Sunday I introduced you to a person who Maya Angelou would call a “Phenomenal Woman.” MacDella Cooper is a philanthropist, activist, humanitarian, fashionista and proud Liberian. Fortunately, she carved a few minutes out of her hectic schedule to speak with me about her life and life’s mission. In case you missed Part I of the interview I’ll give you the Cliff’s Notes version.
MacDella Cooper was born in Monrovia, Liberia in the late ‘70s. War erupted when she was 12; her father was killed, her family’s home was bombed and she had to flee the country. Moved to the States, became successful in the fashion industry. Left an exciting job in the fashion industry in ‘04 to start a non-profit organization, the MacDella Cooper Foundation, aimed to educate orphaned Liberian children. Six years later the first students were accepted to the MacDella Cooper Foundation Academy in Charlesville, Liberia. MacDella and friends are hosting a benefit next Friday, L’Africana Night, to showcase African artists, designers and musicians. The event will definitely be Page Six & The Socialite Design news, so you should get your ticket today! All proceeds will benefit the MCF Academy. And now for Part Deux…
After experiencing such strife and escaping a harrowing situation, many people try desperately to forget their past. Why is it so important for you to remember?
Because my past made me everything I am and where I’m going. So trying to get away from my past would be
tragic. My past created MacDella Cooper. There is no MacDella Cooper without the civil war, without the African, being born in Africa. I have no power in me to create something that’s fake and phony, to create another character, another MacDella Cooper. So I’ve accepted everything that’s happened from the war, to losing my father, to losing all the riches we had, to living in the projects in Newark, New Jersey. That’s all part of the structure of who MacDella Cooper is. And I’m sorry to keep talking about myself in third person. But I can try to create this MacDella Cooper who’s this glamore queen, who’s this fashion person and now is doing good and leave the past out, but it just doesn’t make sense. I can only sell that but for so long and eventually it would get old and boring. But accepting my past, accepting what happened and knowing that there were things that shouldn’t have happened, it helps me grow.
When I talk to these young children that I talk to today and the ones we have in the school, the knowledge that I have to share with them, I only have that knowledge because of the experiences I’ve had. So I can tell them today war is not a solution, war hurts people, war destroys families…if I didn’t have those experiences or the past that I had there would be nothing I could tell them about that topic.
I know the Academy is a big part of your Foundation. How did it come to fruition?
We were in Liberia for so long helping children, helping people rebuild their lives, we just knew this country couldn’t go further or this country couldn’t advance without education. And we have the first female president [Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf] on the entire continent of Africa and she’s struggling to find good people to run her government. Because you have a small country of 3 million people, 85% maybe below the poverty line, the illiteracy is sort of high. I thought she’s having a hard time today. Imagine 85% of 3 million people unemployed; they cannot afford to send their children to school. That’s going to be a huge issue tomorrow, it’s going to be worse.
If you have uneducated people running your government, it just doesn’t work…across the board it just doesn’t work. So the fear of knowing that the next generation didn’t have a chance or that there will be a lost generation really inspired us to focus on education and just educating children. So maybe not my generation in Liberia now, but the one after will have at least a handful of people who can help the country, help the government. They can have enough people in government who are educated enough to say “This is the right way for things. War is not the solution.” It’s tiring, old; everyone wants to use war and violence as a solution for everything. And when you’re educated you don’t go down that route.
When you came up with the idea to build the Academy how long did it take from inception to finished product?
It took a year. Just a year. We were determined. That’s usually [the case] with me; when I set my mind on doing something, it has to be done. [Note: MCF raised over a million dollars in one year to build MCF Academy.]
What would you like for people to know about your country and the children you tirelessly advocate for?
The children are different there. All they want is an opportunity. They never ask us for the latest Jordans or Nikes. When you meet them they are so gracious; they are so appreciative. If you ask them, “What do you want?” They would just say, “I want to go to school. I want to learn something. I want to be somebody.” And those are words that usually don’t come out of children’s mouths. The kids that we work with are just so grateful.
What has been the global response to your efforts?
It has been great. People are very excited, that’s why they come on board. I have some amazing friends. That’s why when people talk about the MacDella Cooper Foundation it’s more than MacDella Cooper, because without my amazing friends this work would not have been where it is. For example this fashion week event [L’Africana Night] we’re doing, I just met some new friends who just came on board and took over
the project as if it was theirs.
You just really realize the power of people and this is what the work has really shown me that there are great people. That when you establish something great, it draws great people. People ask how much I need to run the project and they just write a check for X, Y, Z. That’s how we were able to build a school in one year. It’s almost impossible. People just keep asking me, “How in the world did you build a school in one year?!” And I say “Oh well, I was determined and I had great friends who wrote checks and great friends who traveled to Liberia when I couldn’t go.” So it’s really just more than me. And I strongly believe that the cause will continue to go on with or without my presence because there are so many people who believe in helping these kids just like I do.
What has been the most gratifying thing in this entire process for you?
Seeing one of our first students graduate from college with the highest level degree in his University. A kid whose
mother makes $60 a month – she has four kids and is raising them on $60 a month – going to the equivalent of Harvard in Liberia. Seeing him coming to us in 2006 just asking for help saying, “I just want to go to college.” We paid his tuition, which is $3,000 US a year and he did it in 3 years. I was just so proud and thought if we could get more of that kind [of success] we’re definitely going in the right direction. That to me was exciting.
It sounds like everything has been great, but surely there have been obstacles?
There are always obstacles. But just knowing that the work is going to continue beyond MacDella Cooper puts me at ease knowing that these kids are going to have the opportunity to be heard. So when obstacles come up, for example we recently had our website hacked into, someone was trying to destroy the website. And one person started a rumor that we were trafficking children, that we were building the Academy to take kids and sell them to another country. People just say crazy things. But those things are just so below me really because I have my focus, I have my purpose and I know my purpose is going to be accomplished. [Negative] things I know are not going to hinder anything I do, so I don’t even pay attention to it. In everything good you do, there will be obstacles, there will be problems, there will be negative people coming around but I’m not bothered by any of those things really.
Talk about L’Africana Night and how the event was born.
Just as much as we are all about helping kids and giving them a hand to pull them out of the gutter and point them in the right direction, when I travel to the continent of Africa I see so many great artists and musicians. And when I go to a shop, I’ll have a woman make me a dress. When I come back to the U.S. sometimes I wear these dresses on the Red Carpet to an event and my friends…just went crazy over these little dresses. And I said, “Wow if my friends in New York who are so accustomed to couture fashion are so interested in this dress that this woman made, this woman deserves a platform.”
If I can have her bring light to what she does, she can in turn take care of her own kids so MCF does not have to do that. So the creation of L’Africana is that very thing; giving artists, designers, craft-makers a platform to show their work to an audience they wouldn’t otherwise have access to.
How significant has your family’s move to the U.S. been in your journey?
This country is so great. I couldn’t have been what I’ve become in any other country other than this country. I don’t know where I could have gone to accomplish the level of success. Not saying that I’m successful in any way.
Of course, she’s successful! But humility is sewn into the fabric of MacDella Cooper. It’s a quality that was handed down from her strong Mother and spiritually rooted Grandmother. We need more MacDella Coopers in the world and maybe just maybe it would be a better place.
If you’re in New York City and would love to attend the spectacular L’Africana Night, you can purchase tickets here. Or if you’re elsewhere on planet earth and would like to sponsor a ticket purchase for another person, drop me a line below .
Lastly, if you feel inspired by MacDella Cooper’s story, go ahead and do something great for someone today. Then tell me about it, so I can share your kindness with the world!