BMe leader spotlight: DaMareo Cooper uses $10,000 award to fund projects at The W.O.M.B.
words and photos by M. Sophie Hamad
DaMareo Cooper is on a mission to improve the lives of regular, everyday Ohioans. He says that he can’t do it on his own. Thankfully, he doesn’t have to.
Cooper is Organizing Director of Ohio Organizing Collaborative (OOC), a collaboration of 17 organizations around the state working toward social justice for everyone. Their primary focus is on issues of economic justice and criminal justice reform. OOC organized and ran the statewide Ban the Box initiative to get the Ohio Fair Hiring Act passed in 2015.
“We knew people weren’t able to get jobs—once you check that box you’re not getting that job. I don’t care who you might be or what you did or what the felony is, you check that box, you’re not getting that job,” says Cooper.
Cooper is also Executive Director of The Way of Mind and Body (The W.O.M.B.), which houses OOC’s Akron chapter, Akron Organizing Collaborative (AOC).
“We don’t have enough healing spaces for people in the city of Akron,” says Cooper. “We have not done a good job of creating social spaces and healing spaces, particularly for folks who’ve been through trauma, violent trauma, violent crimes. Where do you go, even if you’re an activist? I consider activists and organizers kind of like gluttons for pain. We feel a lot. It’s hard to be an activist if you don’t feel a lot. So The W.O.M.B. kind of acts as that space.”
From The W.O.M.B., AOC does voter registration, holds community meetings and trainings and leadership trainings and teaches organizing strategies. Last year AOC registered 8,000 people to vote in the city of Akron. This year they plan to register 12,000.
Cooper is one of the founding members of The W.O.M.B.. When he received the $10,000 award from BMe, he chose to use the money toward projects they need funded.
“We fund The W.O.M.B. with about 6 or 7 people giving their money, pieces of their own paycheck to keep the lights on, to keep the internet going to make sure there’s toilet paper,” says Cooper. The BMe award is the first funding that’s come from an outside source.
“I actually won the award, but I’m not unilaterally making decisions about what happens with the money—that’s not how we operate,” says Cooper. “We want to use the money to do a chess program and build a street mentor program, but also to have a studio—I’ve got people who are donating studio equipment—so we can teach young people to make music.”
“We want to teach young people about democracy…and teach them chess so we can start developing critical thinking skills,” says Cooper, “at the same time giving them something they want and enjoy like making beats and records and albums.”
Cooper is from Elizabeth Park, and he is passionate about helping people in his community because of his own past. When Cooper was young, there was a time when all of his uncles were incarcerated.
“I was in a single-parent household—my mom was an amazing woman. Like, she just pulled us out of the projects, and taught me so much about hard work. And what happened to me was, you know, I was like everybody else. I ended up thinking I was gonna be a drug dealer, or, like, trying to be a drug dealer—I wasn’t very good at it. I just wasn’t. I was too nice, you know? Like, I would take somebody’s TV out of their house and then, like, take it back.”
Cooper got into some trouble, and then spent three and a half years in the Marine Corps. When he returned to Akron, he started going to college at the University of Akron, and then transferred to Kent.
“I started school as a psych major because I was trying to figure out what was wrong with my family. Why was everybody in prison? There must be something mentally wrong with my family,” Cooper says.
But then he began to learn about the journey and history and struggle of African people in America. “The Thirteenth Amendment doesn’t necessarily abolish slavery,” says Cooper. “The Thirteenth Amendment basically says, when you’re convicted of a crime you can become a slave again.” Cooper changed his major to Pan-African studies with a minor in Anthropology. Before long, he was President of the Black United Students Organization.
“When I graduated from college, I was like, you know, I got this Pan-African Studies degree. I’m going to be poor, but I’m going to be a poor righteous teacher. I’m going to be a poor person for the community. I’m going to work on building my community,” Cooper says.
After a brief stint in Tulsa, Oklahoma with the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN), Cooper was offered the job as Organizing Director for OOC in Youngstown, where the first branch of OOC started as Mahoning Valley Organizing Collaborative.
When Cooper’s mother died in 2009, he came back to Akron to finish raising his younger cousins whom his mother had been raising, and who were 12 and 13 years old. He had promised his mother he’d help them finish high school. While he was home grieving, he got a call from his friend from college asking him to help open up The W.O.M.B., which used to be a boxing gym. Cooper threw himself into building The W.O.M.B..
“Our vision is to have a city where folks who are directly impacted by the problems have say-so around the solutions to those problems,” says Cooper. “We want people to have power in the city of Akron. And not just folks who have money or folks who have a lot of relationships, but bringing together the folks who have not been invested in the last 35 years to help find answers to the problems together. It’s about engaging people, building authentic relationships, and moving our community forward.”
Feeling inspired yet?
“We need help!” Cooper says. “We could use help in any way. If you have a skill, a trade, a checkbook, some time, whatever you’ve got, come down and give. And if it’s just time, give us an hour a month, at least just an hour a month. Because I know if you give an hour a month, and you see what you’re doing, you’re going to be like, ‘I like being here.’”