critically acclaimed documentary A Most Beautiful Thing that’s narrated by the Academy-Award and Grammy-winning artist, Common. Arshay is also a Golden Oar recipient for his contributions to the sport of rowing, a motivational speaker, and an activist focused on issues of accessibility for low-income families. 

To understand how Arshay’s life has become the center of an acclaimed documentary, you need to know more about his backstory; Arshay grew up on Chicago’s Westside in the ’90s, and he knows the harder side of life. His mother is a recovering addict, and his three siblings all sleep in a one-room apartment, in an area plagued by gang violence and addiction. Growing up, Arshay kept to himself, writing poetry and spending his school days in the home-ec kitchen with dreams of becoming a chef. As he was leaving school one day, he noticed a boat in the lunchroom and a poster that said “Join the Crew Team. At the time, Arshay didn’t even know what the sport of crew was, but he took a chance that ended up changing his life.

Arshay became the captain of the first all-Black high school rowing team in the United States. He and his teammates experienced racism and discrimination in their community while playing an almost all-white sport, and this experience ultimately transformed Arshay’s life. Now, Arshay works with the George Pocock Rowing Foundation and A Most Beautiful Thing Inclusion Fund to bring rowing to under-resourced communities. 

On this episode of Bring It In season two, Arshay and 1Huddle’s CEO and Founder Sam Caucci talked about everything from whether the talent shortage is really not a talent shortage at all — but an access shortage, to what winning truly means.


Audio available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and Google Podcasts. 

TOP 5 HIGHLIGHTS

Below are some of the insights Arshay shared during our chat, edited for length and clarity. You can find more Bring It In podcast episodes here.

  • “Leave the boathouse better than you found it even if you didn’t make the mess, because it’s easier for the next group. If we leave the world better than we found it — even if we didn’t make the mess — it leaves it better for the next generation.”
  • “Representation really helps you realize: I have a place, my voice will be heard. Someone would understand what I’m going through as a young Black man.”
  • “Talent is everywhere; hunger is everywhere; thirst is everywhere, but the access and opportunity is not.”
  • “It’s like a bank account: if you want to get a withdrawal, you have to make a deposit….the coaches that make those deposits get those withdrawals.”

FULL TRANSCRIPTION

Sam: When I read your book, the thing I latched onto most was the impact of the coaches on you. 

Arshay: A couple of years ago, I spoke in Harlem to our boys’ group. One by one I asked each boy: what’s your dream? One kid said to eat at Chipotle and all the kids were giggling and you can look at him, look at his eyes, and tell he’s very serious about it. I was thinking, well, you know, when I was young if Chipotle was there, there’s no way I would be able to afford it. After the session, I gave 20 bucks to the school counselor and I said, you have to make sure that this kid gets Chipotle. If you can eliminate that small dream there’s room for more dreams and his dream becomes a little bit bigger. There’s a lot of things I learned from my coaches, but they were in the business of eliminating dreams. I had this dream just to go downtown — 15 years old and I have never been to downtown Chicago, and all of a sudden I started rowing, I went downtown. I’m like: wow, I want to go out of town. We take that day trip to Madison, Wisconsin, and I’m like, we need a week-long trip. We go to Philly and we get a little bit faster and I’m ready to race. So every day, every week, every month, these coaches were thinking about: how can we eliminate the dream? Now, let’s make so many dreams that at some point when you have gone so far there’s no way you can give up because you look back and you’re way past where you ought to be as a 15/16-year-old kid, and there’s no way you go back. I use those same lessons today. Even when I work with young coaches and staff, I develop a bracket and I say: what are your goals? What are your dreams? Until we reach that big mission at the end of the year. Every week we figure out how we can eliminate those dreams until we accomplish what we want to at the end of the year, and it was that simple for the coaches

Sam: I’ve never heard that. That’s super vivid, super powerful. What was it about the coaches that you had, how did they get you into the boat? 

