Five Questions on Leadership, Health, and Equity with the Twin Counties’ Cooper Blackwell

We spoke to community leaders in and around our Healthy Places NC counties to gather their thoughts on leadership development, capacity building, and the role of equity in their work during this critical time in our state and country.

Tell us a little bit about yourself and your work. 

Raised in Rocky Mount, NC, I’ve worked in my community to spread awareness of racial segregation, minority business investment, and the importance of equitable development. When I came back from college, I was looking for ways to become more engaged in my community and create opportunities for people to get involved. I’m now a resource development coordinator for OIC and involved in the Rocky Mount community as a peer mentor, community liaison, and servant leader.  Additionally, I’m a program manager for ‘Transforming Rocky Mount,’ a program aiming to address the root causes of residential disparities by creating space and opportunities for low-income people to be leaders who represent community issues and push for visible change.

Why is it important to invest in community leaders?

Investing in leaders who have been uplifted by their community is essential because they provide you access to the community voice and can really gather the people together to a common cause. While one person can certainly not speak for everyone, these leaders provide a channel to amplify the ideas, messages, and solutions the community is bringing out and wants to uplift. There’s also an additional element of social mobility and empowerment – I believe that everyone should have the opportunity to further themselves and be a leader if that’s what they want.

How have past and current health improvement efforts in your community affected your ability to respond to current crises?

As our community has faced the pandemic and the ongoing fight against systemic racism, we’ve been blessed with the ability to be flexible to those needs. Our past efforts provided us with a base level of collaboration that was already sustained within the community, and this allowed us to respond quickly to these issues we’re all facing. We have a lot of responsibility in the community, so it was crucial that we were able to adapt to the circumstances and, more importantly, maintain our services.

How does your work give power to voices that have not traditionally had power?

We’re able to provide spaces where people can speak from life experiences and teach others about themselves and how to engage with people like them. It’s important to understand the social elements of community before you have any type of serious dialogue or do any type of work to try to change something. You have to not only understand where people where are but also meet them there as well. Working directly with the people who live in these marginalized communities to understand their idea of transformation and what they need is the greatest path and source for change.

How has equity played a role in your work and contributed to the success in your community?

I think it’s important that in our work we don’t view equity just as a project. Instead, we’re living and working with an equity lens. We create space for everyone to come to an understanding of what equity looks like for them. We make opportunities for Black voices to speak on the issues that are affecting Black communities. We challenge the system and all the factors that perpetuates systemic racism to create transformation and set our community up for success.