She's retiring, but her legacy is immeasurable. As Discover Durham's outgoing COO, E'Vonne Coleman has been the definition of service, resourcefulness and absolute joy.
Posted By Ashley Strahm
It's the day after her retirement party was supposed to have happened, and E'Vonne Coleman is outside in her yard, talking to her roses.
"I had to tell them that I won't be able to water them every day," she says, laughing. She's been making preparations: clearing closets, digitizing billing statements. Soon, she'll be splitting her time between Garner and Durham. On May 1, she'll become the primary caretaker for her mother, 95.
But it's not May 1 yet.
She had plans for her retirement party, plans that included dressing up, going out, and dancing. So, she did. She changed her outfit — earring included — twice, once in the middle of a Discover Durham video conference (fashion cannot wait). Once in her darling blue-speckled ensemble, she poured herself some tequila, turned up her favorite tunes, and sat down to a meal of fresh collard greens, jerk chicken, and the brown rice she could never seem to take the time to make before. Folks texted to congratulate her on the occasion, tell her they were sorry the circumstances kept them apart. "I don't know if they did it or not," she chuckled, "but I told them to dance with me."
"Life's too short not to have a good time. I believe that, deeply." E'Vonne Coleman
E'Vonne Coleman is retiring from her role as Chief Operating Officer at Discover Durham. Still, she's not retiring from her lifelong roles as an advocate, mentor, leader and 'fixer,' as she proudly proclaims. Before and during her nearly 20 years of involvement as Tourism Development Authority board chair, board member, and COO at DCVB (now Discover Durham), E'Vonne held those titles at other organizations, paving the way for underrepresented groups at every turn.
After acquiring a BA with honors in Dramatic Arts from North Carolina Central University and an MA in Performing Arts Management from The American University in Washington, DC, E'Vonne became the first African American to run an arts council in the state of North Carolina, and the first African American woman to be the special assistant to the chairman for the National Endowment of Arts. She's a distinguished advisor that's spent years forging paths to inclusivity for innovative projects and marginalized communities. "I don't want a seat at the table — I own the table," she said as she accepted an award for distinguished service at the Samuel DuBois Cook Award ceremony. That was, of course, after she sang her way to the podium.
Shelly Green, another longtime champion of Durham and Discover Durham, brought E’Vonne on staff about 12 years ago. As President & CEO and COO, Shelly and E’Vonne were a true tour de force, leading continuous improvement for Discover Durham to strengthen and grow its infrastructure and impact as an organization. From overseeing myriad components of Durham 150 and helping earn Discover Durham's fourth-ever accreditation, to their integral involvement in the creation of the Durham Sports Commission, Shelly and E’Vonne worked in tandem to orchestrate massive initiatives to drive the organization, and Durham, forward.
A focus of E’Vonne’s leadership in her financial role has been on preparing Discover Durham to be fiscally stable and resilient for the future, knowing that the tourism industry is often one of the first areas of the economy to be affected by economic downturns. When she began as VP of Finance and Operations, the country was entering a recession; she increased the organization’s cash reserve from 0.9% in 2009 to 40% in 2019.
Discover Durham also owes the development of a strong foundation in workplace culture to E'Vonne. During her decade-long tenure, Discover Durham has received ten “When Work Works” awards for excellence in workplace effectiveness and flexibility ranking it in the top 20% of employers nationally in terms of its programs, policies and culture for creating an effective and flexible workplace.
Outside of our organization, she has been just as powerful, as chair of North Carolina Central University’s Hospitality Program’s board, a member of NCCU’s Foundation Board and Triangle Performance Ensemble board, and in a number of other roles including: board member of the Volunteer Center of Durham and Triangle United Way Resource Cabinet; chair, vice chair, treasurer and board member of the Tourism Development Authority; the Durham Cultural Tax Advisory Committee co-chair; the chair and board member of Durham County ABC Board; vice chair and board member of UNC-TV; a member of the board of the Greater Durham Chamber of Commerce as well as Downtown Durham, Inc.; Downtown Durham’s Master Plan advisor and creator; a member of the Tobacco History Corporation, Inc. Advisory Committee; board member of Manbites Dog Theater; and founding board member of South Eastern Efforts Developing Sustainable Spaces, Inc. (SEEDS), among others.
