Cynthia Primas Designs 'Creative Oasis' For Students With IDEA

By Clyde Hughes | AC JosepH Media

CAMDEN – Cynthia Primas has always seen more to the arts than singing, writing, acting, dancing etc., but as something awaking inside her students where they begin to find who they are through creative expression and pursuits.

Primas started the Institute for the Development of Education in the Arts, better known as IDEA, in 1995 originally as a supplemental arts education organization after school and on weekends for underserved communities in Camden.

IDEA Performing Arts Center will move into a new home at 217 Market St. in downtown Camden this year. The center serves as IDEA’s home base for programs that seeks to inspire, support, and enlighten youth about the arts through their work, performances and exhibitions.

After nearly 25 years, Primas continues to stand on the front lines of that quest to give Camden youth a continued outlet into the arts – and into their own souls.

Seeing Youth Wake Up

“Seeing youth really wake up and gain a different perspective about who they are when they engage in the arts is one of my greatest pleasure,” Primas told Front Runner New Jersey.com.

“Seeing their life direction change based on decisions they make after participating in IDEA projects, whether it’s working on producing a movie, writing lyrics to a song or a poem, working in teams to develop a creative product, seeing them open up for the first time, taking responsibility and watching them create magic from tapping into their latent talent. Also meeting, hiring and working with an amazing group of community artists from throughout the Delaware Valley who are all a part of the IDEA Family,” she added.

IDEA’s new home in downtown Camden. Photo courtesy of Cynthia Primas

What IDEA Brings to the Table

One of IDEA’s major missions is to train and support youth and adults in the economic empowerment with business and employment training in multimedia and digital literacy skills for the creative economy. 

IDEA offers classes, afterschool programs, Saturday classes and summer art camps driven toward the needs kids, teens and young adults. The IDEA Studios offer TV production services, video editing, sound production, music production, as well as graphic design services to the general public.

Once IDEA students go through its multimedia technology training program, they get the opportunity to be hired to create and produce for clients. 

Through events, presentations, concerts, art classes and performances in IDEA’s Black Box theatre, students build civic engagement and foster a creative community.

Students Find Their ‘Happy Place’

“[IDEA students] are given for the first time the opportunity to create something coming from their own spirit,” Primas said. “There is no judgment, just a sense of freedom that they are appreciated for what they create. There is no such thing as mistakes in the creative world. It’s up to them to decide just how much they give of themselves. We just give them the platform to do it.

“IDEA has served as a creative oasis for some, a place to meet other creatives, a place to showcase their art, a creation, making space center that touches the lives of every person who comes through the door on a deeper level,” she added.

Primas said learning what the artist community and Camden need, love, appreciation and respect as a whole has become a mission for her.

“I have met so many talented people from Camden, and the great thing about it is we get to tell their stories through the arts,” she said. “Having a place where people can feel that energy is important for the work we do. Just like one of my youth said, ‘It puts me in my happy place.'”

What a Great IDEA

It took a little time and various experiences for Primas to develop the idea of IDEA. The youngest of seven children in Atlantic City, she majored in psychology and minored in communications in college. One of her first jobs out of college was working as radio host at a station in Rhode Island.

“As a bona fide introvert, I agonized over how I should approach this opportunity,” Primas said. “I decided to take it. The great thing about the job was that I could do my show remotely, all I had to do was tape my show and send it to the station.

“I ended up interviewing the first African-American superintendent of Public Schools in Boston about desegregation and while in Atlantic City I interviewed an up and coming singing group from Rhode Island that was appearing in Atlantic City by the name of Tavares,” she added.

That work eventually took her to doing a community talk show on television, marketing for Atlantic City casinos, meeting her husband in 1987, where they moved to Camden and later to Cherry Hill. While in graduate school in Temple University, she met Portia Sperr, founder of the Please Touch Museum for children in Philadelphia.

“She hired me to work on a project for the American Association of Museums that was funded by the Pew Charitable Trust called Museums in the Life of a City,” Primas said. “Portia Sperr was a big influence in my life and in my decision [to start IDEA], she was the only person I knew at the time that founded a nonprofit so I considered her a mentor.

