Learning Change Agent: Aya-Nikole Cook

What is your name? Aya-Nikole Cook

Where are you from? Chicago, Illinois; currently resides in Oakland, California

What organization do you represent? Haji Couture

What is your job title? Founder and Chief Executive Officer

How long has the organization been in existence? Since 2006.

What is the mission and vision of the organization?

Haji Couture started off as a jewelry company. The mission of Haji Couture Accessories is to adorn and enhance beautiful women all around the world and inspire them to make a ritual of adornment. I make artful handmade accessories for women.  After I became a yoga teacher, the company expanded to include yoga classes, private and public.  I curate yoga themed events and produce pop up wellness centers.  The intention for my yoga classes is to teach, promote and inspire grace and ease as we transition. We [make a transition] on the mat, and then amazingly, we start doing it in life.  The intention of the yoga classes is to offer a beautiful flow with a real emphasis on strengthening and transitioning gracefully. The newest endeavor, the Haji Yoga Healing Salon, a pop up wellness center, came out of a residency program at the University of Chicago. My intention, going forward, is to offer wellness practices and self-care practices and education in under-served communities and to people who aren’t able to prioritize that. Just imagine this happening in a beautiful “shrine-like” wellness center in the middle of “the hood.”  In these spaces, people in these neighborhoods can learn about acupuncture and have the service for ten dollars versus sixty-five dollars in a private place.

Interviewer: What does Haji stand for?

Haji is a word that has Islamic origins and it means a seeker of enlightenment or a spiritual pilgrim. Basically, someone who’s made the Hajj. I’ve appropriated it for my own use and definitely have always felt like I am, myself, a spiritual pilgrim. It’s also a nickname that I use to have and I decided to convert it to the name of the company.

Interviewer: Could you tell me a little bit more about the residency program through the University of Chicago?  I understand that it was a great honor to be selected for the program.

The residency came through an entity called Arts + Public Life which is a small branch of the University of Chicago.  I was offered the opportunity to come back to Chicago, live in housing provided to me for four months and be the inaugural person in the pilot program called the Creative Business Accelerator Program.  The goal of this program is to help new career entrepreneurs in expanding and evolving their business practices.  Through different partnerships, I had many opportunities to explore, practice and to try things without as much risk as there is in my real life when I’m at home [in Oakland, California] producing these events with my rent money.  You know, gambling on my idea and myself. It was a tremendous opportunity and they provided me a lot of space for me to figure things out.

What impact do you think your organization has on learning and education?

The practice of yoga is being transmitted. In the case of the Healing Salon Pop Up Wellness Center, the majority of the people who attended on a weekly basis had never had acupuncture before and didn’t know what it was.  I was able to create a safe space where they can walk in the door and be open to trying a brand new healing modality that is completely foreign to them.  In the Healing Salon we offered yoga classes, Reiki sound healing, acupuncture and table massage all on a sliding scale and/or by donation. When I was coming up with the pay structure, I wanted it to be accessible to somebody who lived on the block.

Tell me a little bit more about the communities that you service through your educational programs.

In terms of the physical location that I was servicing, I was serving the Greater Grand Crossing community on the Southside of Chicago, IL.  However,  I have so many communities that I’m part of.  My community consists of conscious people or people on a path.  People who have made spiritual growth and evolution the priority in their lives.  Certainly women, and to some degree, artists.  I guess, maybe all the things that I am too, I feel like that’s what I always attract.  When I look at who my students are, it’s like I see they’re all me; like we are all one.  In some way, [my students] all remind me of aspects of myself. I feel like my community shows up for what I do.

 What inspired you to get involved in education or this type of work in the field of education?

I am always looking for ways that I can be of service.  I’m forty years old, I didn’t start off with a healthy kind of orientation.  As a regular American child, I ate pork chops dipped in Ritz crackers and fried.  Pork and beans and hotdogs was one of our weekly meals and so were fried chicken and mashed potatoes. When I was fourteen…I had a life changing experience.  I witnessed my mom having a hemorrhagic episode because she had fibroids.  She was asleep and had bled through the night.  The bed was like a murder scene and she had to be rushed to the emergency room.  They couldn’t stop the bleeding so they did an emergency hysterectomy. And that changed me forever; that [experience] made me aware that the body could turn on you.  My mother couldn’t stop her body from bleeding. It terrified me.  When I saw that happen to my mother, I decided that I had to learn about the body.  I had to figure out how to stay healthy.  My inspiration came from a place of anxiety, honestly.

Now, I am living a healthy lifestyle, an authentic life and I feel that’s inspiring. I’m also inspired by the people who I see doing it [living a healthy lifestyle].

If you can change anything regarding education and/or learning, what would it be?

I would certainly knock down all the walls, barriers and glass ceilings that are out there for women and black people in education.  I don’t believe that there are barriers to knowledge. Education feels like an infrastructure. It’s big and heavy and imposing. Those infrastructures are bogus and a little bit twisted.  There should be a greater emphasis on learning and knowledge versus the structures and those confines that are within education.   The learning environments should be more organic for children. Almost like, what I guess, Montessori was doing.  That model seems to be more conducive to actually learning something that will stay with you.  So, removing the barriers is my answer. Removing the barriers for women and for black people and creating more organic learning environments.

What advice would you give to someone who is in the process of learning something new?

Don’t give up.  Don’t stop.  It took me a very long time to stop quitting on myself, honestly. I feel like in the last two years, I’ve broken through that crap. Yeah, I would give up on myself over and over again and then lament about results not achieved. Be honest with yourself.  Don’t stop until you feel like you got it. And even then, don’t stop. Achieve mastery. There aren’t enough masters in the world anymore, you know. Master something.

What does it mean to be a learning change agent?

Anyone who is out there being active and engaged to promote, encourage and inspire learning. There are so many things we need to be educated about, and being passionate in our realm, can create a beautiful synergy that can transform things.  I was born and raised in a Buddhist family and I’ve always believed that the only way to peace is through personal liberation.  Every person has to take full responsibility for their own growth and evolution, or we call it human revolution in Buddhism.  When everyone’s responsible for their own growth and evolution, then everyone’s a learning change agent. Everyone who’s fully responsible, alive, awake and aware in their life is living.  That’s what living is.

Photo Credit: Sara Pooley

Learning Change Agents are game changers in education. They are affiliated with organizations that are providing meaningful and passion-driven learning experiences to learners of all ages. The featured Learning Change Agents (and their organization) will be eligible to receive funds from the LEARNtheBrand Impact Apparel. LEARNtheBrand Impact Apparel is a clothing line that consists of limited edition fashion T-shirts that include unique designs that focus on rebranding the perception of learning and education from test-driven and rote memorization to meaningful, relevant and passion driven learning experiences.  Customers and supporters of LEARNtheBrand Impact Apparel and these organizations will select the organization(s) that should receive a portion of the profits received from each collection. Visit and shop the online store hosted by Threadless. Together we are change agents.

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