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!

Pop Quiz: Von Washington, Jr.

Von-Washington-JrWelcome back to the POP QUIZ! This is a regular, yet totally unexpected, feature where we ask students, parents, staff, our friends, and partners to answer a few questions about what they are learning, reading, and thinking about.

Today we feature Von Washington, Jr. who was the former principal of Kalamazoo Central High School. In July, Von joined theKalamazoo Promise® team as Executive Director of Community Relations. (Janice Brown remains on staff as Director Emeritus and Bob Jorth, administrator of The Promise office since its creation in spring 2006, was recently promoted to Executive Director.)

Since Communities In Schools of Kalamazoo and the Kalamazoo Promise® are housed in the same building and Von’s office is conveniently situated across from me, I decided to officially welcome Von by popping over and springing this pop quiz on him. He was a good sport about it and I’m happy to report that he passed with flying colors! Here are the results:

What is something interesting you’ve recently learned?

Learning just how many Promise eligible students there are—well over 3,500 Promise-eligible students. That’s an amazing number. Many scholarships out there are ‘use it or lose it.’ With the Kalamazoo Promise®, students have ten years to use it. That’s a real gift.

What are you currently reading?

Mobilizing the Community to Help Students Succeed by Hugh B. Price. And I just finished reading The Coming Jobs War by Jim Clifton. He happens to be the Chairman of Gallup and I’d recommend his book as well.

Mobilizing the Community to Help Students Succeed sounds similar to the CIS mission. Can you share a nugget from the book?

Bottom line…it takes an entire community coming together and pooling its resources for the success of students. One of the ways the community can do this is through CIS and also using positive language about schools and learning. If your schedule is such that you can’t do something time-wise, like volunteering, you can still support students by being positive. When you do that, you are supporting schools and the efforts of everyone else. Positive attitudes only increase. Teachers feel more supported and student attendance improves.

As a principal, I often saw this. There are very few things that one can do in a school if they are not a certified teacher. There are limits and barriers stopping the average person from volunteering within a school. But here in Kalamazoo, an individual can pick up the phone or walk into the CIS office and find out how best they can contribute. I see it happening every day. People bring in backpacks, school supplies, you name it. CIS is more than just tutoring and after school supports. It is the vehicle for those who want to leverage the Kalamazoo Promise®, to help students and schools, with very few barriers.

What do you want to be when you grow up?

(Von laughs.) I’m still working on that. I have had wonderful role models. I would love to be mentioned in the same breath as John Caldwell, former principal of Kalamazoo Central High School. Janice Brown has made enormous contributions to this community. When I am all grown up and if I heard my name mentioned in the same breath as either of those two individuals, well, that would make me prideful.

What is your favorite word right now?

Collaboration. I know it sounds cliché, but collaboration means so many things. Collaboration means sacrifice, desire, community serving, and good stewardship. Many words define collaboration. The ripple effect from collaboration is what excites me right now…It is not a one time deal. It means being part of creating a vehicle to do something better and more efficiently.

Will you share with us something that has been on your mind lately?

The fact that the Kalamazoo Promise® is the most prolific scholarship program in our country and it still seems to be a quiet program. As a community, we have to let everybody know it’s still going and that it is going strong, the number of people it’s impacting and that it’s never ending.

It’s important that students aren’t just aware that there is a scholarship out there for them  but to increase the detailed understanding of this impact that the anonymous donors have made for them. When a student realizes: “some people I don’t even know me have invested in me,” well, that is powerful. When I have this knowledge inside me, it can change both thoughts and behavior. An appreciation of this gift at an early age can make a difference and lead to academic success.

Behind every successful student—and grownup— is a caring adult.  Who is one of your caring adults?

My parents. They are firm believers in hard work, experiences, and they have been the best teachers in my life. I’ve had to hustle to have or receive the things that I have. I learned from them. My son and daughter are both in college now and I’ve tried to have them follow the same rules we had growing up.

My parents are still going strong. They work with over 15,000 students a year through their company, Washington Productions, Incorporated. [WPI desires to create an accurate and in-depth view of the African American experience through the performing arts.]

I’ve met your father [Von Washington, Sr.] before, sat at a table with him at an event sponsored by Western Michigan University’s Rumi club. He has quite a dynamic presence, much like you. What is your mom like?

My mother [Fran Washington] is one of the most caring, nurturing individuals I know. She can look you in the face, and say, “I love you, I care about you, now get out there and earn it!” As a child, I always wanted to make her proud and, well, I still want to.