Grass-roots movement

Decades after leaving as a girl, woman returned to her homeland and was disturbed by what she witnessed

After spending nearly 25 years in the U.S., MacDella Cooper returned to the country she fled as a teenage refugee — and ran for president

I met MacDella Cooper in the fall of 2016 at a dinner in her favorite restaurant in New York City. MacDella was enthusiastically beginning her campaign for president in her home country of Liberia. A couple of her friends from the U.N. joined us and everyone was ablaze about her upcoming campaign. MacDella’s story and perseverance amazed me. In my opinion, she is an example of how a progressive woman can enter the political arena with no legislative experience and still make an impact — which is why I decided to make a documentary film about her.

As a teenage refugee, MacDella was left during the war with no parents, no one to take care of her. Her mother had taken the younger children to the United States, but MacDella and her brothers did not have passports so they were left behind. After their stepfather was killed, the children fled the war on foot, walking for days, sleeping near swamps until they made it to the Ivory Coast. MacDella and her brothers lived in a small place near the refugee camp and eventually, after three years in exile, were granted permission to join their mother in the U.S.

As a 16-year-old West African refugee, America was a stark and welcome contrast. MacDella excelled academically despite her minimal previous education. She graduated third in her class of 1,200 students and received a full academic scholarship to the College of New Jersey.  She modeled for fashion companies and magazines to cover her expenses. Upon graduation, MacDella was hired by Ralph Lauren as a fashion coordinator. She became part of the hip NYC fashion scene succeeding in a world that she previously believed only existed in fantasy.

In 2003, the second Liberian civil war ended largely due to The Women’s Peace Movement. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf won the presidency, becoming Africa’s first elected female head of state. MacDella traveled back to Liberia for the first time since fleeing as a young refugee. Disturbed by the exploitation she saw, she dedicated her life to helping children who were abandoned like herself. Her goal was to offer every child the opportunity to have an education, food, and a safe place to live. She created The Macdella Cooper Foundation to help fight poverty in Liberia. In 2008, the foundation built a boarding school to provide education, housing, and health care to orphaned and abandoned children.

MacDella focused on empowering women and girls from diverse backgrounds, providing them with new opportunities, and teaching children how to engage with their communities both academically and politically in order to have a more positive and powerful impact. The project led her to work with the U.N. and meet with world leaders on issues relating to education, supporting youth, and empowering women in the third world. The experience inspired her to enter politics.

In October 2016, at age 39, MacDella announced that she would run for president in the 2017 Liberian election. Her platform focused on free education, universal health care, electricity for all, anti-corruption, and reforming land ownership. She built a grass-roots movement in small rural villages, connecting with her personal stories of how she overcame poverty with government funded education, hard work, and determination.

MacDella woke up early every morning to spend time with her three kids and get them off to school before starting her day. She and her team visited communities in remote regions where other candidates didn’t dare go. The days were long and hot, the cars got stuck in mud holes during rainy season, and at least half of the crew got Malaria (including MacDella).

But she persevered.

The Liberian election heated up with MacDella’s 19 male opponents. She was often criticized in the press for having children with three different men, one of them being her opponent, former International soccer star George Weah. Her male opponents never faced the same scrutiny, even though it’s widely known that Weah has fathered children with several women. Women gossiped about her and men belittled her. MacDella remained steady. “The hard choices that we make will indicate whether or not this nation is prepared to move forward or remain stuck in time,” she said.

As a total political novice, MacDella was considered a long-shot outsider most of the year. However, she caught international attention at the presidential debate. With no previous experience she shined brightly far and above all others with her strong platform to reform Liberia. Many news outlets viewed her as the candidate with the clearest and most educated message. The Women’s Peace Movement recognized her performance and praised her ability to hold her own against the established politicians with large teams and comparatively huge budgets. The surge allowed her the momentum she needed to finish strong.

Despite exhausting circumstances, corruption from within her own political party, media attacks, death threats, and three small children at home who demanded her attention, she was always grateful for the opportunity to be alive. When I asked her where she found the motivation to keep getting back up when she got knocked down, she told me, “The fight was never for me, it’s for the people. It’s easier to fight for others than it is for yourself.”

Above, watch my documentary film, MACDELLA.

Aliya Naumoff is a filmmaker based in New York City. Her career has been shaped around being a voice for women whose stories can impact the world. Follow her on Instagram and her website

Vanessa Roworth is a New York-based video editor with a focus on documentaries, branded content, and commercial work. Follow her at her website.

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