Aitina Fareed-Cooke – Leader, Mentor, Champion
By Shawn Patrick Greene @shawnpgreene
How can you help troubled youth in an area of high crime rate within your city? Who has come out of the environment, to help the next generation to rise above their circumstances? Buffalo native Aitina Fareed-Cooke has endured many hardships as a young girl, and has returned to her community what has been offered to her – hope. How does she accomplish this? Through the arts.
On Buffalo’s East side, inside the African-American Culture Center, on Masten Avenue, are wood carvings of tribal masks, paintings, and portraits of cultural icons, like Charlie Parker and Ella Fitzgerald. One rainy weekend, on Saturday October 28th, 2018, about 20 youth were ushered into the main hall of the center, greeted by a few adults giving them high fives as they took their seats for their photography lesson. That is a typical after-school activity for the youth program. However, on that day, they took part in a music video shoot directed by Fareed-Cooke, featuring her original song titled “Sippin’ My Tea.” The shoot was her way of getting them involved, while teaching them firsthand, the process of film production.
Paulette Harris, artistic director of the Paul Robeson Theatre at the center, who teaches drama workshops for children ages eight through sixteen, lent her pupils for the music video. Harris observed Fareed-Cooke grow from student, to performer, to mentor and described her creativity as “limitless.”
The 32-year-old Fareed-Cooke wears many hats, throughout the year. While running her photography business she finds time to fulfill her other duties as a wife, mother, artist, poet, thespian, activist, and philanthropist. “She’s a huge asset to Buffalo,” said Mekisha Collins, 25-year-old, personal assistant to Fareed-Cooke, “She’s an icon.”
In the past fourteen months, Fareed-Cooke has received several accolades. In September 2017, as a rapper, she won the “Up Next” award in Brooklyn, at the Kingdom Choice Awards, the nations official award show for independent Christian Hip Hop and Urban Gospel artists. Poetry was her earliest form of expression as a young girl. Eventually, she was inspired to create rhymes through hip hop music. She recalls her hunger for the art form, “I would write down every word that I heard (over the radio) and I would read it until I would memorize it.” Piecing words together was exciting to her, “I always liked puzzles.”
In February 2018, as a photographer, she won the Exhibition Award and was featured at the CEPA Gallery inside the Market Arcade in downtown Buffalo. The black and white close-up portrait called Native is of her son Isaac Fareed, dressed in tradition First Nation war paint and headdress. The inspiration came from her son, who wanted to dress as a Native-American for school, rather than the assigned Puritan, in celebration of Columbus Day.
Her artistic talent earned her awards, but her entrepreneurship had as well. On Wednesday July 11, 2018, twenty-seven local businesses were selected as finalists for Ignite Buffalo, at Erie Community College downtown campus. Three received the top grant of $100,000 each. The other twenty-four finalists also received grants – four with $50,000 and twenty with $25,000. Ignite Buffalo is a business grant and mentorship program that promotes sustainable growth, job creation, and ongoing education to local small business owners. The Shark Tank-like contest was made possible by 43 North in partnerships with Facebook, M&T Bank, Intuit, WordPress, Amazon, and other companies.
Among the top three winners was Fareed-Cooke, for her company Get Fokus’d Productions, a multi-media company. Her company motto is to “Capture. Teach. Give Back.” She is dedicated to capturing stories through the photographic lens, teaching the next generation about the magic of freezing time through the medium, and giving back to the community with workshops and field study of the art form. The audience at the event had also picked Fareed-Cooke to receive the “People’s Choice Award.”
“Aitina has a fascinating story and background. I can’t say she had a particular edge over any other company that pitched for a prize, but if you look at her pitch you can see the passion in which she runs her small business,” stated Nate Benson, director of media and public relations for 43North.
Her husband, Joshua Cooke, stated he felt she was selected because “they see in her presentation her passion, the talent, and the giftedness of what she’s doing.”
Even though she seems to have the world as her oyster at the moment, she wasn’t always on the winning side of life. As a 3-year-old girl, Fareed-Cooke lost her biological mother, Laura, to a drug overdose. She stated she had no memory of her except for recurring dreams of a man coming to her door and leaving with her mother, never to return. Fareed-Cooke and her two older siblings were in the foster care, where they were separated until her foster mother adopted them when she was seven.
Her husband explained that she endured many obstacles in her life as a child and teen, but through the support of her community, she now is giving back to the next generation within that community, through her talents. “She’s very driven in wanting to help young people thrive and persevere and push passed a negative mindset of themselves, or just negative circumstances that could be obstacles for young people because she was that young person.”
Fareed-Cooke describes her toughest years were between age seven (when it was revealed to her that she was adopted), to age ten (when she became suicidal), and through to age sixteen (when she was sexually abused). She had trouble in school for many years, but found refuge in community programs, like YO Buffalo, short for Youth Opportunity Buffalo. There she learned skills, such as, public speaking and videography. She then learned photography from one of her early mentors, Lauren Tent at CEPA, where she is now one of the teaching artists.
Part of the purpose of Get Fokus’d Productions is to be a resource for young people. “She’s bringing it back to the kids, she’s so selfless, she’s willing to share her experiences and just expose herself to the world, all for the glory of God,” stated friend and fellow rapper David Williams, also known as Hav Mercy. Faith is another element of Fareed-Cooke’s lifestyle.
Collins said she has been inspired by Fareed-Cooke over the years. “To see someone with so much passion and genuine love for what she does that can bring it to people, and empower them to do the same,” Collins said, “or just the energy that she brings off, let’s me know that I’m in the right place and I’m doing something positive because she’s positive.” Collins has worked for Fareed-Cooke for three months, and has known her for eight years through their home church, Christ Crusaders Assembly.
She is a collaborator with many adults, but the main demographic she works with is youth between ages fourteen and seventeen. One organization she supports is Youth for Christ, meeting often in her home church. Her pastor, Stephen Forman, has known her over eight years. He said “she’s very active with young people…her concentration seems like she really wants to help young people.” The East side neighborhood near Utica and Jefferson, has many disadvantaged youths. Forman stated, “a lot of African-American kids have a lot of challenges and she’s trying to tackle that with hope, with these kids, with what she’s doing with them.”
Williams said, that on Wednesdays throughout the summer he would be asked to help Fareed-Cooke in “giving book bags for back-to-school” to the kids in the neighborhood. He said that weather it is an outreach to the community or a function to help the youth, “she’s calling me to come over and help out.”
What drives someone to be so thoughtful and giving? Her husband said, it’s “the scripture. She believes wholeheartedly in the scripture and what Christ taught” (referring to the Holy Bible in the Gospel of Matthew chapter twenty-two verses thirty-seven through forty).
“Love God, Love Neighbors,” he said, “That’s basically what she’s doing, she’s taking that love and pouring it out into the streets and she’s loving her neighbor. If everyone would do that, this world would be a better place.”
Through the lens of time, tragedy turned into triumph after a life-long struggle of a negative self-image. Aitina Fareed-Cooke has developed into an inspirational community leader and mentor to youth. Her frame of mind has changed focus from herself to capturing the imaginations of others. Although Fareed-Cooke stands at 5’4” tall, Harris said “her presence is large, it’s larger than life. She’s always a positive person.”
Aitina Fareed-Cooke (a.i): Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/aitina.fareed | YouTube Channel: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCoRopeFhNhRbocpiXV0hqyw
Final Draft (11/28/2018) for DMS 193 Intro to Journalism, University at Buffalo