Von and Fran Washington: Stirring The Dreams and Imagination of Young People

Fran Washington (left) and Von Washington (center) joined by CIS board member Namita Sharma and WMU sponsor representative and CIS board member Bob Miller.

This year’s Diether Haenicke Promise of Excellence Award, sponsored by Western Michigan University, has been awarded to Von and Fran Washington. At the 10th Annual Champs Celebration, CIS board member Namita Sharma presented the award to the couple. This prestigious award was established by the Communities In Schools Board back in 2010 to honor Diether’s extensive contributions to his adopted home of Kalamazoo and in particular, his service and genuine concern for the children and young people of our community. 

Both Von Sr. and Fran Washington are educators, creators and professional performers, involved in the world theatre scene for years. For over 20 years, Von served as a theater professor and director of Western Michigan University’s Multicultural Theater program, retiring in 2010. Because his tenure overlapped with Diether’s time as University President and because of Diether’s deep appreciation of the arts, they developed a mutual respect and admiration.

Like Diether, this talented couple has a gift for poking holes in assumptions and challenging us to a truer, deeper understanding, always with an eye towards improving the lives of young people and improving the quality of life in Kalamazoo. Diether would be especially delighted that this year’s award goes to Fran and Von Washington.

This couple and their company, Washington Productions, provide an accurate and in-depth view of the African American experience through the performing arts. These two truth tellers extend the dialogue of race, culture, identity, and what it means to be American. By creating and bringing works to life that celebrate a variety of world views and not simply through the lens of the dominant culture, the Washingtons stir the dreams and imaginations of our young people. They have directly influenced thousands of young people and how they view themselves and the world around them. That is no small feat.

The Washingtons, giving an incredibly creative acceptance speech, one which, to the delight of the audience, showcased their storytelling talents.

 

For decades now, the Washingtons have known what research is now telling us: that a child’s sense of self and an understanding of their place in the world is linked with school attendance, graduation, and academic achievement, particularly for youth who are members of non-dominant racial/ethnic groups. Master storytellers, the Washingtons use their theater skills to conjure living moments from history for our youth. Moments that could easily have become forever lost, are lifted up and become wondrous, real, and exciting, right before children’s eyes. For many students, this is their first exposure to live theatre and the art of storytelling.

Education for the Arts Director, Bryan Zocher considers their presentations as the bedrock of EFA’s Arts For All school programming. He says, “By reaching 5,000-7,000 students annually over 20 years, Von and Fran may very well be the single, most powerful means of introducing African-American history and spreading a message of inclusivity and respect in our community.”

“Community leaders struggle every day to fill in gaps, gaps of every kind,” says their nominator, Mayor Bobby Hopewell. “As Mayor of Kalamazoo, in this city of promise, I stand in awe of Von and Fran Washingtons’ work as truth tellers and gap fillers, particularly when it comes to tackling history. They help all of our children learn and integrate the African American story into the American story.”

Just as Diether asked tough questions, always with the intent of challenging us to be the best we can be, the Washington’s work helps us challenge our assumptions and consider alternative, and too often overlooked, points of view. By making it their life’s work to tell stories that would otherwise go untold, the Washingtons break myths that limit understanding of who we are and feed truths to our young people—as well as those that are educating and nurturing them. Sharing a vision of the African American experience allows all of our youth—regardless of color—to fill that yawning gap of understanding and develop a bigger, truer identity of who they are and what it means to be an American.

Along with the limited edition art print of James Huff’s “(Harriet) Underground Railroad” (held by Von Jr., center), the Washingtons also received a special tribute from the State of Michigan.

Von and Fran Washington, we thank you for tirelessly sharing your passions and gifts with our kids and this community. Congratulations on being selected as this year’s recipients of the Diether Haenicke Promise of Excellence!

Angelita Aguilar: The Champ You Want at Your Side

Angelita Aguilar (center) with Principal Valerie Boggan (right) and CIS Site Coordinator Deborah Yarbrough (left).
Angelita Aguilar (center) with Principal Valerie Boggan (right) and CIS Site Coordinator Deborah Yarbrough (left).

Today we highlight Angelita Aguilar, one of seven school and community partners honored with a 2016 Champ Award. Her award was sponsored by State Farm and CIS Board member Namita Sharma presented the award.