Arshay: When I first walked in the lunchroom, I saw that boat and it was beautiful and this little lady said, “hey, let me show you what rowing is all about.” Behind the boat was this TV monitor and they were showing the Olympic games and they had these videos of boathouses. Right away, when I saw the people, the images, the decor, the boathouse, it didn’t reflect the world I was used to. I didn’t reflect the kids that they were trying to put in their seats. No one looked like me and so I said no and I sat down. The next day they had pizza, and when I went upstairs to the general info session, first I saw a female coach. In our neighborhood, most of us were raised by women, most of our teachers were women, so I was comfortable with women. And then I saw a Black man… He didn’t know about rowing, but he was a strength and conditioning coach. That showed me and my mother that in this white space, I will be protected or I can get there. Someone who looks like me, that kind of representation really helps you realize: I have a place, my voice will be heard. Someone would understand what I’m going through as a young Black man. Then the last thing is just Candace. Passionate, amazing white coach. The first thing he did before we joined the team is he went to our house and visited our parents. He didn’t care what people say or what people think or how people perceived our community, but he let us know right away — not through his words but his actions — that I am here. That diverse group of coaches showed me no matter what I go through that someone will hear me and someone will understand what I’m going through. I have someone to turn to when it comes to different things that happen in my life. I think that diversity, that trust, that love I saw between all those coaches really made me feel like it was something I wanted to be a part of. Right away it was like: hey, let’s be a great human first, and then let’s see what we can do about being a great athlete. 

Sam: I remember the part in the story where you had one of your first races and it didn’t go so well. I remember that vividly, bouncing off the wall. What did your coaches do in that situation? How did they keep you all in the mental space to be okay with failure and okay with struggle in a situation that was so public?

Arshay: The relationship they have with us, growing up on the West Side, it’s hard and people are frustrated. People see a lot; they deal with a lot of kids who’ve been through a lot of trauma. Most of the time when we hear from adults in our neighborhoods, teachers, or maybe some parents, they only talk at us. When we do something wrong, it’s: what are you doing? You can’t do that. That’s what we usually hear from people, and then they don’t get the response that they want because you don’t know me. You never took the time out to talk to me or deposit in my life. It’s like a bank account: you want to get the withdrawal, you have to make a deposit. And so up to the race, there were always deposits. What keeps you up at night? What keeps you going? What’d you watch last night? Who cuts your hair? They were just into our lives. It’s hard when we want to explode and blow up from losing; when we feel like we’re a failure and we don’t want to hear from anyone. The coaches who constantly make deposits get the withdrawals, and it was those deposits every day. They are calling us out to the side, like: I saw what you did, and you can be better. One more stroke. Let’s do it again. It was those deposits that they put in our lives so that at any time, no matter what we were going through, they were getting withdrawals and it was the relationship building that mattered. They knew who cut our hair, they knew where our moms worked. It was a family atmosphere, so that’s what kept us going — kept us responding to them at all times.

Sam: You know, it’s easy to poke at stuff. It’s easy to be the one to say: this is what’s wrong with somebody. It’s hard to be somebody who sees opportunity and pulls it out of young people. 

Arshay: It is definitely a difference. I think when there’s this positive coaching style versus when we were younger with our generation with that “let’s be tough on them” mentality. I think people are just trying to move with what’s going on in the world and form a relationship with these kids. There was a moment when I was coaching at Rowan and I was kind of yelling at some kids, and a mom said “I don’t think you should yell at them.” It was a random mom, not even a mom in the program. I said “go ask them how I feel about them.” She was like, what? And the kid was like, “he freaking loves me.” I think it’s that things have changed. We live in a different place. It’s a new, different generation, and sometimes we have to adapt with what’s happening but try to mix everything that we learn. It’s a complicated situation for coaches these days. It’s something that I’m still trying to figure out. We all are kind of working on it. 

Sam: You’re seeing the next wave of workers and leaders. What other characteristics do you see that make you hopeful? 

Arshay: It all comes down to leadership: what you know, being aware of systemic obstacles and barriers, and hesitations from people. I think it’s really all about taking what these young kids are used to and placing it before them. For example, Ken, who was our coach, was a trader and there’s all these drug dealers that’re hanging out in our neighborhoods. He said: first of all, I know these guys; some of these guys probably love video games, they’re good at math, they take risks. I’m going to use that to recruit these guys to be traders, but it was really about getting a chance to know what these young people are good at. I’m going to take that and make them the best traders ever. I think it’s really looking at what people are good at in these communities and as an organization, as a company, how can we use those talents? Because talent is everywhere. Hunger is everywhere. Thirst is everywhere, but the access and opportunity is not. I think we have to begin to think about how we can use the certain talents out there and incorporate it with what we do and use that same gift to move our companies and our organizations forward. 

Sam: Speaking of talent, the book you wrote is all over the place getting all types of awesome accolades, and it’s doing well. What gave you the idea to do it? I’m sure that had to be its own challenge. 