E'Vonne has been covered by local, regional and national media for her work, and co-founded an organization called The Association of American Cultures. Its aim was to bring artists of color together from around the U.S. "I could have been a lawyer, but I didn't want to go into a courthouse — I wanted to be in communities." She got the North Carolina Black Theatre Festival its first national grant while at the National Endowment for the Arts, where she also she advocated for St. Joseph's Historic Foundation (Hayti Heritage Center) and Manbites Dog Theatre to secured their first grants. "When you're in a position where you can lift someone or something, you do it." One might wonder how she finds the gumption to punch through concrete ceilings. She doesn't.
"Let me tell you why I'm not afraid." She pauses, not out of uncertainty, but in solid, firm, clarity.
"I've always been radical. I was always a rebel, fighting for those who came from the dirt roads. I've been the first and the only. I've earned the title of 'Miss Contrarian'. But I've never been afraid because I don't believe that people can hurt me. They can't take my spirit." This woman was raised in a rural, sustainable community. She used to, however, be a thirteen-year-old girl, insistent on joining the Black Panther Party and taking covert trips to see Angela Davis speak at a nearby prison. This woman is fearless.
"I have always fought for those who may not be able to speak as loud as others. What I've learned in sociology training is that policy, practice and behaviors are important. I live for systemic change. I try to have an impact in areas where the change will continue."
She's outlined her trajectory, and it has been a wild, fortuitous ride for everyone who has witnessed her work. E'Vonne has thought carefully about the legacy she leaves behind in retirement, like leadership in getting Discover Durham into the workforce development arena. She hopes to see that work continue at the policy table and in the community as important decisions and plans are being made, especially as she continues to dream of the African American story becoming fully incorporated into all of Durham's messaging.
She recalls conversations she had with Shelly as they planned and thought deliberately about the organization's best interest in succession planning. She is proud of the process she navigated with the staff in "giving Durham the front porch it deserved" with a state-of-the-art Visitor Info Center. Her efforts to create a space for the team she loves did not go unnoticed: both the office space and Visitor Info Center earned the 2018 Golden Leaf Award for excellence in design and preservation of the property. "My role in the building was to create an environment for our staff to be brilliant. That's my legacy."
It's not May 1, but E'Vonne is thinking well beyond then. "Besides being a queen grandma and a fantastic daughter, I plan to go back and be of service in the arts," she muses. "I'm going back to being a cultural warrior." After decades of advocating for community interests in Durham, there are still parts of her home she has yet to experience fully. "I intend to spend more time in our fabulous recreation centers. I can't play racquetball, but I want to get strong enough to ride my bike. I intend to actually ride in a boat on the Eno River."
She wants to go to every gallery opening she can get on the list for, which is charming (she's already on everyone's list). "That's going to be an important social outlet for me ... I'll get to have conversations with those who created the work." Her first love? Theatre. Find her in the coming months at smaller theatre companies in the region. And if she's not there? "I intend not to miss a thing that Hayti does," she says. "That's my cultural home."
"May I live long enough to be of service." -E'Vonne Coleman (by way of Michael Babatunde Olatunji)
So, E'Vonne's been walking a couple of miles every couple of days, and there's a Wii Zumba game on her console she hasn't yet figured out. For now, the Wii can wait; there are acts not yet played, and the stage for her next chapter has been set.
"The hardest part is, I have not gotten a chance to say goodbye to [my colleagues]. I'm the hugger. I've always been that way. That's why in June, I just want to come back and hug everybody. Then, I'll have closure."