The Village Green has invited the 9 candidates for the South Orange-Maplewood Board of Education to submit statements for publication, which we will run as we receive them. Election day is November 6, 2018.
Javier Farfan: Why I’m Running
My mom thinks I’m crazy — about running for the school board I mean. In fact, most of my family back in my old NYC neighborhood think I’m crazy. And a neighbor here in Maplewood just said the same thing. So why am I doing it?
Why me? What do I think I can bring to the Board of Education if elected? They are complicated questions, and they have complicated answers.
Some of the answers are familiar. For example, I could tell you that — like everyone else — my wife Nathalie and I moved here for the schools, to give our four-year-old son every advantage, to give him a lot of what we didn’t have growing up in the inner city. That’s true.
And I could tell you that I’ve realized, talking to a lot of other pre-school parents and hearing stories about problems in our school district, that in order to ensure that our schools serve our children well, we need dedicated, proactive people on the School Board. And that is certainly true.
But as talking to my mom made clear, to really understand why I’m running, you need to understand how education has made me who I am.
At an early age, I was lucky enough to have some caring adults see something in me that I didn’t yet see in myself. I have never forgotten what they did for me and I always said to myself that I would repay my debt to them by paying it forward, by making sure that other kids had the same opportunities that I was fortunate enough to have.
I come from humble beginnings. My family came to this country from Ecuador in the late sixties before I was born. They ended up in NYC — Harlem to be exact, on the west side, only a few blocks from Columbia University, someplace that for me, growing up, was light years away.
I grew up with a big, loving extended family that tried to give me and my siblings a positive environment. Especially my grandmother, our family’s immigrant Queen, was determined to lead us through tough times in a tough city. My mom was a single mom trying to raise us while working two jobs, having very limited education and speaking only Spanish. My first experience outside of my family was the New York City public school system. My distant memories of those days are of caring teachers, new friends, and a new world, a world of learning. Initially, the school system didn’t know what to do with me because I was one of the few Latino children that had come into the school system not knowing English. I was placed in Special Education because that is what they did with children who were “different.”
My mom’s language didn’t allow her to advocate for my correct placement. But one teacher took a liking to me–God knows why–and decided I had potential. After a few months, I was moved into the regular class at PS 36. All I remember after that experience was that I loved school. It felt like my second home. I was in that district until the third grade.
Even when I got to high school, it was the teachers and other staff who made me feel like I was part of a community and helped keep me out of the bad situations that some kids fall into. Looking back, I think I was a handful and they had their work cut out for them.
During my teenage years, I pushed the limits. I wasn’t impervious to the negative influences of my neighborhood. But those wonderful teachers never gave up on me, and my mother and extended family were always there.
With the help of my aunt, I got the financial aid I needed to attend SUNY Binghamton. It was a transformational experience for me because it was there that I realized how blessed I was to have the privilege of educational opportunity. Systems can be set up to weaken you, even school systems. But real education, and the people who fight for it, are always on your side.
While I was at Binghamton, a couple of friends of mine back in Washington Heights were murdered in a stupid feud. It affected me deeply: why was it me sitting in the red brick dorm, looking at those calm trees?
My sophomore year, I partnered with a group of friends and we began a non-profit named JUMP Nation which paired 7th and 8th graders with SUNY Binghamton students as mentors. I am so proud to say that the non-profit still exists 25 years later and has expanded to Syracuse University, with over 2,000 children benefiting from the program in that time period.
Following Binghamton, I received a Masters from Columbia University in Organizational Psychology and an MBA from NYU Stern School of Business. I began a successful career in Marketing. All because some caring teachers went out of their way to notice me and help me.
Several years later, an old college classmate called, and I once again found myself in the middle of a major volunteer effort. She was a New York City public high school teacher in the inner city and was trying to do something for the girls in her school, to help them see the wider world and aspire to successful careers. In response to a challenge issued by Mayor Bloomberg, we submitted a proposal to create a school called the Urban Assembly School for Young Women in Business (UASYWB). I wrote the curriculum and assisted in developing the mission of the school. In 2005, our proposal won and we opened the school for 400 young female students in a new building in lower Manhattan. It’s had its ups and downs, but it’s helped a lot of young women.
From everything I’ve heard, one of the central challenges of our school district is to get every adult to see the potential in every child, to launch all of our students on a path of high expectations that leads to success in life. We need to understand that it is not just disadvantaged students or students of color who sometimes face a culture of low expectations. We all have a stake in making our school system work well for every child. We need to change the culture of our district so that all teachers and administrators never stop trying to unlock the potential in each and every child.
I think I know something about that — because I was on the receiving end of that from caring, effective teachers, and because I later leveraged that understanding in two very successful volunteer efforts. We can make our district one that engages all students, whatever their personal challenges, but we first have to believe that it’s possible and understand how it’s possible.
I know, deep in my bones, that it is. And that’s why I’m running.