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Elevation Q&A: Sylvia Robinson, who builds community in Pleasant Plains

As social and economic development threatens to alter the fabric of Northwest’s Pleasant Plains neighborhood, one organization works to retain the communal feel that has connected a diverse group of residents for years. The Emergence Community Arts Collective (ECAC) is a community-driven space that allows residents to create self-run programming, workshops and events, like capoeira classes, open mics, salsa lessons, and even contortionist classes for kids.
Founder and executive director, Sylvia Robinson combined her background in business management, cultural and martial arts, and drug and alcohol counseling to form ECAC.
ECAC purchased and renovated an abandoned rowhouse at 733 Euclid St NW in 2006 and turned it into the hub that presently serves as a community "safe space" in the neighborhood where Robinson was raised.
Elevation DC spoke with Robinson about what she continues to do to ensure that new and longtime residents have a stake in ECAC and all that surrounds it.
How did you come up with the vision for ECAC?
I always believed in a community having a space where people can come together and do things that were needed—not just to fulfill their work needs but also their health needs, spiritual needs and the need for socializing. So I envisioned a place that had a number of activities, a lot of which were being directed by the community themselves.
It’s become a hub for the community to bring what they do, not just in the arts but also community work, development, meetings and getting people together for any number of reasons.
What types of people frequent the space?
It's very diverse because we have such a diverse set of offerings. There are all ages, colors, incomes—a lot of that is because its community driven. We never wanted to say we were only going to work with just kids, low-income folk, people of color or anything like that because we wanted the community itself to really be the generator of the activities and I think that's worked out really well to have people who come to ECAC reflect who's in the community.
What types of changes have you seen in the neighborhood over the past few years?
There’s a lot of redevelopment and a lot of gentrification that's going on right now. The Columbia Heights neighborhood was really making the transition maybe two years ago and now a lot of that development energy is moving to Georgia Ave.
We’ve been doing a lot of organizing work to make sure that we as a neighborhood have a voice in that redevelopment and so we formed the community group called the Georgia Avenue Community Development Taskforce. The taskforce has been meeting for the last four years to really pay attention to all the changes and make sure that the community has a say in what is coming.
What types of things is the taskforce asking for?
We're asking for affordable housing. We're asking that the small businesses that have been here for a long time don't get wiped out by new retail. We're asking for green space and space for people to get together to socialize. We're asking for streetscape improvements—better roads and lighting in the corridor. We've been working with Howard University because they're doing a lot of development as well and we want to make sure that their students are integrated in the neighborhood.
So there's a lot that we've been trying to pull together to really make this a thriving community for everybody, not just for a certain group of people.
What’s the most rewarding part of your job?
I think seeing people's ideas come to fruition. A lot of times people come in and they'll rent the space to do a class or workshop and they're able to see how it works, comes together and have their ideas come alive. So I think every time that happens, it’s really a good thing.
I also like the idea that there are a lot of diverse groups that come together here and learn about each other—that’s a very unique part of ECAC. Most people don’t know what capoeira angola is about but they come here for something else, find out that its here, start participating and enjoy it.
Where do you see ECAC in the next 5 years? Do you think you'll ever outgrow the space?
On the one hand, it's always tempting to think about building more and bigger. On the other hand, you don't want to lose the quality of ECAC and the small neighborhood hub feel. So I really am not sure the direction ECAC is going to go in that sense, but we're still going to be doing what we're doing and it’s going to be a space that the community has a lot of input in.
We're doing a building campaign so we're going to be putting a lot of new building features at the center but as far as expanding or opening a second center, there are no plans right now.
 This interview has been edited and condensed. Learn more about ECAC at http://www.ecacollective.org.

Read more articles by Christina Sturdivant.

Christina Sturdivant is a native Washingtonian who's always watching and writing about the latest cultural, community and innovative trends in the city. She's interested in people and companies that create equitable opportunities for longtime residents and transplants alike.
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