Wilmington resident Raye Jones Avery is a dynamic creator who sparks change
As a child, Raye Jones Avery was interested in the arts. And no wonder. Avery was one of six children, and her mother, an educator, encouraged them to amuse themselves with creative play. “We did a lot of singing and came up with our own choreography,” recalls Avery, whose family moved from Philadelphia to Wilmington when she was 6.
Today, the arts are a career and a passion for Avery, who still lives in the city. Her business,
High Intensity Productions, focuses on content for cultural programming. She does not lack experience. For nearly 30 years, Avery was the executive director of the Christina Cultural Arts Center in Wilmington. She’s been a curator, educator, activist and mentor. She’s also a recording artist.
And she’s seen the arts flourish in her hometown.
Avery’s family moved to Delaware for work. Her father, Valley Rice, spent the bulk of his career teaching mathematics at Bancroft Junior High School. Her mother, Lillian, an early educator, also worked in city schools.
Between teaching and tending to the family, the couple was busy. What’s more, two of Avery’s siblings were born with a genetic disorder. “They were severely ill, and I became a caretaker at a very young age,” says Avery, the second-oldest child.
The family lived in an East Wilmington community full of residents with an entrepreneurial spirit. Her father, for one, took plumbing and furnace jobs on the side. But he always found time for books. “He was a voracious reader,” Avery says. “I got my appetite for literature from him.”
Indeed, the book buff studied English literature at the University of Delaware and earned an interdisciplinary bachelor’s degree in English and sociology. She began her career in education advocacy at the Parent Resource Center led by Councilman Jea P. Street, Sr.
She also worked for Planned Parenthood and earned a master’s in health services administration from West Chester University. Working at the United Way of Delaware offered a broader perspective of the area’s nonprofit world for Avery, who led the first statewide needs assessment.
However, she never lost her love for the arts. The mother of two took dance and music classes at the Christina Cultural Arts Center. When a leadership position opened, she expressed her interest.
Avery was with the nonprofit cultural arts organization for so long that many people think she founded it. But, in fact, the Women’s Club of Trinity Episcopal Church started the group in 1945 to provide activities for immigrant Polish and Swedish families.
In 1969, led by visual artist educator Percy Ricks, CCAC became a community-based arts center emphasizing African American cultural heritage. The organization purchased and renovated a Market Street building in 1993, and today, thousands benefit from CCAC’s services each year.
In 2001, Avery helped start the Kuumba Academy Charter School, which serves children from kindergarten through eighth grade. The school, created through a partnership with CCAC, unites the arts, academics, technology and families. The academy has received national acclaim, including a congratulatory 20th-anniversary message from Raymond Lewis, a former NFL player with the Baltimore Ravens.
Programs at CCAC, Kuumba Academy and other organizations have helped boost the arts in Wilmington, Avery says. “We have some great arts organizations — when people come here from other places, they say it’s remarkable.”
Artists are storytellers, she says. They build social cohesion and are economic drivers in a community. She’s encouraged by the support for local artists from larger entities, such as the Delaware Art Museum, The Delaware Contemporary and City Theater Company. In addition, Avery encourages more support for The Creative Vision Factory, a drop-in center for residents with behavioral health needs.
In 2021, the Delaware Art Museum commissioned Dara Stevens Meredith to choreograph “a bold new work,” “The Bridge of our Roots,” which explores the lived conditions of African American women, Avery says.
The film presentation was recorded in front of “Southern Souvenir No. II,” a powerful painting by Eldzier Cortor.
“Supporters encouraged a live presentation of the moving dance suite,” says Avery, who handled audience development and fundraising for the project. The dancers performed in front of sold-out crowds at the Delaware Theatre Company and the Suzanne Roberts Theatre in Philadelphia.
Next, Avery hopes to raise funds so Meredith and multigenerational dancers can tour Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). But first, Avery says, she will join Meredith for her 40th birthday in Egypt this summer, a gift from Kuumba Academy founders.
From Avery’s Quaker Hill neighborhood, she can walk to many arts venues, including the Delaware Contemporary and the Delaware Theatre Company on the Wilmington Riverfront.
She currently volunteers on year-round programming related to one of the city’s most popular events, the Clifford Brown Jazz Festival. The annual concert series honors the virtuoso Wilmington-born jazz trumpeter who died at age 25 in a car accident. The recent year-round concerts have been in-person and virtual.
Avery has also been on the road. At the suggestion of friend and collaborator E. Shawn Qaissaunee, a Wilmington jazz artist, she applied for and received the Robert Johnson Endowment Fellowship at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts in Amherst, VA. Her project combines creative fictional writing with a companion CD.
The artist has already recorded two CDs, primarily in the jazz genre, which include rearranged standards and originals that merge the spoken word with music. Expect more. Avery is taking piano lessons at CCAC with Stacey Harcum to help her compose.
No doubt, Avery will achieve her goals — with a little bit of help from her creative friends and community. The best thing about Delaware, she says, is the “deep camaraderie and kinship.”