Community Change, Through Art

As she prepares to move on, Raye Jones Avery looks back at her nearly three decades of transformational leadership at CCAC

You might say that Raye Jones Avery’s life has come full circle.

In 1981, she enrolled in voice and piano classes at Christina Cultural Arts Center (CCAC) to pursue music as a creative outlet alongside her budding career in nonprofit management. She had just graduated from the University of Delaware with dual degrees in English and Sociology, and over the next 10 years she worked for Community Action of Greater Wilmington, the Delaware League for Planned Parenthood, and United Way of Delaware. Then, in 1991, while still enrolled in classes there, she was named executive director of CCAC, becoming the first African-American woman to assume that title.

Now, as she prepares to leave that office, she plans to pursue creative interests that she first contemplated nearly four decades ago.

During her reign as executive director, Avery’s impact has been nothing short of transformational. When she took the post 28 years ago, CCAC was still a “traditional” local arts center, as she puts it, specializing in music, dance and visual arts while cultivating local talent and fostering an appreciation for African-American arts and culture. Over subsequent decades, CCAC would retain the traditional aspects of its mission, while expanding its scope to include social justice initiatives and other specialized programs in youth violence, literacy and career development.

Social justice initiatives examine the prevalent conditions faced by people of color in Wilmington, Avery says, and the conversations that ultimately arise from these programs lay the groundwork for larger and more meaningful community dialogues about race, class and society.

“We value the power of arts and art-making,” she says. “The arts are a platform for dialogue and building bridges, and we have pressing needs in our communities. We have very significant, documented gaps in wealth, food deserts, and prevalent economic conditions that affect every aspect of life.

“So how can we be more effective and bring attention to the kinds of conditions that primarily brown and black communities experience, not only in this city but in this country?”

Children have been a primary focus of Avery’s work at CCAC and Kuumba Academy. Photo by Joe del Tufo

Inspired by Jea Street Sr.

She credits retiring New Castle County Councilman Jea Street Sr. for inspiring her to become an advocate for greater equality in Delaware’s public schools, especially for those students in and around the city of Wilmington who, from her perspective, society had written off.

“It’s criminal. It is absolutely willful neglect,” says Avery. “There’s a profile of children that people were willing to throw away because they don’t want them in their schools, and it’s criminal.”

The unique economic and educational challenges facing Wilmington’s youth inspired Avery and the rest of the leadership at CCAC to found Kuumba Academy Charter School. Kuumba opened in 2001, making it one of the oldest continually operating charter schools in Delaware. It serves primarily minority and low-income students from Wilmington and the surrounding area.

“There is a perception that kids who live in impoverished conditions are less capable,” says Avery. “The philosophical underpinnings of Kuumba Academy are that our children are very capable. They’re very resilient, and their parents are important partners in the educational process. That, along with creativity and innovation, has been the center of everything that we’ve done.”

“History is replete with people who came from dire circumstances and changed the world,” she says. “We’re teaching our students to be change agents in the communities in which they live, and those underpinnings are different than what is found in traditional public schools, particularly those that are physically located in the city of Wilmington.”

Between CCAC and Kuumba Academy, Avery’s impact has been far-reaching, touching the lives of thousands, from infants to the elderly.

“Raye, I think, is one of those people who would be really difficult for me to pinpoint first time that I really met her,” says Elizabeth “Tizzy” Lockman, who worked with Avery at CCAC before her election to the Delaware State Senate last year. “She was just one of those community presences who was just everywhere, involved in everything.”

Lockman first worked directly with Avery in graduate school at the University of Delaware while Lockman served as an urban policy fellow with the Wilmington City Council. Together, they researched education policy. Avery was so impressed by Lockman that the following year Avery hired her to lead the Parent Advocacy Council for Education, a social justice initiative at CCAC designed to advocate for equity, access and more effective learning in Wilmington’s schools and community centers.

Pillar of the Community

“I’m not one of the Christina Kids who grew up at the center. I was sort of a late-comer to her tribe,” says Lockman. “But she’s impacted a lot of people. Some will know her as an educator, others as a performer. Some will even know her as ‘Mother,’ sort of a nickname that she earned as matriarch of Christina Cultural Arts Center. She’s a serious pillar of the community.”

Because Avery is one of Wilmington’s most respected community leaders, many people are sad to see her go. But she is moving on, largely because the demands of administering a nonprofit leave little room to pursue creative interests, which is what she’s intent on doing. Besides, even without her, CCAC will still have an excellent staff who all share the best interests of the institution and those they serve.

“This is really a magical place,” Avery says. “We have a very solid team. I can say with confidence that the opportunities for education and personal development will remain intact. We’re helping to raise people’s children. It’s a joy, but it’s also an awesome responsibility that is not to be taken lightly.”

As she prepares to leave, Avery is pursuing a handful of closeout initiatives.

The first is developing an institutional succession plan and leadership training for CCAC employees and volunteers. As she began planning for her retirement, she realized that there was no formal succession plan in place, nor were there formal leadership development opportunities for CCAC employees and volunteers.

She also is partnering with Colette Gaiter, associate professor in the Department of Art and Design at UD, to digitize the historical documents in the archives at CCAC. So far, they have digitized more than 500 documents. In Avery’s office, there are flyers for a 1993 theatrical performance by This is Us star Ron Cephas Jones, who portrayed a Philadelphia jazz trumpeter named Lee Morgan in the play Don’t Explain. There’s also a flyer for a musical performance by Esperanza Spalding before the jazz bassist and singer became the four-time Grammy-winning star she is today.

“One of the things that has been really fun for me is seeing all the people who come through,” says Gaiter. “It’s pretty astonishing. And that’s what’s so great about developing this archive: you see how connected Christina was, and they could attract these people to Delaware.”

Lastly, Avery is in the final stages of establishing an Urban Teaching Artist Fellowship at CCAC.

“There are a lot of talented artists, but they’re not trained as teachers,” she says. The fellowship period lasts 10 months and includes a stipend, four months of training as a teaching artist, and a practicum in a real classroom.

What’s next after that? Avery intends to continue her ventures as a music artist, but she’s also reflecting on her years as an English major and thinks that she may want to start writing again, possibly a memoir about starting Kuumba Academy.

Whatever she does, it won’t be the first time she pursues a new creative venture in her vibrant and varied life, just as she did many years ago when she first decided to pursue voice and piano lessons at CCAC.

“I had no training as a vocalist until I was an adult,” says Avery. “I’m an adult learner, and I want to encourage adult learners to reimagine their lives. That’s where I am right now.”

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