Workforce Development and Equity with James Cooper

The Office of Sustainability (OS) is excited to continue our new blog series, featuring interviews with community leaders on important issues surrounding climate and sustainability. Today, we are sharing an interview with James Cooper, Employee Engagement Specialist with Project Quest. James has a passion for creating successful programs that foster growth, encourage exploration and leadership, and provide professional as well as personal development.


OS: Mr. James Cooper, thank you so much for taking the time to answer these questions. Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and what your work as an Employee Engagement Specialist entails? 

James Cooper: I completed both my Bachelor’s and Master’s degree at the University of Illinois Urbana/Champaign where I was fortunate enough to receive an athletic scholarship to play football. My passion for sports and my expertise in student development catapulted me into the role of athletic director at Olive – Harvey Community College. It was in this role I learned and understood my ability to organize, maximize opportunities, and support marginalized people and the communities they represent. 

In my current role as an Employer Engagement specialist, I work directly with employers to learn and understand their talent acquisition needs. I best support the needs of the employer by creating opportunities for employers to connect with the participants of Project Quest. Through this partnership, companies are able to fill their talent gaps and our participants are able to land living wage career opportunities. 

"Until we, as a society and an educational community, understand systemic oppression, the communities affected by it, and work to dissolve it, we will never truly be a complete community."

OS: Your professional experience in academia has focused on promoting educational access and excellence. What is your philosophy around adopting this focus? Can you share a specific project or experience that illustrates how you developed as well as implemented that philosophy?

James Cooper: Prior to joining Project Quest, I was a Program Coordinator at St. Philip’s College. My primary responsibility in this role was implementing a campus – wide program that addressed Violence against Women, specifically Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault. This was a very challenging task. People agree that women are an oppressed group in American society, but they were truly uncomfortable talking about specific ways women are oppressed, what those oppressors are, and how these acts of violence are detrimental to society and the health and well-being of women. 

As it relates to educational access and excellence, everyone deserves the right to personal development and growth without having to fear their safety and well-being. Until we, as a society and an educational community, understand systemic oppression, the communities affected by it, and work to dissolve it, we will never truly be a complete community.

OS: Our theme for this conversation with you is ‘Workforce Development & Equity’. You have done extensive work and research in these areas. How would you define the intersection of workforce development and equity?

James Cooper: Access to resources, those that have access are those that have resources. Workforce development greatly needs the support of the private sector. They have career opportunities; they understand the skills needed to perform careers. The community needs this information to build skills and create equity. There is a gap between the private sector and the talent community. As we evolve as an economy, this gap increases. Workforce agencies such as SA Works and Project Quest are creating ways to collaborate as agencies to close the gap between the private sector and the talent. The more successful we are as workforce development agencies, the closer we are to bridging that gap and building equity. 

OS: You’ve shared with the committee that infrastructure is one of the most influential tools that attributes to disparity among groups. Could you please elaborate?

James Cooper: This ties into two of my earlier responses: systemic oppression and equity. When the country’s urban freeways were constructed, they were often routed through low income, minority neighborhoods. Instead of connecting people to each other, highways were intentionally built to separate us. 

We still see the effects of this today. When opportunities are created and developed, those developments take place in certain communities - the communities that have always had access and resources.  When we look at disparities among communities today, we first look at zoning and then look up to find the highway.


OS: In your opinion, what opportunities lie ahead with regards to workforce development and equity, particularly as it relates to climate change? For instance, what role, if any, do you see the ‘green jobs’ market playing in this transition?

James Cooper: Green jobs describes a wide-ranging collection of careers that contribute directly to moving society and the built environment toward sustainability. This includes existing jobs that require new skills to meet green requirements, jobs that are in greater demand because of green initiatives, and entirely new and emerging occupations. 

Developing a workforce to meet and drive tomorrow’s economy will make cities more vibrant, sustainable places to live and work. To create this workforce, CoSA and workforce development agencies will need to identify new and creative ways to attractive citizens into these green jobs. 


OS: As San Antonio community members, what are the most pressing challenges we face with regards to the convergence of these interlinked issues (workforce development & equity)?

James Cooper: Repeating past practices. Using the same leaders and voices to drive initiatives threatens growth and limits innovation. 


OS: Which community members will be most affected by the impacts of climate change on workforce development? And why?

James Cooper: People living in poverty and oppression often suffer the worst consequences, while having the least ability to cope. Their struggle to earn a living, feed their families, and create stable homes is made more difficult every day the climate crisis continues. Climate change threatens the cleanliness of our air, depletes our water sources and limits food supply.  


OS: As you learn about how other communities are trying to address challenges like these, what solutions do you see working best in San Antonio? 

James Cooper: Urban agriculture, clean air zones like the UK, and community managed public spaces. 


OS: What is one key action that every individual can take to help tackle climate-related challenges and have a positive impact for themselves and their community?

James Cooper: Start the conversation, vote, organize for local climate action, consume less, and waste less.


OS: What inspires or encourages you most about your work and/or that of others with whom you partner on this critical issue of workforce development, equity, and the effects of climate change?

James Cooper: Information is the greatest change agent. I love being able to supply someone with information. The better I am at gathering real life experience and empirical data, and the more informed we are as a workforce community, the better the product we produce. 


OS: What is your hope or vision for a San Antonio that has overcome these challenges? What does it look like? Paint us a picture.

James Cooper: I hope for a city built upon truth and reconciliation, that acknowledges our past and using that information to build a collaborative community - one where every woman of childbearing age has adequate healthcare. I’d like to see citizens with access to mass transit to travel from one end of the county to the next, streets that are safe for people to commute to work on bikes, great air and water quality, and a community where members have equal access to business resources.

Interested in how San Antonio and the Office of Sustainability are addressing Climate Equity? Learn more here!