The Commercial Appeal

New day with soufflé for Junior League


Recently, Erica Coopwood was busy whipping up a hot onion soufflé – and talking about an ingredient that wasn’t listed in the recipe. That ingredient? Heart. “I think that they (Junior League members) would get together with their friends, and put these recipes together,” Coopwood said, as she glanced at the Junior League of Memphis’ 1992 cookbook, “Stirring Recipes from Memphis: Heart &Soul,” while sprinkling shredded Parmesan cheese into a casserole dish.

“These recipes – they’re all from the heart.”

Coopwood, who was preparing the dish for a Diversity and Inclusion meeting at her daughter’s private school, Hutchison School, knows a thing or two about heart. She’s had it all her life. She’s had it from the time she was a child growing up poor in Yazoo City, Mississipp­i; the time she begged her grandmothe­r to buy her an encycloped­ia set and, at age 9, a poster board so that she could write down her life’s vision.

She’s had it from the time she persevered in navigating mostly white cultural environmen­ts at Agnes Scott College and Vanderbilt University Law School – to the time she clerked for the Tennessee Supreme Court and became a partner at a law firm in only five years.

And it is heart that recently propelled Coopwood, 40, to become president-elect of the Junior League of Memphis.

What that means is that when she becomes president next year, she’ll be the first African-American president of the 1,600-member organizati­on— a volunteer organizati­on that many people tend to associate with being the purview of well-to-do, bored white women with a lot of time on their hands.

“Junior League does have the branding of being the old, white elite club, but for 10 years at least, Junior

League has been focusing on rebranding itself,” Coopwood said.

With Coopwood’s ascension to the top spot, that rebranding will become easier.

That’s because with her experience­s and her realness, she can be a force in helping the league bring more heart and empathy to the programs that it already operates in some of Memphis’ neediest, mostly black communitie­s.

One of those programs, one that Coopwood has special praise for, is the one in which league volunteers work alongside Impact America – Save First staffers to help poor families file tax returns. The program helps them to avoid paying exorbitant fees to tax preparers.

“So instead of poor people going to these tax places and paying $800, $900 to have their taxes done because 'I can give you money right away,' you come to a trained Junior League of Memphis volunteer and we will complete your 1040EZ for free,” Coopwood said.

“Now you won’t get your money right then, but if you get your taxes filed, that money will come in two weeks.”

Not to mention they’ll have more of it.

Yet doing great things to help struggling people, in and of itself, isn’t the only good thing about the league, or about Coopwood’s involvemen­t in it.

The other good thing is how being exposed to people in those predicamen­ts can ramp up more understand­ing and empathy among the doctors, lawyers, bankers and other high-profile women in the league; women who, more than likely, have some power to influence changes for them.

Preparing poor people’s taxes, Coopwood said, has had that effect.

“What happens is that you’re able to take on their perspectiv­e,” she said. “You start to see and you say, ‘Well you know what? I guess it is kind of hard to make ends meet when you’re stringing together three and four jobs…’

“When these girls sit down and do these tax returns, and when you see this woman with three and four wage statements because she’s stringing together these jobs to make a life for her and her children, then you’re able to have perspectiv­e…you see that they aren’t lazy, but they’re the working poor that everyone has been talking about.”

Coopwood is married to Dr. Reginald Coopwood, president and CEO of Regional One Health. She has two school-age daughters and three grown stepsons. But her own humble upbringing won’t permit her to escape inside her wealthy life and join organizati­ons such as the league solely for the sake of prestige.

Coopwood wants to make a difference.

“As a black woman, it’s important that our community sees us helping each other,” Coopwood said. “I love it when I go to these different places and show up…when I show up you can see the difference in the children’s faces…if they can see it (successful black women) they can be it.”

Putting Coopwood in line for the presidency of the Junior League of Memphis speaks volumes for the organizati­on’s evolvement – because it elevated an African-American woman who grew up with some of the struggles of those in the neighborho­ods the league is helping.

And who had enough heart to overcome them.

 ?? YALONDA M. JAMES | USA TODAY NETWORK - TENNESSEE ?? Erica Coopwood, 40, works in her kitchen on Wednesday. Coopwood has been nominated as president-elect of the Memphis Junior League.
YALONDA M. JAMES | USA TODAY NETWORK - TENNESSEE Erica Coopwood, 40, works in her kitchen on Wednesday. Coopwood has been nominated as president-elect of the Memphis Junior League.
 ??  ??

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from United States