Ryan Davis has been a high school teacher in Chicago. He has traveled in the back of a “raggedy van” going up and down the East Coast to sell books. He has worked for a catering company.
For some, all of the early life decisions and choices seem to be pointing in one direction. Davis doesn’t seem to have taken a direct path to where he is now– juggling several different responsibilities that have the thread of service to children running through them.
Davis is executive director of the University of Arkansas at Little Rock’s Children International, an international nonprofit organization that works toward significant and transformational change in the lives of children, youth and families. Coinciding with his work at Children International, he is president of the board of the Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families (AACF). Davis explains the mission of the advocates:
“As a board member, we assist in the direction of [Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families] to ensure that all children and their families have the resources and opportunities to lead healthy and productive lives and to realize their full potential.”
The history and work of Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families will be highlighted in The Friends of Children Annual Luncheon on Oct. 25 at the DoubleTree Hotel in downtown Little Rock. The luncheon will honor Sen. Joyce Elliot and Ray Hanley. Tickets are $50.
“At AACF our focus is on policy solutions that will benefit Arkansas children and families,” says Shannon Collier-Tenison, treasurer of Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families’ board. “Ryan is 100% behind that mission. He knows and can speak to policy but, for him, I think it’s all about the people. As our board president, he’s a strong leader and a good listener, which is so important when you are bringing a group of diverse people and personalities together for a common purpose. Ryan is a strong advocate for children in all aspects of his life.”
Davis is compelled to speak for those who can’t speak for themselves.
“The Friends of Children Annual Luncheon is an opportunity for us to recognize people who have spent their careers or time otherwise, speaking on behalf of children,” Davis says. “Children are simultaneously the most vulnerable and the most voiceless people in the halls of power and decision making. It’s important to AACF not only because it highlights the crucial works and lasting mark of the individual honorees but it also focuses this year on the 45 years of earnest work that AACF has committed to on behalf of the people, children, families who live on the margin and with their backs against the wall.”
Between his full-time job and volunteering for nonprofits, Davis, who lives in Little Rock, is also a pastor at the Taylor Chapel C.M.E. church in Forrest City. He estimates that at least 49 weeks out of a year he is making the trip to Forrest City for Sunday services.
Add to all of this activity and responsibility, Davis is the father of three school-age girls. A busy flow in his life suits his personality.
“I am a restless person,” Davis admits. “I like being busy. I am often reading seven or eight books at a time.”
A BIG TALKER
Davis was born in Texas but raised in Little Rock as the middle son in a house with three boys. Dad was “a big believer in the power of salesmanship” and sold pharmaceuticals and cars. Mom had several different jobs including working for the IRS and as an advocate for battered women.
“She won’t retire,” says Davis of his mother. “She is still working.”
Davis’ childhood was spent in Little Rock but it featured a lot of time in other towns — Earle, his father’s hometown, and Pine Bluff, where his mother was raised. An extensive, active extended family kept Davis occupied.
“I have 23 first cousins on my grandmother’s side,” Davis says. “I grew up with my cousins playing baseball in the summer, all of us crowded in my grandmother’s house.”
Davis has a vivid memory of the numerous sing-alongs of that extended family.
“I remember being at Earle and the family singing along to Al Green songs,” Davis says. “That was a favorite Earle pastime. The best one to sing along to is ‘Call Me.'”
Books would dominate his life later but, as a kid, Davis says “we literally went outside after breakfast and stayed outside until it got dark. Most of that time I was on a bike.”
While his brothers were athletic-minded and did well in sports including basketball, Davis developed other interests. To this day, he can follow along the major sporting events but it’s not his passion.
“I can pretend at being a Razorback,” Davis says. “If people are watching, I can follow along. For the most part, it’s not my thing.”
A classroom was where Davis felt most comfortable and he wasn’t shy about participating in class discussions. English classes were especially memorable as favorite teachers recommended books and pressed him to participate in Odyssey of the Mind competitions.
“I’ve always enjoyed school. I went to camp one summer and somebody called me ‘A little kid with a big mouth.’ I’m sure I was offended at the time. I was pretty short and didn’t hit a growth spurt until later. But I loved to talk. I still do. But that made me stand out in classes”
When Davis reached Little Rock Central High School, the expectation was that he would go on to college.
