Lisa Ann Cooper
M. MICHAEL BRADY
In 1987, when Lisa Ann Cooper was 25, she met with explicit racism for the first time in her life. With a job in New York City, she needed a suitable apartment and asked a lodging rental agency to find one, only to be told that the agency did not rent to Blacks.
Affronted, she called her father, Glenn, for advice. He told her that racism was a harsh reality of life. As a senior official of the Drug Enforcement Administration, he asked its sibling organization, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), to investigate. Upon inquiring, the FBI agents also were told that the agency did not rent to Blacks. That led to the agency being fined for racial discrimination.
Lisa then realized that she had led a sheltered life, not by design, but by benign circumstances. She had been born in 1962 in Queens, N.Y., the middle daughter of three girls in an African-American family. Her first school experience was with Head Start, an early childhood education program. Soon after, the family relocated to Columbia, Md., in the Baltimore-Washington metropolitan area. While still young, she accompanied her father on his postings in Jamaica, Belgium, and Thailand, and in so doing, learned other languages.
She then followed the educational trajectory of members of academic families, straight through primary and secondary school and then on to college. She attended Penn State University for four years. Athletic and taller than average, she played several sports and was on the women’s soccer team. In 1982, she was awarded a Bachelor of Science in marketing. After graduation, her first job was at Air Couriers International, where she worked for a year-and-a-half before a five-year stint at consumer products producer International Playtex, where she rose through the ranks from sales representative to key account manager and finally New York district manager in 1987.
In 1988, she met a Norwegian man in a New York City bar. Though their backgrounds differed, and he was 13 years her senior, she found him intriguing. That triggered a relationship, and in 1989, she went along to Norway with him. In Norway, she found herself regarded as exotic and different, yet readily accepted, even though she spoke American English, distinct from British English, the variety of the language that many Norwegians learn in school.
Two years later, at Oslo Handelshøyskole (Oslo Commercial College), she enrolled in Norway’s first Master of Business Administration (MBA) studies in English. It was a propitious choice. A year later, in 1992, the college merged with Bedriftsøkonomisk Institutt, or BI (Norwegian School of Management), now the country’s largest and most known business school. With an MBA in International Marketing from BI, Lisa set about building a career in business.
The effort had its cost; the relationship that had taken her to Norway disintegrated. But it soon also had its benefit: on a job she met Jon Enok Seip, a Norwegian scientist and economist. A new relationship blossomed and lasted. The couple now have two grown sons, Didrik and Mathias, who share the middle and surname of Cooper Seip.
In 2006, the cogency of her heritage reentered her life. She put business aside and took a job with the Norwegian Directorate of Integration and Diversity, tasked with implementing governmental immigration policies. It became a breakpoint in her professional life. In 2008, integration and diversity became her calling. The switch was auspicious. Accelerating global diversity had brought new challenges into the competitive business environment. So she set up the Leadership Foundation (www.leadershipfoundation.no), a consultancy specializing in global diversity management.
Closer to the grassroots of Norway, she set up a mentor program for immigrant youth. Its major message was that life could be quite acceptable, even if one differed from the mainstream. Early on, a personal tragedy underscored the importance of that mission. An immigrant man from Somalia called seeking consolation within his milieu for the loss of his two sons in an accident. Like the tip of an iceberg warning mariners of danger, it signaled a potentially larger threat, as Somalis make up the fourth largest immigrant group in Norway.
As an African American living in Norway, Lisa felt that she could help mitigate the plight of immigrant Somalis. She had observed that Somali girls are “marginalized and experience racism.” She explained, “They are Black, Muslim, wear hijabs, and are misunderstood.” So, in 2015, she expanded the effort by founding Catalysts (www.catalysts.no), a Norwegian non-governmental organization devoted to fostering the self-development of young people.
According to the “What We Do” statement of the 2019 Catalysts Annual Report: “Catalysts works across Norway designing and implementing mentoring programs to promote the strengths and well-being of young people to support them in reaching their goals. With the help of trained volunteer mentors, Catalysts programs support positive relationships and the growth of social capital for hopeful futures, increased self-esteem, and a more inclusive society.”
Catalysts now has offices in two cities, Bergen and Oslo, and is active in five Norwegian counties. They have already issued four annual reports. Today, help is readily at hand for young people facing unexpected setbacks.
Further viewing: “Samtalen svarte foreldre må ta med sine sønner” (“The conversation that Black parents must have with their sons”), God Morgen Norge TV2 Aker Brygge studio interview, Tuesday, June 2, 2020, link: www.tv2.no/v/1568809
This article originally appeared in the July 10, 2020, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.