West Philly community center leader moving on, but not out of the game

When dancer-choreographer Terri Cousar Shockley moved from New York City to Philadelphia in 1997, she hardly wanted to stay in this city, let alone wind up as the executive director of Powelton Village’s Community Education Center (CEC) for the next 20 years.

“I had zero experience with administration – I was a dancer,” she said with a laugh from her office at the CEC on Lancaster Avenue near Drexel.  

Yet, stay she did – first as a CEC resident artist-turned-intern – at the urging of her renowned playwright husband, Philly’s Ed Shockley.

Once fully ensconced, Ms. Terri, as she’s known to her compatriots, created a CEC driven by diversity (art forms, color, gender, class), as well as matters of social and political well-being.

Now, after 20 years of her leadership, and with art, education, cultural and fitness programs in full swing, and with the city having given the Lancaster Avenue property to the CEC (after leasing it from the city since opening in 1973), their longtime director can step down in peace.

“I’ll be 65 in a few days, and I. Am. Retiring,” she said humorously. In celebration, a lease-burning retirement party and CEC fundraiser will take place in her name on Friday, Oct. 27, at 7 p.m. at 3500 Lancaster Ave., featuring dancers, musicians and theatre artists who have long been part of Shockley’s extended family.

“When I got here, I was in shock, first because Philly was a big town, but hardly New York at that point,” Shockley said. “And we moved from Old City to 18th and Erie to South Philly, before I got to CEC, so I saw all sides of Philadelphia.”

Once she wound up at CEC in 1997, Shockley quickly rose in its ranks to executive director. “Mainly because no one else wanted to do the job,” she laughed. “I wasn’t good with numbers – still am, and I’m lucky to have had great people with me since the start.”

As a member of the independent choreographic dance team Urban Bush Women, Shockley knew from the start how to book her own gigs and organize tours. Since 1997, she has not only brought the finest in American and international arts to the CEC (Sun Ra’s Arkestra was a frequent guest), but community-related, socially-minded advocates, educators and politicians too. Next week for example, on Nov. 1, Larry Krasner, candidate for Philadelphia DA, will give a talk at the CEC. “I’d like to think that I made a difference by making a difference, by keeping a balance of arts, education and social and political discourse,” she said.

One of the reasons that Terri Shockley is leaving her position at CEC is that as a onetime dancer, being an administrator has rooted her to a chair. “I can’t stand being in one place, let alone this chair. It’s not healthy.” Ms. Terri said she wants to make a business of teaching middle-aged adults so that they don’t atrophy, in the mind, spirit or the body.

“They have to learn how to move, fire up all the muscles,” she said.

Then there is the matter of her husband, Richard Rogers Ward-winning playwright Ed Shockley, who suffered a stroke in 2012 and has the lingering language impairment of aphasia. “Ed is the most positive person that I have ever known, and I think that I’d like to help act as a manager-administrator-agent for him and his work as he’s not quite ready to do that yet,” she said.

Lastly, there is the fact that the longtime lease on the property, held by the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority, is gone, and the building given over to the CEC.

“We have taken care of every bill and every repair ourselves, and I told them that if they don’t want developers to take over every building in the city, perhaps they should finally give this over to the community,” Shockley said of the acquisition of the building last month. Shockley credits supporters and volunteers in the community (grant money was almost non-existent), as well as City Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell, with protecting the CEC.

“She’s been our loudest advocate and champion who made sure the city knew how much money we put into the building,” Shockley said. “So we have to hold it, never sell it and keep the building an arts organization. I won’t be here – and yes, I feel better that we have the building. I can breathe easy. I can go now. Just in time to get my first Social Security check.”

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