Elisa Cooper: On Fire for Justice

When I learned that Elisa Cooper had passed away, I cried. I felt that I had lost a comrade, a colleague, a fellow advocate on the front lines.

by Moni T. Law

When I read the news that Elisa Cooper had passed away, I cried. I felt that I had lost a comrade, a colleague, a fellow advocate on the front lines.

Despite her body suffering from significant pain, the rapid loss of her sight from a degenerative genetic disorder, and struggling financially on less than $400 a month, she came to Berkeley city government meetings and was actively engaged.

I was also sad to see someone die so young — someone who suffered herself, but continued to push forward in her effort to make life better for others. Elisa did not complain about her personal issues, but instead advocated for the inclusion of poor people on a city commission that states that poor people are to be appointed (and have not been included to date).

Elisa wrote recently to Berkeley City Councilmembers to suggest that they not “tweet” or post on Facebook during council meetings. She suggested that they have staff post such updates to ensure the community felt that they were being heard during the meetings.

Elisa Cooper was a big fan of transparency and an interactive democratic government. She was one of the rare people who thoroughly examined the issues, researched the history of a policy and practice, and referenced and attached multiple articles on the issues at hand.

Elisa was smart, tenacious and persistent. She usually had a book or two in her hand, and a couple of notepads of information. I enjoyed having someone smart like her on my team.

Berkeley is fortunate to have a number of well-educated advocates. Elisa Cooper took it to another level. She reminded me of Elizabeth Warren who persisted in the Senate after being told to sit down, or the spirit of Fannie Lou Hamer who would tell you that she was “sick and tired of being sick and tired.”

One local resident commented on Berkeleyside’s report on her death, complimenting her presentations as thorough, but suggesting that she died an untimely death because of her supposed “anger.” I wrote back that if he knew Elisa Cooper, he would know that she was not a negative or angry person.

We often laughed together at dozens of meetings. Elisa had a sweet and quiet disposition. Her disposition simply changed when she was on fire for justice. We exchanged copies of our emails to council, and collaborated and consulted on the strategy on issues before the Zoning Adjustments Board (ZAB), Planning Commission and City Council.

When she approached the podium during council meetings, she was passionate and might express a righteous anger about injustice. Elisa spoke boldly on issues that she cared about. I was always impressed and relieved that we still have a few citizens who speak up for unpopular positions, and for marginalized communities.

She was one of the few white people who spoke forcefully and eloquently on issues impacting Black people. Also, although not homeless, she advocated for the homeless and even participated sleeping outside in overnight vigils in support of our houseless neighbors.

Only weeks before her untimely death, she wrote to the Zoning Adjustments Board to push for the “Extremely Low Income” category in the affordable housing mix in South Berkeley. She pointed to the disproportionate impacts of redlining (racial discrimination in housing and loans).

She wrote, “No consideration has been given as to how the historic effects of redlining means that speculation on the Adeline Corridor disproportionately effects black homeowners. Property scams are an ongoing issue in South Berkeley.”

Based on Elisa’s compassionate heart, personal experiences, and brilliant intellect, I recommended her as an addition to a countywide committee formed by the Dellums Institute for Social Justice. She provided valuable input to preserve affordable housing, and to protect the few Black tenants and property owners remaining in Berkeley. Elisa contributed concrete information, and data-based solutions.

Only days before she died peacefully at home in her sleep in late June, she attended a long and contentious Berkeley City Council meeting. As a fellow alum at UC Berkeley, I feel that my university and city owe a debt of gratitude for the contributions made by Elisa Cooper to making our city the best possible town for everyone.

I am thankful for her voice, and I pledge to continue to raise the concerns that she presented. Rest in Peace, sister Elisa Cooper. You are missed, but never forgotten.

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Elisa Cooper joined the women who held a vigil and sleep-out at Old City Hall. From left, Moni Law, Genevieve Wilson, Elisa Cooper and Sally Hindman.

 

Elisa Cooper’s Valentine’s Day Letter to Berkelely Officials

Editor’s Note: This is an excerpt from a letter Elisa Cooper sent to the Berkeley City Council on Valentine’s Day 2017. It may not be a valentine to the council but it is full of love and compassion for the poor and homeless persons she spent much of her life lovingly defending. Her letter was titled, “Please Stop Undermining Poor People.” The council could have learned so much from this woman whose insights into the way governmental injustices and mistakes exacerbate poverty was learned the hard way — through her own personal experiences.

A letter by Elisa Cooper

In the past I’ve written to you about taking dignity, privacy, and autonomy into account if you want to reduce the physical and mental stress on poor people. Now I would like to give you a practical problem to think about. If a poor person is homeless, they can receive a (reduced) amount of General Assistance in cash. If a poor person is housed, 100% of that General Assistance goes either directly to the landlord for rent or, if the client gets the money in cash (a very hard fight that was only won 2 years ago), 100% still has to be handed over to the landlord because it’s only $336/month with no additional money for utilities.

Also, if you aren’t significantly disabled, you only get that $336/month for 3 months out of a year: try to stabilize your life under those Welfare Reform circumstances. Currently, if your rent is higher than $336/month and you make it on to certain County lists, you can currently get another $300 (again, just to cover rent): that program is also only a couple years old, and will probably go away under Trump. If you do make it on to the County List, how do you know? Months went by before I found out I was eligible through a random research phone call even though I was in touch with numerous case workers and benefits counselors. I bet you didn’t realize that poor people are expected to have psychic powers.

Think about what that means. If you live in a tent, you can buy non-food necessities. If you’re marginally housed, you have zero cash income. Housed people are also actively punished if they attempt to earn makeshift income: if you legally report this, the money is deducted from General Assistance. What do you think would happen if a landlord that is already annoyed at having to deal with government bureaucracies gets less rent in a check from the State? If the money is going directly to the client, how do they make up another gap when the makeshift work money has already been used to fill a previous gap? Also, since bureaucracies don’t like change, and Social Services has no mechanism for accountability to clients, any reported earnings means an instant cut off in *all services* (including Medi-Cal) — which forces the client to rapidly appeal and/or go through the hassle of reapplying for stuff and making sure they get repopulated into all the downstream databases (such as medical rides). That’s a month of phone trees and 2-hour waits to talk to a human being.

Please take a minute to consider what it means to have zero cash income. Consider a frustrated doctor telling you to buy vitamins that “just cost a few dollars.” Consider needing something more expensive like a cart and being told you “can save up for that.” Consider all the casual non-food items you buy every day: cleaning and hygiene supplies, light bulbs and toilet paper. Consider stamps. Guess what: even in this Internet age, certain bureaucracies still run on stamped envelopes. Did you see stamps or any other office supplies in the last donation barrel you pitched your second-hand clothing into?…

So perhaps in your race to get people housed, you have only been thinking about what makes Berkeley look good or what comfortably middle class Berkeley taxpayers will accept. You have no idea what the factors are for the people you are trying to be benevolent to.

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