Arshay: I had a lot of challenges. Number one: I wanted to show that talent was everywhere, but access and opportunity is not. Number two: I think people always say what’s going on in Chicago? And they look to the media or the news or Twitter to learn about what’s going on in Chicago. I was trying to figure out how I can write something to give people the opportunity to unlearn the things that are not true or that are without insight. What happens when a group of coaches — no matter who they are or where they are — get together and have a vision, have a mission. The impact that they can make is amazing. I wanted to put that out in the world and also show the sport of rowing not only as a sport of competitiveness but as a sport of healing. It reduces trauma. You have to be in the water, and you’re meditating. That constant motion is remnick, and you follow the person in front of you. There’s no broken street glass. There are no police sirens. I wanted to give the world an opportunity to understand who we are and where we came from. If you can give opportunities, I think great things will happen. I want to say too that when I wrote this book, I started pitching it to all kinds of agents and the first question was: did you win? and I said, “no we didn’t win.” People would turn me down, and there was a part where the coach was a rower. He grew up wealthy. He said “I didn’t think the program was successful because we didn’t win medals,” or “the guys didn’t get recruited to Ivy League colleges.” That was the kind of thought process he had as a young coach at first. And I remember saying “showing up to the boathouse is a win. Getting guys from different gangs who didn’t like each other to build a brotherhood is a win. Overcoming the fear of swimming, which has been an obstacle for years in our community, is a win. 90% of those guys are entrepreneurs now, and that’s a win. Sometimes people who didn’t grow up like we did measure success a little bit differently than our communities do. That’s why it’s important to build relationships. Like I said earlier, understanding the success that these communities need or these young people need so we can work together and understand that things are different, but we can still move forward together, is so important.

Sam: A lot of companies had a lot of really nice quotes and social media posts going out all through the month of February, and then March happens. And it makes me wonder: what’s going to happen the other 11 months out of the year? How do you — as a business leader or a manager or coach, a teacher, or a member of a community — how do you fight for equity, inclusivity, and diversity every day? Any advice or opinions for companies that are trying to move things forward?

Arshay: I know these companies are doing diversity committees with a few of the people of color that are in a room and a few people that are passionate about it, but everything rises and falls on leadership, right? Leadership has to be a part of planning. The world is in a place where people are hurting, and you want to hear from your leaders. I talked about Jessica, who was a woman — the Black guy that was there of course cared about these issues — but the white guy Cam was just as passionate. That’s why we were successful in many different ways. I think when the leadership and the diversity committee feel the same way about issues of justice and diversity, then the company is in the right place. The leadership has to be a part of these diversity committees. I think number two is that you can’t say we’re going to have a seminar. We’re going to be a diverse company. In eight years it is going to be awesome. We’re going to figure out how to build this bridge and it’s going to be great… Like you can’t start there. You need to challenge everyone to lay one brick as perfectly as they can. It may be that they’re going to run MLK Day and then take it to the next level for someone else. They’re gonna run the monthly book clubs with books like Just Mercy, but then leave Between the World and Me and The New Jim Crow for someone else. Maybe they’re going to bring in a monthly speaker and someone else is attending these volunteer days and building community engagement workshops for individuals. It’s about challenging them to learn. It’s maybe “hey, we’re going to have lunch, and we’re going to debrief one-on-one with someone that you work with about what we learned in a diversity event and how we are going to apply it and hold each other accountable.” Everyone has to find that one brick and weigh it as perfect as they can. Every day, you’re going to see that bridge and it’s easy to cross over to where you ought to be as a company. But again, we have to know that leadership cares. We have to see diversity not just for the sake of diversity, but because people of color want to be heard. They want to be able to know that the organization and company is also moving with their ideas. I don’t care if Jessica the female coach or Victor the Black guy know so much about diversity. They really care about us, but if Ken didn’t care and he didn’t show up, well he owns this place and he’s the leader of this group. I think it’s important for leadership to be a voice in how much they care about this issue. The last thing I would say is that when you do that, your organization becomes a voice and not an echo. When leadership is not involved, it’s just an echo. You’re not sure what’s really changing, because they make the decisions. I think that’s the start: learning and applying it. It’s not a one-off thing. It’s on the calendar monthly. Ask yourself: are people reading books and talking about it? We understand that our company has partnerships with HBCUs and with community colleges, so we see the pipeline so clear that three years from now, we know we will have kids from the neighborhood or young people from the neighborhood working in our organization. I think that you have to see it and not just talk about it. It has to be on the calendar; it has to be in the mission statement; it has to be on the website. I think that makes people feel great about showing up the next day. 

Sam: We just had our whole company read White Fragility. In February we went through a whole series and we turned them all into games. So as you read the book, you played the game on it. You re-instill it, and it’s gotta be 52 weeks a year. 

