Black History Month Special Part 2: SGA’s Louize Bingi interviews Black staff at Madison



Hawk Talk Staff

Even though Black History Month has come to a close, we would like to continue to highlight the stories and experiences of various Black staff members at Madison. It is important to continue to celebrate the knowledge and insights of our Black community members at all times of the year in order to raise awareness in at Madison and start to create change. The Hawk Talk is collaborating with Madison’s Student Government Association (SGA) to publish the transcripts of interviews conducted by Louize Bingi, current head of the Equality and Inclusion Committee at Madison. The next two interviews are presented below:

Bingi’s interview with Cheronda Farrish, Assistant Principal & Special Education Specialist:

Louize Bingi: What are some of your most memorable achievements in your life?

Cheronda Farrish: That’s a lot! I guess I have many, but I can kind of give you one from probably different phases in my life. As a child, my parents were very, very heavy into activities and really creativity. That was their drive. And so as a kid, just one thing I was proud of was martial arts. I learned a lot of different types but taekwondo and kenpo really stuck with me. So, they probably put me in it when I was 7 years old and I did it all the way through college and now I have a 2nd degree black belt in taekwondo and one in kenpo karate as well. I just couldn’t let it go because it was a way for me to get in there and learn different forms. It was something that out of all the activities I was put in, it stuck with me the most. It was a huge accomplishment because once I got my black belt it was like “Wow, now I go up to green!” 

Family-wise, I would say that I’m a big family person. And my two boys, that’s an ongoing accomplishment for me because it’s something that I sit back and watch daily. You know I guess seeing them [my family] morph and experience new things and seeing it grow is really beautiful to me and I look at that as an accomplishment.

As far as work, my biggest accomplishment, and it’s so funny to say this, but the most memories I get are from kids that have barriers, whether they are natural or they are created barriers. Seeing them succeed and do great things. Ever since I went into education 11 years ago, everytime I see what I call the underdog succeed, whether it’s based off of a student having a disability, a student being a minority, a student that just is looked at as a troublemaker or not as smart as their peers. Seeing them do great things has been very memorable. Even in terms of me going and getting my doctorate. That was a huge accomplishment for me. It was definitely memorable because it did take a lot of work. It took years of studying but it’s memorable and it’s something I got to accomplish before the age of 40. 

But those have been some memorable achievements of my life.

Bingi: Is there something you achieved that you never would have thought was possible?

Farrish: You know what, I’m one of six and my father’s philosophy growing up was “all things are possible.” And so it stuck with us. We talk about it even to today. One of my sisters is a lawyer in New York City. I got a sister who’s a physician assistant. I mean all my family are in careers that involve schooling and learning and knowing how the systems work. But, there’s never been a time where I’ve been able to sit back and think that it’s not possible. I’ve always had the mindset that it’s always possible and I have to make it happen. So, I probably wouldn’t have an answer for that. And that’s what I tell the kids. “Anything you want to be possible, is possible no matter what direction you take, but it’s always possible if you want it.” 

But you know, goals have struggles, but to me, those struggles have a beauty. If there was no struggle, then you would not learn. You’re going to set all these goals and these milestones and you’re always going to learn from those struggles. They’re a part of growing, a part of learning, and a part of, quite honestly, your outcome and who you are as a person. You know there’s a lot of people who naturally, things are handed down to them. They have, and I hate to say this word, but they have a privilege. People who I see that have to go through the struggle, have to learn different coping skills; they have to learn to create their own barriers. And in the Dr. Farrish philosophy, the overall person is well-rounded, strong, resilient, and it goes back to my father’s philosophy of anything being possible. But you learn that from understanding that struggle is beautiful and it makes you who you are and it actually teaches you. It’s also something you’re able to pass down to your kids.

Bingi: Could you talk a little about your childhood?

Farrish: Growing up was amazing. I have a very, very close family. My dad went to McKinley Tech and my mom went to Ballou for a while and so we are a little melting pot of D.C. and other surrounding areas near the Southeast, Northeast D.C. line. My mom didn’t work and my dad was a heating and air conditioning man but my family and I call him an entrepreneur. Everyone seemed to know him since he’s been in this field for about 40-50 years and he raised his kids off from it. It was a good childhood. Where I grew up was considered an area you didn’t want to go to, but I never looked at it that way. But I would say that now as an adult, I see that the education system there wasn’t so good. I was actually pretty blown away when I began working at Fairfax County and saw all the resources available and how beautiful everything looked. And growing up as a kid, you don’t really see that unless you’re growing up in good areas, but my parents were very stuck on loving your neighbor and loving where you come from. 

