Arvenita Washington Cherry recognized for DE&I efforts at Maximus
Feeling like you don't fit in with peers and the "normal" stressors of youth are common for many adolescents and teenagers. Knowing that people don't expect you to succeed is an entirely different challenge many underserved students face; a fact that Maximus Senior Director Arvenita Washington Cherry knows well.
Cherry began her career as a science teacher before joining Maximus to lead its Diversity, Equity & Inclusion (DE&I) program in late 2020.
Cherry said teaching for five years gave her the opportunity to work with thousands of students and their families to understand their stories and how to best reach people with a variety of backgrounds and needs.
"As a society, we have not been great at educating about the variety of stories, histories, and contributions of many different people," she said. "I don't expect to fully change the world — a world that has revised and excluded certain people's histories and values. There's a lot of work to do."
Over the past two years, Cherry and her team have helped build the foundation of a strong DE&I program through various initiatives, including the start-up of employee resource groups, monthly learning sessions, supporting recruiting efforts, and advocating for partnerships with Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). These efforts earned her recognition as one of WashingtonExec's Top DE&I Exec to Watch in 2022.
Cherry transitioned from the academic community and consulting work to corporate life with hopes that she could help create an environment where employees could learn about each other and grow together with a sense of empathy and compassion.
"Not only does empathy and compassion make for a great working environment where people feel valued, respected, and seen, but I think it also supports our work of the many diverse customers and clients we aim to serve," Cherry said. "If we can learn to be a little kinder to each other, we can change the world."
While teaching science at Hampton City Public Schools in Virginia and in Prince George’s County, Maryland, she saw her students' struggles regarding race and class. When she relocated to teach for Prince Georges County Schools in Maryland, she taught primarily Youth of Color.
"In Maryland, I taught for three years at an alternative school, which was a last-chances program for students," she said. "I had students with some of the most challenging situations and experiences I had seen. Some of these challenges were exacerbated by structural issues, including the fact that at the time, schools were not set up to address issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion."
While Cherry believes it's easy to ignore diversity issues in a seemingly homogeneous population, there are lessons to learn when looking at different students and their challenges. That sparked her interest and led her to pursue an additional master's degree in public anthropology and a doctoral degree in anthropology with a concentration in race, gender, and social justice from American University.
Even while teaching biology — a natural science — Cherry said she made the leap to social sciences, thinking she could be a resource to many educators she worked alongside.
"I think I was always interested in people and culture, and I didn't really have language for it," Cherry said. "When I ended up teaching science, I found myself also dealing with the cultural differences in the classroom and I felt like I was tending to them in a way that nobody else was paying attention. Initially, I wanted to find ways to support teachers with diverse classrooms and support students in understanding and appreciating differences and similarities."
While completing her master and doctoral degrees, Cherry provided consulting services on social justice issues and worked with museums, nonprofit organizations, and in philanthropy.
"I spent 17 months researching the diversity of blackness — how African American students and other students of the African diaspora shared space and how educators were paying attention to diversity issues," Cherry said. "Even in predominantly Black communities, there's tremendous cultural and ethnic diversity. "
Although she doesn't belong to all of the groups and communities she supports at Maximus, Cherry considers her DE&I work to be a privilege, and she is grateful for the support of her team.
"I care a lot about this work, and I want to get it right," she said. "It's a privilege to develop content for different people and in many groups and communities. I don't want to speak for people, so I try to include as many voices on our DE&I projects as possible."
DE&I programs should be representative, remove barriers, and support Maximus employees and the people we serve, she said.
"Maximus isn't like other corporate companies; we are unique in that we serve people,” Cherry said. “We care about our customers and clients and it shows."