The Cherokee believe that all we are asked to do in this "Great Life" is to take care of each other and all of Creation and to leave this place better than we found it: “Tsadaksesdesdiquu.” Audrey Jean Cooper transitioned from this world on July 29, 2021, with her beloved grandchildren holding her hands. And yes, Audrey Jean Cooper did leave this place better than she found it.
Born in the Appalachian Mountains of Pennsylvania[KT1] on September 8, 1949 Audrey was always a leader, and even as a child, she defended those who needed help. Whether it was rescuing an animal or standing up to bullies, Audrey created safe spaces for others. Despite the prejudice that she encountered as a member of the only Native and Arab family in the small town, she was an accomplished student, singer, and French Horn musician, participating in orchestra, band, glee club, and choir. She always won first chair in county and regional competitions. Audrey was widely respected in her community; she volunteered with the elderly, children, library, Girl Scouts, and school fundraisers. She intended to become a nurse, which was no surprise to all those she touched.
At just seventeen, Audrey moved to Ithaca, NY to attend college, but she immediately got involved with local and national civil rights and anti-war activities. She began her career as the receptionist and soon became the program manager at the Northside House, a community recreation center where she continued her practice of advocating for and defending those who needed support. In 1972, Northside became the Greater Ithaca Activities Center (GIAC), and Audrey served as Deputy Director for several years. Even after Audrey moved on to other posts, she was a GIAC board member for over 35 years, including multiple stints as board president. She led a major initiative that resulted in GIAC becoming a stand-alone department of the City of Ithaca, effective January 1, 1998.
Audrey was an essential team member of the Dispositional Alternatives Program (DAP) of the Family and Children’s Center, an innovative project that provided services, case management, advocacy, housing, and support for teens in need, particularly those on probation (mid- to late 1970's). She worked her magic on the court system and collaborated closely with Judge Betty Friedlander, who had a tremendous impact on many reforms in Family Court. Charming, yet firm, Audrey had a remarkable way of connecting with the kids, police, attorneys, and justice personnel. Kids with all kinds of issues would stop by the office to hang with Audrey; she was 'another mother' and remained close to many whom she counseled. She was tough, loving and got everyone involved so that the young people had support and consistency. Since she was at the heart of the Ithaca community, Audrey knew her clients' aunts and uncles, grandparents, parents, and siblings, which created a "village" culture. Her success came from treating clients like family instead of clients, a Native perspective of "winding[KT2] the world well."
Audrey then became Executive Director of Southside Community Center where she established Ithaca’s first shelter for men challenged by houselessness, inclement weather, poverty and sometimes substance addiction. She was key in founding the West End Breakfast Club, which merged all segments of the community including law enforcement, mental health services, businesses, and young people to create a safe and healthy West End neighborhood.
The Multicultural Resource (MRC) was the next organization that bloomed under Audrey's tutelage and for which she is best known. She served as Executive Director from 1998 until she retired in December 2014, earning the distinction of the mayor declaring it Audrey Cooper Day. MRC began as a multicultural resource library filled with materials and books that reflected all cultures of Ithaca. Located in the Beverly J. Martin Elementary school, the library's collection debunked stereotypes and addressed racism by providing accurate and diverse information to create multiethnic and intercultural understanding in schools and communities. Under her leadership, MRC grew to be an essential community treasure chest of projects, activities, and events that celebrated and included all people. It was the go-to organization in Ithaca, because one of its purposes was to heal the city by developing a culture of inclusivity. [KT3] Audrey encouraged the community to develop multicultural literacy, respect, and an understanding that people could be different from one another AND equal. Her support of events such as the Ithaca Asian American Association’s Dragon Boat Races, and her creating programs like Talking Circles on Race and Racism, are testimonies to Audrey’s decades-long commitment to true diversity, equity, and inclusion.