So, my childhood in general was very active. My parents would find stuff like dance classes and we were there for years. They [her parents] took up all of our time [Dr.Farrish and her siblings] with activities. 

Bingi: What drove you to come to Madison? 

Farrish: Well, I’d been in Region 1 for about eight years and I started out in a different region where I was a classroom teacher. I got into my master’s program at George Washington University, because they had such a great program when it came to teaching students with disabilities. I ended up coming to Region 1 and I started up teaching at an elementary level. And so, I got to be a classroom teacher and I had everything from third to sixth grade. When I started doctorate studies, I was offered twice the opportunity to come out and be a leader in the field of special education. So I ended up coming out to be a special education department chair and that’s what landed me at Madison. And I did that for the year until I finished my doctorate studies and my administration and supervision endorsement and I had the opportunity to interview for the position of Assistant Principal. So now, that’s really what I do. 

Bingi: What made you want to pursue a career where you helped special needs kids? 

Farrish: As a kid in high school, in the area that I was in, I had the opportunity to be what was called a “one-to-one.” And I called them more JDC residential placement type settings to kids who had been dismissed from school. A friend actually told me about it and they were like, “You know what Cheronda, these kids have been kicked out of school and we need someone to go in and at least be a mentor to them.” I was a senior at that time and when I walked in, it was filled with, honestly, Black kids and kids who had been dismissed from school and kids that I didn’t understand why they couldn’t be educated. That was my first time seeing something like that and I knew that I had a passion for it. So I went ahead and went to college and began to learn different things and just fell in love with it and I thought, “You know what? I really really really want to dig deep and dive deep to this field.” And so that’s what I did. I began to read more and I started to mentor people who were not biased. 

I wanted to know what the practices were for referring a kid. I wanted to know how kids ended up being considered students with disabilities. And I want to say that that’s what really wove me down the path and wanting to see a difference because I knew I could really make a difference if I were given my own classroom. So I started teaching in what’s called a comprehensive services site throughout the county and these are kids we would take from schools in order to meet their needs, and the kids are phenomenally smart; they had personalities that blow me away and I think that’s where my love came from. I knew that was my life’s calling.   

And from childhood, seeing that there were kids that were just not able to make it in a regular school, which of course blows me away, and then being able to make a difference and being in those classrooms teaching and seeing the kids fly and soar just based off how I’m delivering instruction, the language I use, my relationship building, and giving them opportunity and choice made a big change. 

Bingi: What challenges have you faced as a person of color in America? 

Farrish: Well I think there are natural barriers that people of color are born into. It’s not like we choose them, but the way the system is, it’s just natural. For me personally, my lens was really opened in college and I say this because my parents did a good job telling us [Dr.Farrish and her siblings] about what it was like to be Black in America. And I heard it from a really young age about how the system works and it was me and all my siblings. I want to say that when I went to college, it was the first time I really had to take deep breaths and navigate because you know, my sisters went to HBCUs (Historically Black Colleges and Universities) and I didn’t. And you know GW isn’t diverse, neither is where I did my doctoral studies and I will say that that was when I realized that there were barriers in place and I would have to learn to navigate them. 

Once again with that philosophy my father drove into us, “everything is possible.” There was never a barrier that I couldn’t pass. I’ve had problems; I see things in front of me like my name. I remember going in for job interviews and me saying, “Mom do I need to change my name?” because people always said it wrong. My mom actually fought us on that and said, “This is the name I gave you and I want you to hold tight to it. You don’t have to change your name in order to be accepted, right? You put it on your resume and you should be proud of it.” And that was a learning experience, but I was questioned about whether that should be something that I should consider.   

When you talk about a person of color, I think through two lenses. I have my person of color lens, but I also have a lens for servicing persons who are disabled. And these are for me two underserved populations especially where we are now. They are those kids and people who pull at my heartstrings. 

I mean people don’t know what they don’t know. I see and hear things and I think that they definitely don’t know that what they said could be offensive and I think that’s the beauty of having diversity because you get to see if what you said hurts someone. For me, it’s the way I speak. It’s not proper from where I come from and one time I was like, “Do I need to take speech classes?” I just didn’t think people could understand me. It was always a thought in my head especially if you’re a minority in a system where it’s majority white and you want to make sure that you’re properly understood and included. So, you’re constantly fighting for that. 

