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Omaha Magazine

Uniting, Educating, Empowering: Young Omahan Leads the Charge for Change

Aug 27, 2021 04:24PM ● By Natalie Simmonds
young woman in red shirt in park

Photo by Bill Sitzmann

In late May 2021, Girls Inc. selected 10 young women to serve on the organization’s inaugural National Brand Ambassador Youth Council. Among those 10 was Omahan Jayleesha Cooper. 

Before being legally able to vote, Cooper testified in the Nebraska Legislature and interned with the Douglas County Attorney Office’s Juvenile Division. The 2021 Duchesne Academy graduate was chosen as one of 30 Girls Inc. National Scholars, which comes with a $20,000 Lucile Miller Wright scholarship.

It’s only the start of what her teachers and mentors see as a promising future. According to Terri Anania, Cooper’s social studies teacher at Duchesne, “Someday Cooper will be a member of Congress or the president; she just has those kinds of leadership skills.” Anania continued, “she is a shining example of what [impact] one person can have on an entire community.”

She made a difference to people like her—students of color at Duchesne who faced difficulties meeting other students of color at the school. They often felt alone in their classes. During her junior year in fall 2019, Cooper went to dean of students Martha Heck and emphasized that these Duchesne students faced common issues that could best be addressed as a group. Heck agreed that a club to help facilitate solutions would be helpful, and told Cooper she needed a faculty moderator. Anania stepped in as the representative, and thus Cooper founded the Black Student Union.

Cooper wanted students of color at Duchesne to have a safe space to hang out, share their experiences, and celebrate diversity. “When I first started the Black Student Union, I was just trying to find a way for students of color to be more comfortable, especially freshman and underclassmen,” Cooper said. It also provided social interaction. Cooper enlisted her mother, Lequisha Sims, and grandmother, Tracie Cooper, to cook traditional and vegan soul food for the school in honor of Black History Month 2020. The club celebrated Cinco de Mayo with traditional Hispanic snacks and festivities. This past year, Cooper changed the name of the club to Melanin Magic to be more inclusive. 

Cooper thanked her teachers at Duchesne for helping her attain her accomplishments. She said her instructors have always been available before and after class; they are there for students, whether the students are having a difficult time or are sad. They are also there to motivate students. “The teachers at Duchesne care about you, not just as a student, but as a fellow human being…and they really try to help you succeed to the fullest,” Cooper said. Duchesne works to embody civic and educational values in its students, which Cooper embraced during her time at the school. One important value she learned, and believes, is that students should stop and think about how knowledge is an extremely powerful tool. “Once you learn something, that knowledge can never be taken away from you…it’s really important to continue to thrive and boost your intellectual skills,” Cooper said. 

Cooper also credits Girls Inc. for a lot of her success. When she started with the organization in kindergarten, she was shy. Working with Girls Inc. staff helped her develop a love of public speaking. 

The organization provided Cooper with a number of opportunities, including sitting on panels to ask questions of guests at Lunch for the Girls events. “This really gave me a platform to use my voice…so that was really helpful in terms of…being comfortable with myself talking in public,” she said. That confidence came through when she introduced keynote speaker Malala Yousafzai at the group’s signature event, Lunch for the Girls, in 2016.

Cooper, who wants to be a lawyer, gained valuable experience through Girls Inc.’s Eureka program in 2018. This internship allowed her to shadow prosecutors with the Douglas County Attorney’s Office.

Her achievements at Girls Inc. led to her position on the National Brand Ambassador Youth Council. This select group is for high school juniors and seniors, and recent graduates of the organization, to help amplify the Girls Inc. brand and increase awareness of their mission and work. It’s a great chance for Cooper to continue serving the nonprofit. 

This month, she heads to the University of Chicago to study pre-law and political science, but she already has experience testifying before Nebraska Legislature at the state capitol. She has argued in support of a school choice bill three years in a row. The latest version of this bill, LB364, fell four votes shy of passing in late April. “I like testifying…because I really believe policy shapes the way the world is,” she said. “A lot of the time people writing the policies don’t understand the people they are affecting. Just because you’re poor or live in a poor neighborhood does not mean that your kids should not be afforded the best education.” 

Visit girlsinc.org or duchesneacademy.org for more information.

This article originally appeared in the September 2021 issue of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

Photo by Bill Sitzmann