Audrey challenged sexism, not only as a role model but by fiercely supporting the emerging leadership of countless women and girls. Through the phenomenally successful annual Sister-Friends Celebration which Audrey began in 2005, she and the planning team showcased women artists and artisans and nurtured the power of sisterhood among women of all ages and social identities. Each year’s event hosts over 250 women and sells out as soon as the tickets are available. The only interruption of this much-anticipated celebration has been the pandemic.
Audrey should be credited with ensuring that the Cayuga people—as the original owners of these lands—are paid tribute with a land acknowledgement to honor them before Ithaca public gatherings. In 2008, Audrey supported the homecoming of the Tutelo tribal members, refugees from Southeastern colonialism and genocide, who had been given sanctuary by the Cayuga in the 1700's. The event grew into the First People's Festival, which has become a major commemoration of Indigenous peoples of the Americas, only postponed in 2020 because of the pandemic. Audrey collaborated with other groups to sponsor an Ithaca visit from the International Council of 13 Indigenous Grandmothers. She made sure the children of the GIAC Afterschool Program were able to share special storytelling time with the grandmothers, and that one of her seriously ill sister-friends received their special healing attention.
During Audrey Cooper's long and courageous community service and activism, she was a driving force in Ithaca. Never seeking the spotlight, she was a savvy co-conspirator in visionary yet practical projects that exemplify the social justice values of Ithaca. She served on several boards and advisory committees, many for decades: Opportunities, Alternatives, and Resources (OAR); City of Ithaca Affirmative Action Advisory Committee, which was subsequently re-named the Workforce Diversity Advisory Committee; Ultimate Re-entry Opportunity Program (URO); Hospitality Employment Training Program (HETP); Cayuga Lake Water Protectors; Community Leaders of Color (co-founder); Leadership Multicultural Alliance Project for teens (partnering with TFC Associates, GIAC, Learning Web, IYB and TST-BOCES); Activists Committed To Interrupting Oppression Now (ACTION) co-founder; Hospitality Employment Training Program (HETP); Downtown Ithaca Children’s Center; Understand to Overcome initiative, co-founder; and the Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration committee. Among her many honors, Audrey received the New York State Harriet Tubman Humanitarian Achievement Award, the Cecilia Montaner-Vargas Spirit of Inclusion Award (Human Services Coalition), and the INHS Lucy J. Brown Leadership Award. Audrey was an enrolled member of the Sand Hill Band of Lenape and Cherokee Indians and participated in the Native Women's Wellness and Prayer Circle. Often on the frontlines, Audrey was part the American Indian Movement as well as other freedom and human rights struggles. She was extremely well-organized and an expert planner. She had an influential voice and a commanding presence, so needed for the battles she fought on behalf of the marginalized, oppressed, and vulnerable. She knew the Ithaca community so very well and, because she understood and cared, she worked tirelessly to point out where change was necessary, and most importantly, to offer good helpful solutions. A beautiful, sweet, and kind soul who would do all she could to help someone else, Audrey was non-judgmental about the trials that folks can go through in life. Audrey was a mother to too many people to count—a strong mama bear, loving mom, doting grandma and loyal sister!
Audrey Cooper is survived by her three children- Heather Cooper, Jemal Cooper, Amber Boyd; four grandchildren - Ashlie, Jemal Jr. and Keenan Cooper; Quincy Eldred; and great-granddaughter - Anthym Cooper; three sisters - Yvonne Wakim Dennis, Alexis Skinner, Mary Lynn Ripa; and several nieces and nephews; great nieces and nephews; many cousins and friends.
Because Audrey would not want her beloved family, friends, and community to risk their health by gathering in person during the pandemic, we will hold a community Celebration of Life next year on July 30. The organizing committee asks that you honor Audrey Cooper's contributions by doing whatever you can do make this a better place. In lieu of flowers or other tributes, there will be an activist mini-grant fund in her honor. Details to follow. As we remember Audrey Cooper and all she means to us and how much did for this community, we can best say it in Arabic: الحركة بركة, which translates to: "Movement is a blessing; Action is better than inaction. In order to get things done, you need to act."