“I knew I wanted to start a nonprofit for the arts but did not know how to go about doing it so she became someone who helped me through the process of starting IDEA. She was on my board of directors at the start.

“I was set on exposing the youth in Camden to the arts. My mother and brother were artist, my husband also. It was something about the arts that signified freedom, especially for the city kids that I worked with. When I worked with Portia on the Philadelphia project I got the chance to witness the creativity of the youth in those projects we funded, but I was also keenly aware of the misinterpretation of culture and the tendency to have someone else interpret or define your culture for you after working on the Museums in the Life of a City Project,” Primas added.

Challenge of Being Role Model Today

As executive director, Primas gets a chance to be a role model of hundreds of children through IDEA, many of them youth of color. She admitted that social media and the information age have changed the impact of role models and who young people tend to latch on to.

“[Role models are] what my generation lived for,” Primas said. “You took on the responsibility to become a success and a role model for your people. This generation of millennials are a different breed. They have a lot of distractions when it comes to influence.

“With so many social media influencers, celebrity influencers etc., they might not define a role model like the traditional role models that I looked up to for advice and wisdom. Actually they appear to be smarter because information comes to them constantly but I don’t know whether they are wiser.

READ: Legacy of Chicken Bone Beach Lives Within Henrietta Shelton

“But they are the reason why I have never given up. I just love youth! It’s crazy for me to think that my organization is going to survive without consistent fresh and new ideas. That’s where youth come in. I let them take ownership of IDEA and as a result have had so much satisfaction in seeing them create some amazing things,” she continued.

Cynthia Primas with her sister, Henrietta Shelton, the founder of the Chicken Bone Beach Historical Foundation in Atlantic City. Photo courtesy of Henrietta Shelton

In Her Own Words

Primas, the sister of Henrietta Shelton, the founder of the Chicken Bone Beach Historical Foundation in Atlantic City, touched on many subjects in her interview with Front Runner New Jersey.com.

Primas talks about returning to Atlantic City after college.

“Upon my return home to [Atlantic City] after that summer I joined the local NAACP and told them what I was doing. I was promptly given the responsibility of producing and directing their weekly Radio show called “Voices of the Black Community Speaks.” Since they gave me the show I decided to expand my audience so I changed the name to “Community Perspectives.”  I also brought in a cohost Tariq Iddin and we began the process of producing a community issue and answer platform open to the entire community. At the same time Atlantic City received its license to open up their first TV Station called WWAC. My cohost and I managed to convince the station managers to give us free airtime to produce a TV talk show with us as host. They went for it. Together we wrote, produced and directed “Community Forum,” a half-hour television talk show for the community. We were producing a radio show and tv show at the same time. Our influence in the community allowed us the opportunity to become the “pulse of the community.” In the two years we were on the air we interviewed a wide variety of influential people focusing on relevant topics and issues of the day which frankly are still relevant today.

“Because of the notoriety of the shows I was offered the chance to become one of 40 community people out of 400 that was trained in management for the new casino industry that was just starting in Atlantic City. My focus was marketing. I also became the community editor for the first Black Atlantic City Magazine. And after running the campaign for one of the candidates for city council I became the first legislative aide for the first city council form of government in 70 years in Atlantic City. In 1983, I was nominated Outstanding Young Woman of America.

“The political climate in Atlantic City became too much so I left Atlantic City in 1983 and went back to New England. I worked as an account executive for a major billboard company selling advertising. In 1985, my mother passed away suddenly so I moved back to Atlantic City briefly. In 1987, I met and married my husband who had just graduated from law school and we settled in Camden for about five years before moving to Cherry Hill to raise our son.  

FRNJ: What has been your great challenges in running IDEA?

Cynthia Primas: The arts are always the first to go on anyone’s budget. Society as a whole does not understand the need for the arts as much as other subjects yet all around them is creative design, whether it’s the clothes they wear, the furniture they sit on, the decorations to use to create beauty in their environment,  the arts are all around us,. Creativity is what makes things happen. So from time to time you kind of get weary of asking for help, asking for money to help keep the arts alive has been my greatest challenge.

