Thanks to a genetics-testing kit and knowing people from 100 countries, educator and activist Chereta Quána Madison feels “an interconnected sense to humanity.” (photo courtesy Chereta Quána Madison)

Bridge Walker

By Tanya Ishikawa

Chereta Quána Madison wants to help educators and the community to better understand trauma and its impacts on individuals. In her observations in schools, the doctoral student has found “an utter lack of understanding” of the impact of trauma on refugees, in particular.

“Many people don’t understand that if you are working with people who are traumatized, whether they are veterans, refugees or survivors of hurricanes, you need to acknowledge the impacts to their psychologies and bodies,” Quána (her preferred name,  pronounced Kee-AH-nah) says. “Their traumatic experiences give them a whole different worldview.”

Quána and fellow advocate Jonise Roberts (with flower) went to Washington in April to meet with members of Congress and the Army Corps of Engineers about ways to fight malaria, HIV-AIDS and tuberculosis. (photo courtesy Chereta Quána Madison)

As a community-based research scholar at CU Boulder’s Refugee Education Advocacy Project, she has been working with nonprofits and schools that have high refugee populations to develop ways to better serve and empower them. The Denver metro area has a half-million refugees, not including second-generation family members.

Jonise Roberts, a youth facilitator at Goodwill Industries of Denver, says Quána’s work is extremely important and helps give the refugees a voice.

“Her community-based research with the refugee youth has helped my students not only feel empowered but also validated,” Roberts says. “I myself, being from Haiti and immigrating as a refugee to the U.S., have always felt like our community is not given enough credit for the new roles we play in the States.”

Quána, 36, is also an instructor in the Leadership Studies Minor Program in CU’s School of Education. “I love being a passionate bridge walker between local communities that are impacted by humanitarian issues. We need more geographical and ideological bridge walkers in today’s world,” she says. She identifies as a “black feminist disabled avant-garde artist” as well as a polyspiritualist. Her genetic heritage is from Congo, Uganda, Morocco, Israel, Palestine, China, France, England and Haiti, as she discovered in her early 20s through a National Geographic genetic testing kit.

“I was so excited about what that test revealed,” she says. “Oh my gosh, it gave me all these treasure maps and clues to my past. It gave me an interconnected sense to humanity. How could I not care about both Palestine and Israel? How could I not care about Muslim communities in the Middle East? I have genetics from there.”

A Survivor Blossoms

Born in Kansas and raised in Missouri as one of the only black children in her neighborhood, Quána survived a traumatic youth marked by repeated instances of major illness, discrimination, severe abuse and neglect. Through the compassionate support of a few teachers, counselors and community groups, she ended up at Colorado College in Colorado Springs studying comparative world philosophies. She excelled, earning several grants and scholarships and touring with the college choir in Italy and Cuba. She was president of her class and commencement speaker, and graduated with a B.A. in philosophy in 2003. She went on to earn her master’s degree in childhood education from New York University, taught at an arts-magnet public school in New York City, and served in leadership roles during four years at Yew Chung International School in Shanghai, China.

At 18, Chereta Quána Madison lived a hard life in Missouri and found solace in the sounds of its forests and crickets. (photo courtesy Chereta Quána Madison)

“I have lived and worked with people from over 100 different countries with a kaleidoscope of identities. All of these details inform my critical community advocacy, research and passions,” Quána says.

Last year, her colleague on the Leadership Studies faculty, Ashmi Desai, invited her to become a board member of the United Nations Association Boulder Chapter to advocate for U.N. programs, and for the Nothing But Nets campaign to help fight global malaria and HIV. Desai describes Quána as “a rock star” who is “extremely conscious” of addressing different learning styles and communication patterns by using art, music, Socratic discussion and a variety of techniques to make connections with everyone, from her students to refugees.

Quána praises her colleague just as highly, calling Desai a light-bearer. Others who garner that title are her mentors, Dr. Alphonse Keasley at the Office of Diversity, Equity and Community Engagement, and CU Engage faculty director Ben Kirshner. Kirshner calls her “a dynamic, caring person with terrific scholarly insight and leadership skills. It’s good for all of us to know that there are such capable people in our midst.”

These days she has appeared less often around the university and Boulder as she struggles with various medical complications from multiple surgeries, cancer treatments and a childhood infection along with side effects from an experimental “cure.” She almost bled to death last year, and has been given a prognosis of just 10 to 14 more years of life. But amazingly, Quána remains active in many volunteer roles and has even increased her participation in artistic activities such as promoting the Denver-based Phantom Circus.

She continues to embrace each day with an acceptance of her unpredictable situation, reverence for all living beings, and a commitment to serving traumatized refugees. She meditates and communes with “the divine within” daily, as she has done since she was 5. Recently her prayer is: “With positivity, bliss, harmony, love and deep inner peace, I pray to be a servant to global humanity to support sustainable communities of authenticity and mutual uplift.”

Tanya Ishikawa has done a tandem skydive jump, scuba dived at night, walked across cooling lava, run a 5k race at 9,000-feet elevation, rafted the Grand Canyon and ridden a horse into Canyon de Chelly. But she spends most of her days untangling words and sentences to share stories about people and topics she cares about.

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