And I know at Madison, that has a small population of Black and brown kids, it is important that we are included in that our voices are heard. The same thing can be said for children with disabilities. The inclusion of these students is so important that it has to be purposeful. 

Bingi: What change do you want to see at Madison involving people of color and kids with disabilities? 

Farrish: It’s hard at Madison because we’re [people of color and kids with disabilities] a small population, but I don’t see how we’re celebrating Black achievement or what the curriculum looks like. And I think that the county in general is trying to make sure that we’re celebrated because Black people have done a lot in America. It should be celebrated every day, but how do we properly incorporate it in our curriculum? 

I’m a big person on opportunity choice in the words we use. And so, for me, relationship holding is crucial and I think that we’re moving in a great direction with that, but teachers and their choice in words, especially how we talk to students and how we make them feel, can really make or break a student. The words when we sit down and have a conversation with students, and I’m thinking of students of color and with disabilities right now. The words that we say, the opportunities we give them, the choices that we help them make, it’s very paramount to their success. And I would like us not only at Madison, but as a nation understand that in general, your words have so much power and what you say can affect the outcome. And I would say that if I could change anything, it would be language. I feel like even if you don’t believe in certain things, or don’t morally agree with something, the way you say it to a kid, how it’s received, it can really affect the outcome of their life. And, a lot of the words that teachers and even administrators use, kids don’t forget them and they hold on to them and it can be great but also not so great. 

Bingi: What are your goals for the future? 

Farrish: I honestly would love to be a principal at some point and I know that’s a huge goal, but working with such a great team has greatly helped me. I do love Madison, but at one point, I would love to run a high school. So that is something that I see is reachable in the future. I would also love to create opportunities for our Black, brown, and kids with disabilities to participate in, whether it’s after-school activities or taking AP or honors classes.    

Read Bingi’s interview with Madison Instructional Assistant JNa Johnson.

Louize Bingi: Could you give me a rough overview of how your education journey has been?

JNa Johnson: It’s pretty tough. My family worked from a very young age. They didn’t pursue the education path because they didn’t have the means to. They just jumped straight into the workforce. It was difficult for me to complete the applications. I didn’t have anyone to guide me into that other than the counselors. I was the first one of my immediate family to go to college, and as far as financially, the only way I could have to go is taking out financial loans. I got the education. I got my bachelors; I got my masters. However, I accumulated a lot of debt along my way.

Bingi: What did you get your master’s degree in?

Johnson: I got it in athletic training, so I went to Lynchburg College for my master’s. I was the first co-board graduate in athletic training. I was the very first class to graduate, and we were only 6.

Bingi: Do you regret taking off the student debt, or would you do it all over again if it meant going to college?

Johnson: I would do it all over again. I would probably work a little bit harder in high school and on research grants that I could apply to, but I still will do it all over again.

Bingi: What was something that you achieved that you never thought was possible?

Johnson: Probably again, forwarding my education. It was amazing to get my bachelor’s degree, and then I wanted to step further and get my master’s. Considering my background that I come from, it is probably the most achievable and memorable thing I have accomplished so far.

Bingi: Throughout your life, what experience has shaped you into the person you are today?

Johnson: I would say probably my financial hardships that I had growing up with my family. That is probably the first and most important thing. I had been evicted several times, so I’m very furthable with money and know how to handle a better situation with money now, seeing my parents gone through struggles. My experience as an undergrad at a state university was tough. I’m multiracial, so I felt like I didn’t fit there. I wasn’t black enough to fit in there, and then I went to Lynchburg college, and I’m not white enough. I definitely would say that inclusion has shaped me to be the person that I am, and the financial hardships that I’ve encountered during my childhood, those are the two things.

Bingi: What drove you to wanna work at Madison high school?

Johnson: To be honest, I needed a job but to take a step forward, when I had my interviews, I had several interviews with Dr. Bairsh and John Kenny, and whoever else was involved in that, and it was a warm welcome. So yes, I needed a job initially, but after I met a few people that I went on the several interview process with, I felt welcomed. I felt like it was a family atmosphere.

Bingi: Do you think you would stay at Madison for the rest of your life, or you think you are going to try to go for other things?