Arshay: You saw in the documentary there’s a scene with the cops — and obviously the relationship is not great on the West Side of Chicago between the people who live there and the people who work eight hours a day there, it’s not great. I remember saying: okay, we’re attacking the gang issue, but we also have to attack the relationship between the cops and the Black community. That’s another issue that scares the mothers in our community. I always say that in the sport of rowing, I can’t do the work of eight people, but I need eight people to do the work, and we get that much faster. How do we get the whole eight moving? Now we know teachers and some of the business owners and some of the churches are moving with us — but not the cops, yet they work here eight hours a day. How do we get the whole eight moving? What I told the guys is: as a teacher, you will always forget some of your students, but as a student, you’ll never forget your teacher. We have an opportunity to be the teacher here and to find that alignment. We have to refocus the lens on how great we are and how much we really care. When I invited the cops out to row, I said it’s not going to be a one-day thing. This filmmaker was like, “alright, we will invite them out and that’s it.” I was like, “no, they’re racing with us. I want to see them everyday. I want to invite them to the same water, so that we can experience the same thing.” It was every day in training where we felt the same pain. We stretched, we laughed, we had uncomfortable conversations, we pulled together, we felt the magical rhythm in a boat. We were frustrated together. We began to develop a relationship every single day. It wasn’t a one-off, it had to be a way of life and a state of mind. At the end of our race, when we had our first event we had a cop say: “I realized that Alvin grew up not making bad choices but making hard choices to survive, to eat. Preston wears his hoodie and sags his pants every day, but he’s one of the best entrepreneurs on the West Side of Chicago. One of the cops said when George Floyd was murdered, I had a lot of bricks thrown at me, but I realize that I can take my uniform off, but they can’t take their Black skin off. I said: that’s great Matt, but I need you to tell your colleagues that. He was like… yes, but then they would tell me things. But these conversations don’t happen in seminars or on one-offs. When it’s every day, when it’s a part of life — that’s when the change begins to happen. It’s fun sometimes, and it’s uncomfortable as athletes. You don’t win anything by being comfortable. We have to be uncomfortable almost the whole time until we get the results that we want, but it has to happen every day, it has to be a part of the culture, and it has to be written on a wall. It has to be written down on quotes, the books have to be laying around. That’s how we’re going to get to where we need to be. 

Sam: What’s next for you? When are you going to come into book two or book three?  

Arshay: What’s next is that we are continuing to travel and start both clubs in different cities. There’s never been an African-American male who rowed in this country in the Olympics on American soil. If the 2028 LA Olympics were right now, we’re building that pipeline, and we’re reaching out, and we’re going into their cities, and we’re giving them the tools they need to get recruited into college to go to the national scene. We’re unclogging that pipeline so that every boathouse can reflect the diversity in this country and the diversity in their cities. Second thing is that the book was picked up for a scripted TV series with Amazon Studios. So that’s pretty awesome. We are going to continue to just go around and inspire and speak to coaches who want to know how to recruit and learn. I think the lesson I will leave you all with is the biggest lesson I learned in the sport, and that I think that we can embrace as an athlete and as coworkers: it’s that I remember showing up at the boathouse and Coach Victor saying “Leave the boathouse better than you found it even if you didn’t make the mess because it’s easier for the next group. If we leave the world better than we found it — even if we didn’t make the mess — it leaves it better for the next generation.” That’s something that stuck with me because I say to myself, how do I leave a podcast? How do I leave the classroom? How do I leave the workplace? How do I leave this country better than I found it? Even if I didn’t make the mess, right? Cause we might say” well, I have nothing to do with that and nothing to do with slavery, but if we can leave the world better than we found it — even if we didn’t make the mess — it leaves a better world for the next generation; for your daughter and everyone else. I want the world to be better because I’m here. That’s the lesson that I live by and I take it with me every day. If everyone at work can say, “when I think of Harriet Tubman, I don’t think about her as a union spy; I think about the freedom she brought to the world. When I think about Gandhi, I don’t say: oh, the attorney; I think about the peace that he brought to so many communities. I think about MLK not as an educated preacher, but by the hope he brought to this world when we act beyond ourselves and we represent something bigger than ourselves and our companies. That’s when the impact happens — that’s when the true change happens. If we continue to use that as our message, I think we all will be in a different, better place moving forward. 

Topics Discussed: Leadership, Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, Coaching, Rowing, Entrepreneurship, Community, All-Black Rowing, Mentorship, DEI

Dana Safa, Manager of Digital Marketing at 1Huddle

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