If you found yourself on a tiny boat in the middle of the ocean, no land in sight, encircled by hungry sharks—did I mention your boat is leaking?—this Champ is who you want at your side.20160517-_DSC8174

As Dean of Students for Kalamazoo Central High School, Angelita Aguilar is a calm, rock solid person others turn to for support and guidance. Approach her office and you just might encounter this common scenario: the phone ringing, several staff seeking her input, a parent waiting to ask a question, a student approaching, looking for guidance. Angelita is at the center of it all. You’ll recognize her by her attitude, always one of “How can I help? What more can I do?” You’ll also recognize her by her ears. They are the ones turned up full-volume to listen.

Angelita, her very name means messenger, angel. She lives up to her name.  She’s a down-to-earth, no-nonsense kind of person who has shrugged off her wings and hangs with students succeeding and students struggling.

She advocates tirelessly for what works for kids. Because she understands the CIS mission, she empowers students to take full advantage of the community supports and resources CIS offers at Kalamazoo Central High School.

Too often, in this noisy world, messages aren’t always received, but when Angelita speaks, kids and grownups alike listen to what she has to say.

At a parent advisory meeting, Angelita stood up and talked about the Communities In Schools’ approach and how she couldn’t imagine a Kalamazoo Central without CIS. A parent at that meeting was so inspired that, after that, she called Kalamazoo Central’s CIS Site Coordinator, Deborah Yarbrough. “I thought I knew about CIS,” said the parent. “But, Ms. Aguilar, she really knows and connected the dots for us. She explained all the supports you bring into the school. Now I want to be part of CIS. What can I do to help?”

Deborah says, “Angelita’s office is always available to assist students I’m working with. I’ll walk into her office with a student that has given up—and when we leave, these students have an academic plan and a sense of hope. I can’t imagine Kalamazoo Public Schools or Communities In Schools without her.”

We can’t either.

Angelita Aguilar, we thank you for helping kids stay in school and achieve in life. 

 

Angelita Aguilar (center) with Namita Sharma and State Farm.
Kalamazoo Central High School Dean of Students Angelita Aguilar (center) with CIS Board Member Namita Sharma and State Farm Insurance Agent Ryan Smeader.

 

 

What the CIS Board is Reading

It’s National Reading Month. And just like the other eleven months of the year, Communities In Schools board members are reading. Here’s a peek into what some of them are reading:

 

I am reading My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante. She is an Italian author whose true identity is unknown. The novel is part of the Neapolitan Novels set in Italy beginning in the 1950’s.

-Namita Sharma

A Short History of Nearly Everything: Special Illustrated Edition by author Bill Bryson. Also, The Elegant Universe: Superstrings, Hidden Dimensions, and the Quest for the Ultimate Theory by Brian Greene. I enjoy having a couple of different books going at one time and really enjoy learning about science, the expanse of our universe, the cosmos, and oceans. I get to visit and learn more about these places by reading books.

-Darren Timmeney

 

I am reading Peace from Broken Pieces: How to Get Through What You’re Going Through by Iyanla Vanzant.

-Kim R. Bloom

 

Just finished American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America by Colin Woodard. This is a fascinating book that explains the history behind why different parts of our country are different from each other and how it got that way. I’ll bet you can’t guess which of the 11 cultures Michigan belongs to? But it does make sense after you understand the history.

-Bo Snyder

 

I just finished All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr and Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins. I’m currently reading The Big Short by Michael Lewis.

-Susan Einspahr

 

I have read the following books over the last month and recommend each highly:

The Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsberg by Irin Carmen & Shana Knizhnik. A wonderfully readable biography of a pioneering woman jurist and the challenges of being an attorney in the early 1960’s.

Auggie and Me: Three Wonder Stories by R.J. Palacio. Stories of the experiences of three middle school students whose lives were affected by Auggie Pullman who was the subject of the book WonderBoth books are geared to middle school age students but I enjoyed both stories because of the message of compassion developed in both stories.

Gray Mountain by John Grisham. Another legal thriller focused on the impact of clear top coal mining on the health of the people and environment in the communities where the practice takes place.

The Other Wes Moore:  One Name, Two Fates by Wes Moore.  The parallel lives of two black men born within blocks of one another with the same name but with different life outcomes.

The Boys in the Boat:  Nine American and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics by Daniel James Brown.  A N.Y. Times best seller about the lives of the University of Washington crew who trained, qualified and eventually won gold in the 1936 Olympic games held in Berlin, Germany before World War II.

-Carolyn H. Williams

 

If you missed the post on what CIS staff are reading, go here. You can look forward to an upcoming post in which we’ll share what CIS volunteers are reading!

 

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