EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the inaugural story in our new column Front Runner Diversity Voices. Enjoy the work of Shelja Touri and other stories that will be posted in this space. To contribute to our effort, please see the information at the end of the story. Thank you.
By Shelja Touri | AC JosepH Media
EVESHAM TOWNSHIP — Evesham Township has a deep-rooted and unshared history traced back to the 1700s relating to Native Americans and enslaved African Americans.
In more recent times, Evesham’s Deputy Mayor Heather Cooper became the first ever woman of color ever sworn in as an elected council member in 2019. Cooper grew up in a biracial family of six children in towns including Willingboro and Eastampton.
“My parents always taught me to look at people for who they are before anything else and do it in love,” Cooper said in a recent interview for Front Runner Diverse Voices.
Cooper has always taken her parents’ advice to heart and entered a career straight out of high school that worked with people who have exceptional needs and abilities.
“[I have] continued to advocate to ensure that quality services are provided to those in need, and that’s still where my heart is,” she said.
Life’s highs and lows have impacted her, molding her into the Heather Cooper the outside world sees today.
“I had been through a lot of challenging experiences as well as my family, witnessing substance abuse disorders, domestic violence and losing loved ones,” she said. “This has shaped my life into who I am today.”
Cooper received her bachelor’s degree in psychology from Thomas Edison State University and later an executive-level master’s degree in public administration from Rutgers University at its Center for Executive Leadership in Government.
She became just the second person in three generations of her family to earn a master’s degree. Cooper said, though, it was her marriage to her husband Joshua that has been the most life-changing experience. The couple has raised two boys in Evesham.
“Heather is the embodiment of the new-age mom who does it all,” Joshua Cooper said of his wife. “Not to say that isn’t without sacrifice but to say that she gives her time and energy for so many people.”
Cooper said, of all of her titles, she is most proud of the ones that identify her as “mother” and “wife.” She said she decided early on she wanted to be a role model first and foremost to her children.
“I realized I wanted to be a true example of leadership to my boys as their mom,” Cooper said. “Service has always been a present moral compass in my life along with my spiritual faith and beliefs.”
Cooper has spent the past 20 years as an administrator in the human services field. Throughout her working life, she always had a desire to understand public policy.
“I really wanted to better understand how policy-making impacted citizens and my leadership; and boy have I learned a lot,” said Cooper, who is now a member of various civic advisory boards and committees. “I truly love working with people to support them in accomplishing their goals and want to help grow future leaders — that’s what I’m doing now.”
When asked where her inspiration and motivation came from, Cooper recalled many female leaders and mentors who inspired her throughout her career, including Burlington County Commissioner Felicia Hopson. Cooper said she learned “to stand in my passion and to be resolute.”
Cooper said the death of her brother earlier has also become an inspiration for her life’s passion.
Cooper said she decided to run for council to add her voice to things she felt needed to be done in the township and were not being addressed.
“I saw the need in my own neighborhood first, my neighbors started noticing the area was not being cared for, we were able to get together and create changes to improve where we lived, a new playground, better landscaping services, and held more community events together,” Cooper said.
“I then started hearing from my friends and other neighbors that the greater community was looking for some new voices on the town council, so I took the leap and here I am.”
Joshua Cooper said over the past 16 years, he has watched his wife in action and supports her wholeheartedly.
“Heather is gifted in many ways,” he said. “She is quick thinking and acting while retaining a smorgasbord of information that she can recall quickly and efficiently. She is the glue to our household and part of the glue that keeps Evesham community moving in the right direction.”
Cooper said her goal of public leadership and policy is to improve the overall welfare of its citizens and to have the best, most efficient services while feeling connected to their communities.
“This is the essence of public service and we owe it to our future leaders to reach that goal,” she said. “I work towards that every day.”
Since her appointment in 2019, Cooper has been involved in many positive initiatives and town developments including bringing attention to diversity and inclusion to Evesham Township, which has had a historical lack of representation.
She worked with local nonprofits and residents to bring the first-ever Juneteenth, Cultural Day and Diwali events to the town in 2021 and this year.
“Unfortunately, we still live in a society where far too many people still don’t have a voice or representation,” Cooper said. “They need information, resources and especially representation that emulates authenticity and civility. Yes, I’m passionate, but I care a whole lot.”
When discussing the public service space and elected leadership, Cooper said that women hold just 29.2% of municipal offices in New Jersey.
“Elected bodies should reflect those they serve and women comprise 51% of New Jersey’s total population,” Cooper said. “Minority women represent 44% of that population and are even far less likely to serve or represent their communities. I want to change that.”
Some of the struggles and challenges Cooper has faced include finding the right work, family and life balance. She said ignoring discrimination and ignorance has been one of the most challenging things to do.
She described moments where she had to face microaggressions and racially charged comments that were hurtful yet sadly not unknown to many Black and Brown people.
“I have learned to be proud of who I am and surrounded myself with good people who uplift me and want me to succeed,” she said, “I must remember that not everyone has good intent or a bigger vision.”
Cooper is hoping to continue her work should she be re-elected in November. She currently serves with Mayor Jackie Veasy who is the town’s second-ever female mayor. The last female mayor in Evesham was Sandra Shenfield in 1975.
Cooper ended her interview with, “True inclusion determines how a healthy community functions and when people actually contribute to what the feel of the culture and make up of their town includes, the level of community support occurs; in businesses, in service and how their neighborhoods are taken care of.”
Bio: Shelja Touri is an award-winning diversity and inclusion champion in Evesham Township and the founder of the Diversity and Equal Opportunity Network, DEON.
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