We need support we need help to give our youth the experience of the arts, when funders don’t give we have to rely on people and when people don’t give I have had to rely on myself, and my family to come out of our pockets to keep IDEA afloat. But we can’t continue to do that, we need support in so many way, volunteers and board members to fundraise, donations, etc. It’s really not about how much you give its about giving back period, lending a hand, many of my artist who focus just on their art need a place to deliver their services and a chance to get paid for what they do, IDEA wants to be able to do that, give them a place to create, give them the chance to share their talent with young people. Those creative actions , helping each other, all come back to us through our increased fortune.

FRNJ:  What did you see as the biggest breakthrough to the school’s sustainability over the years?

Cynthia Primas:  It’s been the effect that we’ve had on the youth and the community. IDEA has established itself as a creative staple in the Camden community. People want to be a part of what we represent. We are known for the good experiences we bring to those who get the opportunity to be a part of IDEA. We are known for creating value in people’s lives, in particular our under-served young people.

In the nonprofit world grassroots organizations like IDEA go through ups and downs due to the economy, many arts organizations like IDEA fold and close their doors. My question is what is sustainability really? I feel it’s the ability to sustain yourself even when all around you businesses are failing, people are not donating, to me sustainability is having funders understand the real value of what we offer to our youth, the value of maintaining our community culture, the support that happens when the arts become life enhancing to them. We can maintain if funders and people continue to value what we do. That in turn will allow us to continually build our capacity to finally one day own our own Performing Arts Center.

It’s been a challenging job to find resources to maintain that overhead and to get the community to want  to support financially when all around them other issues that are happening to their children are taking center stage. yet the need for creativity as a form of freedom and inspiration is more important now more then ever.

I have young artist who contemplated suicide but having a creative outlet gave them a sense of themselves, I have young artist who were selling drugs yet decided to stop because the arts tapped into their morale and humanity and brought them to their senses so to speak.  We are happy to say that corporations like Subaru Foundation of America believes in us, they funded us to open up a Media lab that will give our youth a place to come to create,  learn 21st century skills on state of the art equipment in Graphic Design, Video/Film Production, Music Production and Sound Engineering. Allowing them the chance to create for themselves, This is about giving them the chance to not just be consumers but creators of content, content that if they so desired can turn into a business for them and IDEA will be there to support them.

FRNJ:  Any personal inspirations? (parents, teachers, etc.)

Cynthia Primas: Everyone in my life is an inspiration. Too many to mention here but the youth who come through my programs, the artist who I hire and support, my brothers and sisters, my friends and family, you have to understand that everyone I know and has walked through the doors of IDEA, after 25 years, supports me in their own way. I am especially inspired by my spiritual community and the members of the SGI USA Buddhist organization.

FRNJ:  Where do you see yourself in five years?

Cynthia Primas: I see working on succession. Passing my organization on to the next generation, moving IDEA on to a bigger market, which is happening right now, things are moving into place that will require me to bring IDEA’s model to different locations throughout N.J. In addition we serve as Program Consultant for Chicken Bone Beach and we assist them in building the foundation for the eventual opening of their music school the Youth Institute for Jazz Studies.

FRNJ:  Anything else you would like to add?

Cynthia Primas: There is so much negativity in our environment  and our kids are showing the effects. Since when did our kids resort to committing suicide. We need the arts more than ever to help them tap into their humanity and love for themselves and IDEA needs your support. We are happy to announce the opening of our new art center at 217 Market Street in downtown Camden. Along with the opening of the first Subaru Media Lab at the center thanks to a generous grant from Subaru. We are remodeling an 1,800-square-feet building and we need help to make it happen, any cash donations, or volunteering to help us remodel we would appreciate your support. We hope to see you there. Like us on Facebook, IDEA Performing Arts Center, and look for our new look in the weeks ahead on our website at www.ideapac.org. or call us at 856-577-8337 to take classes in visual arts, graphic design, music production, TV production and film making, and more including our new endeavor which will include teaching youth drones for cinematography.

Note from AC Joseph Media: If you like this story and others posted on Front Runner New Jersey.com, lend us a hand so we can keep producing articles like these for New Jersey and the world to see. Click on Support FRNJ and make a contribution that will go directly in making more stories like this available. Thank you for reading.

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