by Lewis J Whiitington for The Dance Journal
The Community Education Center (CEC ) has been a unique Philadelphia institution dedicated to the nurturing arts institution unique theater venue, studio, and incubator for music, theater, poetry, dance and performance art. CEC will be ushering in a new era this month as they finally take ownership of their building in the University City, Powelton Village section of West Philadelphia. in West Philly, after leasing it from the city since they opened in 1973. The organization will be holding a lease burning celebration on October 27 and they will also be honoring their longtime director Terri Shockley who is stepping down has as CEC’s executive director, after 20 years.
On a sultry, wet October day CEC executive director Terri Shockley, (aka Ms. Terri) strolled down Lancaster Avenue with spring in her step, and all smiles having just had a lunch date with her 19- year old son, a second year environmental science student at Drexel. And it was the day before her 66th birthday.
Moments later, in one of the CEC’s cramped offices spaces, Shockley talked about her retirement as the CEC prepared to enter a new era with her departure, and the organization restructures under a new deal with the city. “Yes, after October, I’ll be gone,” she said. Well, sort of, since Shockley says she plans to volunteer in certain ways, while the CEC board of directors hires her replacement.
“Ever the Libra who seeks balance in all things“, Shockley cites both personal and professional reasons for her decision. She’s considering starting a business, for instance, and maybe even returning to performing, “before I get too old to do anything else,” she jokes.
But Shockley was just as concerned about the future of the organization in an increasingly competitive and precarious Philly arts environment.
“I felt I was in a position that I couldn’t really move the organization forward the way it needs to be. Because I’m the sole employee I try to do everything. But after a while I realized this is not going to get better.” Shockley admitted.
“So it was time for me to step aside and let someone else take over… (time) to bring in someone younger, someone with lots of energy, who can write good grants and knows about capital campaigns and can come up with new ideas to take the organization to the next level, where it needs to be moving forward.” She is particularly self-critical about the requisite schmoosing that comes with an executive director territory. “Well, you know, I’m not very good at networking that way,” she says with a laugh “even though I did try.”
Shockley may be her own worse critic in that respect, but however modest, for two decades without doubt Shockley nurtured artists whether they were pursuing professional or academic careers. She was tireless in her efforts to keep CEC a nexus for arts education and community engagement.
“Artists always have a vital role to play,” Shockley said. “the whole social justice and the lack there off…they have a vital role to play. Their voices on every level, whether it’s about relationships or institutional racism and things we don’t like to talk about…. it’s always been an artist’s role to put it out there. There are a lot of people of color who are drawn to CEC for many reasons. They need a place they can afford to put up a piece, filmmakers, playwrights, dancers and it’s something they have to have,” We have to make sure it’s still possible and accessible for them.”
As a former dancer herself, Shockley knew the struggles of emerging dance artists faced getting their work onstage. “I danced and toured with Urban Bush Women for ten years. I came to Philly with my playwright husband (Ed Shockley) thinking that I wanted to establish a community center in North Philly. I came to CEC as a resident artist, thinking I would be a choreographer and I created a few pieces here. And then volunteered as an arts administrator intern, then I was arts coordinator. Then they hired me as director.”
It was an exciting and more financially secure period for the organization and, as Shockley recalled “There was so much dance then, and I loved that, here you could be a resident artist, we give you the space, promote it, put up a concert and do all of the support work so the artists would be able to create, experiment and grow.”
One of the hallmarks of CEC under Shockley leadership was the dance residency programs, some years supporting as many as five residencies. “We were curatorial and I can’t think of a chosen artist who didn’t belong. I selected our committee, but they selected the resident artists. We wanted to be diverse. And we wanted them to take chances. I felt wonderful about that.”
As with all arts organizations things inevitably “shifted over the years.” as funding and grants dried up.
Among other things, the dance selection panel was discontinued and Shockley struggled to operate within the boundaries of the center’s increasingly limited resources. “We were back to the artists having to do all of the support work themselves. When I talked to the dance community about what was the best thing we could continue to do for them, they told me that providing the space was the main thing, so I tried to continue to make things here as assessable as possible.”
Contributing to an increasingly limited future for programming at CEC was the status of the building. Shockley said “We had been trying to get this building from the city for years. The city told us we weren’t a big enough organization, that we could ‘lose control of it.’ My response to them was “What are you talking about we’ve been running this building and taking care of every repair for 35 years.”
At one point a vital ongoing grant from the city was even discontinued Shockley said, because (absurdly enough) “they said they didn’t like that we were struggling financially.”
Although so much is up in the air in the immediate future, the organization’s acquisition of the building will solve many problems in one fell swoop and allow an interim phase for the CEC to reorganize a more secure operational infrastructure.
Shockley credits supporters and volunteers in the community keeping it going up to this point. And “especially our city councilwoman (Ex-officio) Jannie Blackwell, she was our advocate. She made sure the city knew how much we put into it over the years. Something worked and they gave us a forgivable lease, so each of the next 10 years they forgive a 10th of the selling price and after time we will own it outright.”
Under the new agreement, the Board predicts a transitional phase might take six months to a year. But Shockley said changes could kick in at any time “if there’s an opportunity for new partnership that the board approves. But, for the near future programming will stay the same,” she said.
The acting CEC Board initially wanted to give Shockley a dinner to honor her leadership and legacy, but Shockley opted for a fundraising event instead “If the CEC can get a few dollars in the pot that will make me happy,” she assures.
The Lease Burning and Retirement Party will take place October 27, 2017 from 7pm-1am at the Community Education Center at 3500 Lancaster Avenue, West Philadelphia. The celebration will feature several jazz artists, dancers, and theatre artists who are part of the CEC extended family.