Johnson: I don’t see myself being here for the rest of my life just because I wanted to take a step forward with my education, maybe get a Ph.D. on something, but I definitely see myself here for the next five years.

Bingi: Do you live in Vienna right now, or do you live somewhere else?

Johnson: I live in Ashburn.

Bingi: How is working in Vienna, the people you’ve met, the experiences you had?

Johnson: Surprisingly, even though it is a 30 minutes drive, it is still a culture shock, there is not a diverse area whatsoever, and that is a shock for me. It’s been good working there, but just Vienna, in general, is a culture shock and is something I would have to adapt to.

Bingi: How long have you worked at Madison?

Johnson: Since January, I’m pretty new. I’m fresh.

Bingi: What challenges have you faced as a person of color in America? You have mentioned that you are part white, part black, so how do you think your experience is different from your other peers?

Johnson: It’s a struggle. My best friend is black; she is Jamaican American. I talk to her about this all the time, and if I could pick or had that choice, I would pick one color, regardless of what color it is. Because again, I’ve never been white enough or black enough. My husband is Indian, so again I’m not Indian enough. I think the biggest challenge for me feels like I’m excluded. My differences are just that there are differences and people focused on that and they are not accepting. I would say that my biggest goal here at Madison would be to let students know even if they have a disability or whatever it is, it’s okay. We are all different for a reason, otherwise, we would be all the same, but we are not. I think my biggest thing as a teacher assistant is to make people feel comfortable and confident, and you know have them feel more included. Even if they are different, it’s okay.

I feel like it is really important, especially at Madison, that just has a very small minority group. They just need to feel like they are accepted and just in this whole pool of white kids.

It is okay if you are not white. It’s okay if you are not getting straight A’s. It’s okay if you have Ph.D.’s. It’s okay if you are depressed. These are normal things, and they have to be more accepted in society as a whole, but unfortunately are not, because as Americans we have a way of labeling people and labeling conditions. It’s not right, so I think my biggest job is to let people know that it is okay to be different.

Bingi: And you say you are a teacher assistant?

Johnson: Yes, I’m an instructional assistant. I help with the specialized department. There are several teachers that I work with, and you know, I’m just extra hands to help with individuals who need more one-on-one attention.

Bingi: What drove you to be in the teaching field?

Johnson: Within athletic training, you have these different clinical rotations to see where you want to work at the rest of your life essentially. Within these clinical rotations, you meet your preceptor who is like a mentor. They are there to teach you as possible as they can, but also to give you advice, wisdom, and any information that can help you to mold you into the person you want to be.Mentoring is not that really different than teaching. You have a different curriculum that you have to follow, but at the same time, the student comes to see you for advice. So, in my opinion, the mentorship that I got was very good and inspired me to teach. I don’t have my teaching license, and I talked to some other teachers at Madison before I was hired, and they said you know if you are interested in teaching, your first step would be being an instructional assistant. It helps you get a foot in the door. It gives you an idea of what the teaching book looks like on a daily basis, that is how I whistle my way in.

Bingi: So if you were to be a teacher would you want to stay in the Special Ed department or do you want to teach some course, subject?

Johnson: I would definitely stay in the special ed department. I don’t know what those kids do, but they have some type of like pull on my heart and again I’ve talked to some of them, and they feel like you know, whether they have anxiety or ADHD ,whatever it is you know they feel comfortable talking to someone who also has things going on or who is empathetic and are able to put themselves on their shoes. I definitely want to stay in the special ed department. It’s a calling. I don’t feel like everybody has the ability or just the desire to work at the specialized, and I definitely feel like I’ve been called to do it. I look forward to working every day at the special ed department. Going into the class is the highlight of my day.

Bingi: Are you excited to see them in person if they choose to come?

Johnson: I am; I’m really am. I am nervous, of course, because of the COVID thing. Still, I’m already there, so I’m the athletic trainer there too. I’m already there for the instructional assistant position. I also do athletic changes to the sport, so the anxiety is going down because I’ve already been exposed to the football players. I’ve already been around basketball players, but I’m excited to work with them one-on-one in person.

Bingi: What goals do you have for your future?

Johnson: The main goal would be for me to go ahead and get my Dr’s degree and my Ph.D. I don’t know exactly what yet, but it is like, okay, I have two out of the three. I might as well go ahead and get my Dr’s degree and just see where that takes me and try to save as much money as possible.