A South Berkeley activist who fought doggedly for social justice died unexpectedly in her home last week, family and friends report. Elisa Cooper was just 47.
“We all miss her terribly,” said friend Margy Wilkinson. “I feel like I haven’t even comprehended what’s happened.” (See the bottom of the story for information about a memorial.)
Cooper was a consistent presence and passionate speaker at many public meetings, including City Council and the Zoning Adjustments Board. She was an active member of neighborhood advocacy group Friends of Adeline, which has worked to fight gentrification in South Berkeley and push developers to build more affordable housing.
Wilkinson may have been the last to see Cooper when she drove her friend home after Tuesday night’s marathon Berkeley City Council meeting at Longfellow Middle School. The meeting adjourned after midnight.
“She seemed tired and she said she wasn’t feeling well, but there was nothing about her demeanor that made me worry,” said Wilkinson, who waited to make sure Cooper got into her yard safely. “She turned and gave me a little wave, and walked through the gate. And apparently she died a short time later.”
Mayor Jesse Arreguín said council will adjourn Tuesday night in Cooper’s memory. He described her as an active citizen who was deeply committed to a number of issues, including tenant rights and affordable housing. She also campaigned on behalf of Arreguín in his run for mayor last year.
“She was one of those people that was really dedicated to our city,” he said. “It will be sad not to see her in the future.”
Cooper is survived by her mother, Paula Cooper, and her sisters Amy White and Bethany Cooper. The girls grew up in Buena Vista, a small town in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. Elisa was the oldest of the three sisters, and Amy — the youngest by six years — recalled her as an incredibly smart person who loved books and at one time dreamed of being a screenwriter.
Even as a teenager, Amy said, her sister “was very concerned with ‘big picture’ things.… She spent a lot of time thinking, philosophizing and writing” about significant issues in the world. And she had strong opinions about them.
For college, Cooper was determined to live in New York City. That was her dream. So she only applied to schools in that area. Sarah Lawrence, a prestigious liberal arts college about 30 minutes north of Manhattan, gave her the best financial aid package, so that’s the one she chose. According to her LinkedIn page, she spent her junior year studying abroad at Oxford University. While at Sarah Lawrence, she was elected to the student senate, founded an archeology club and wrote a play that was performed on campus. She got her bachelor’s in history, and pushed for the creation of an archeology major.
In the early 2000s or so, Cooper went on to pursue her doctorate at UC Berkeley in a program focused on the history of science, Amy said. But she ran into financial difficulties and was unable to secure funding to go abroad. After that, her home was burglarized and her computer — with her dissertation on it — was one of the stolen items.
“At that point, she just gave up,” her sister said.
Amy Cooper said her older sister struggled with several health problems, including a genetic disease that was causing her to lose her eyesight.
But Robert Fuller, a Berkeley writer and former president of Oberlin College, said Elisa Cooper persevered.
“Elisa never complained about the difficulties she was having with her body,” he said. “She just marched on. She would march, trudge, dragging herself all the way from Oregon Street to central Berkeley. She even declined offers of rides because she knew she needed exercise.”
Fuller got to know Cooper about 10 years back when she attended a talk he gave at UC Berkeley about dignity. She wrote to him afterward to tell him how important she found his work, and offered to help him get it out into the world. He ended up hiring her as a freelance consultant who would take his writing and post it as articles on Huffington Post and ebooks on Amazon.
“She’s seen half a dozen of my books into print,” he said. “She was humble. She did more than she said she would do. She was indomitable.”
He continued: “She always called herself my ‘Geek Friday,'” a nod to the “Girl Friday” phrase indicating a female helper who can get things done.
Fuller said he became concerned last week when he did not hear back from Cooper for more than two days. Usually, she responded within hours by email. Fuller said he had a feeling something might be wrong, particularly because Cooper — when he’d seen her three days earlier — had told him she felt weak.
He decided to stop by her home Friday, and knocked on the door of another tenant on the property to investigate. The tenant walked around the yard to see if he could look into the window of Cooper’s small backyard cottage on Oregon Street.
“He came out very shocked,” Fuller said.
“It appears she’s died,” the man told Fuller. They called police, who responded quickly and called the coroner to the scene.
Councilman Ben Bartlett, who represents South Berkeley and got to know Cooper in recent years through her volunteer work with Friends of Adeline, described her as a stalwart champion of the people.
“She was diligent in her advocacy and she was a good friend,” he said. “It’s a great loss.”
Bartlett said Cooper’s own financial situation helped fuel her desire to fight for more affordable housing in the neighborhood.
“Like many of us in South Berkeley she was ‘housing distressed,'” he said. “She was actively seeking ways to help others in her situation.”
Cooper edited a community newsletter called “South Berkeley Renaissance,” and helped found the Berkeley Democratic Caucus in 2016. She created candidate fliers for the November 2016 election and was part of a group called “Neighbors of 2902 Adeline,” described by Cooper on her LinkedIn page as a “single-issue community group that advocates for community benefits from big developers.”
At a zoning board meeting earlier this month, Cooper made explicit her views on the role of the city in relation to developers who want to increase neighborhood density: “You’re supposed to negotiate the best deal for the community,” she told commissioners.
Cooper also volunteered for a number of nonprofit technical conferences over the years, as well as Berkeleyside’s annual ideas festival, Uncharted. She was an active commenter on Berkeleyside as well.
Though she held a number of short-term positions with large companies over the years, Cooper ultimately focused on her independent consulting work as a web specialist and digital publisher.
Friend Wilkinson described Cooper as an invaluable member of Friends of Adeline due to her understanding of housing policy and her work ethic.
“She was a tremendous researcher,” Wilkinson said.
The two met several years ago through Friends of Adeline, and went on to attend countless meetings together, and shared many conversations and emails. Wilkinson called Cooper “a fierce advocate for equity and justice” who also was devoted to civility and respect.
“Even though she had very strongly held ideas and was kind of fierce about expressing her ideas and her concerns,” Wilkinson recalled, “she was always inevitably polite and kind to other people. It’s a terrible loss.”
Cooper’s sister Amy announced July 12 that there will be a memorial service for Elisa in Berkeley on Monday, July 24th at 6 pm. The location will be at her home.