“If I had decided to not go to college, people would have been surprised,” Davis says. “On the paternal side of my family, all those folks went to college. Some might have been disappointed that I didn’t go to the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff.”
Little Rock Central was a rich target for college recruiters. Davis says that he went to all the college presentations “because you could get out of class.”
Davis was “accepted to every college I applied.” It was Lake Forest, a small, liberal arts college outside of Chicago, that made him an offer that couldn’t be refused.
“There was great recruiter from Lake Forest. They had the ultimate financial aid package and so the decision was that I would go there. I was keen to move away anyway. I had the itch to get out of Arkansas.”
At Lake Forest, Davis took the independent scholar track and would eventually earn a liberal arts degree with concentrations in American studies, African American literature and American religious history. Later, he did graduate work at the University of Wisconsin, focusing on African-American literature. He thought, once done with school, he might do some writing and critical literary analysis.
Saying he had a very “roaming existence,” Davis’ post-college life found him living in Chicago but exploring opportunities as they came up.
“I worked on a marketing team at Third World Press in Chicago,” Davis says. “TWP is the oldest continually running Black-owned publishing company, founded in Chicago by Haki Madhubuti, a native of Little Rock.”
This lead to what Davis calls a “hellava summer” riding in a van from town to town on the East Coast promoting a Third World Press book called “Roll Call.”
“We traveled to every book fair from Boston to Orlando,” Davis says. “We even went to the Harlem Book Fair.”
Eventually, Davis would land a full-time job that would make use of his ability to speak on a wide variety of topics.
“I fell into teaching,” Davis says. “It was an easy path to take.”
His first school was the Betty Shabazz International Charter School on Chicago’s South Side. Teaching English to sixth- and seventh-graders was something Davis had to learn on the fly.
“I was very young,” Davis says. “I almost feel like I owe [the students] an apology. I didn’t have any form of teacher training. I had a very supportive group of teachers. The students were at an age where they would cuss at you in class and then after they would cry out in the hallway.”
A different teaching job and gigs as Davis says “as a cater-waiter” made living in Chicago tolerable until the notorious winters took their toll.
“I decided to move back to Arkansas,” Davis says. “It was more affordable to move back with my mom.”
SEEING THE FRUIT
Back in Arkansas at a friend’s poetry reading at Philander Smith College, Davis had a fortuitous meeting with a young woman, Kimberly King.
“Of course she was very pretty,” Davis says. “I thought that immediately. We got along right away. We had the same interests. There was something to talk about between us at the start. We got married in 2007.”
Keith Jackson’s P.A.R.K (Positive Atmosphere Reaches Kids) organization drew an application from Davis, who saw the ad for a full-time job there in the newspaper. Eventually, Davis would coordinate P.A.R.K’s curriculum and direct the learning center. P.A.R.K proved to be an adept training ground for the next step for Davis.
“I knew of Children International, but was prompted to submit for the director’s position by its outgoing director,” Davis says. “It was attractive for several reasons, primary among them the opportunity to lead an entire child/youth serving agency and expand on partnerships created over almost 25 years at that point.”
UALR’s Children International serves about 2,000 children by aiming to help them “break the cycle of poverty.” Davis routinely sees the results of the efforts of the nonprofit in children who have graduated out of the program. He tells a story of a recent graduate who has a full-time job and is helping her mother buy a house.
“We see that time and time again,” Davis says. “It is encouraging and affirming for what we do. It’s not lofty but it’s important. We can see the fruit and it happens very often.”
Davis has an outsize reputation and his good works have garnered the attention of movers and shakers in Central Arkansas.
“I know Ryan well,” Sen. Joyce Elliot says. “He has such an honesty at his heart. He is not at all one who picks and chooses who he is going to spend his time helping. His ebullience for life is easy to see.”
Though his duties as a pastor at Taylor Chapel in Forrest City would seem to be a burden in a busy life, Davis sees it as anything but that. His ability to speak and his religious studies guide him.
“I am nervous every time I stand in the pulpit to preach,” Davis says. “There is something spiritual that emboldens me in the moment I stand up to preach.”
It’s clear that Davis wants to explore and embrace as many challenges as he can. His restless life leads him to a lot of different places.
“I love cooking,” Davis says. “My wife can’t stand it. I like to make different things, snapper dishes. I make a wonderful pot roast.”
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