In the nearly two years since social entrepreneur Sylvia M. Robinson lost her battle with breast cancer, questions have centered on what will become of her brainchild, the Emergence Community Arts Collective, a spacious, three-floor community center located atop a hill on Euclid Street between Georgia and Sherman avenues in Northwest.
Since its 2005 inception, ECAC has served as the meeting space for a slew of grassroots organizations that, with limited means, have been able to rent space for a variety of cultural functions, including those of Kenneth Carter Bey, grand sheikh of the Moorish Science Temple.
For nearly 12 years, Bey and up to 200 congregants of the Moorish Science Temple have worshipped in a room every Friday and Sunday on the second floor of ECAC. The leadership’s amicable relationship with ECAC, Bey said, stemmed from the constant presence of Robinson, and later that of her life partner Jabari Zakiya, if not to help infuse culture, then to at least manage daily activity and keep the center in tip-top shape.
Bey reflected on those experiences as he described an ECAC fraught with dirty bathrooms and severe booking conflicts. On-site conditions, he said, worsened since March, around the time ECAC’s board of directors changed leaders.
“There’s no care taken into the community space. You have to make sure the groups harmonize with each other. We have religious meetings, so you can’t book an improv space next door,” Bey told The Informer.
Bey recounted attempts to extend the resources of his cleaning business to help board members keep up the building, saying that such overtures fell on deaf ears. A recent incident further hinted at what had been described as the lack of organization.
“They had a weed pop-up [in our space] and the lingering smell wasn’t conducive for service,’ said Bey.
“I’m not hard on marijuana but in that atmosphere where you have different types of people, it’s not a good look,” he continued. “The board changes frequently, so [as soon as] you get someone’s number, they’re not there anymore. You talk to one person and they promise you something. Next thing, they’re gone. It’s frustrating.”
Other ECAC clients facing similar circumstances have decided to move on.
Documents obtained by The Informer show that, by March, nearly a dozen groups, some of whom have hosted a variety of cultural events in ECAC for several years, found accommodations elsewhere. The National Black United Front and the Spit Dat! slam poetry group that met on Thursday nights count among the most prominent of former tenants.
NBUF leadership cited changing priorities and a 50 percent increase of the rental fees. Those representing Spit Dat! didn’t return The Informer’srequest for comment.
Other former clients, including one who ran a Salsa class, declined comment, opting only to commend ECAC for its legacy of service.
ECAC’s Board Changes in Direction
From Robinson’s September 18, 2017 death until his termination in March 2018, Zakiya, as he had done during Robinson’s decline in health, connected local organizations with meeting space and maintained 733 Euclid Street NW.
He manned Robinson’s cell phone as clients called inquiring about room reservations, briefly raising the fees at one point to cover future expenses. An expense report obtained by The Informershows that room bookings accounted for slightly more than 40 percent of revenue, with the rest coming from financial contributions and grants, often hinging on Robinson’s rapport with benefactors.
Earlier that year, Zakiya and ECAC’s board of directors met to discuss, and eventually draw up a document that would determine, the nature of Zakiya’s role as interim executive director.
Zakiya said the contract, had it come to fruition, would’ve followed through on Robinson’s 2014 request to ECAC’s board to compensate Zakiya for his on-site duties, including but not limited to: booking spaces, cleaning bathrooms, stacking chairs after events, shoveling snow, and cutting shrubbery around the Euclid Street location.
Instead, ECAC’s board relieved Zakiya of those responsibilities. More than a year later, they served him a summons to appear in DC Landlord Tenant Court. The July 15 court date kicked off a legal battle over the third-floor apartment that Robinson and Zakiya shared, the details of which the board declined to provide comment.
In March, Board President Stephen Shaff stepped down under circumstances he declined to share. Currently, ECAC Board Vice President Doreen Thompson currently sits at the helm, where she has attempted to address concerns about staffing and finances. In recent months, ECAC’s board has changed its bylaws in accordance with a 2012 D.C. law, while exploring alternative methods of generating revenue.
“We have been evaluating and considering adding an affordable housing component. We would have to partner [with a developer] in adding that to ECAC,” Thompson said. A recent ECAC press release calling for volunteers and contributions toward a $100,000 fundraiser said the new venue will be named Sylvia M. Robinson Community Center.
“People don’t understand that we have a mortgage. I don’t know how Sylvia dealt with the stress of that,” Thompson added, often referring to Sylvia’s method of singularly conducting business as “The Sylvia Way.”
“This model of the passionate person is common. For places that are run by personality, change [in leadership] has a major impact. I’m not sure [that model] is replaceable.”
For one-time ECAC client Raycurt Johnson however, the status quo doesn’t resemble what Robinson started.
Johnson, a music instructor, contends that ECAC’s board hasn’t made using the facility much easier, citing random closures and constant scheduling mix-ups. He said he taught his last class in late June after growing tired of board leadership that often pestered him about whether he paid on time, and the amount he paid to use a room, especially after Shaff’s departure.
“It was impossible to keep my schedule or for someone to make rooms available when we already communicated,” said Johnson, who started teaching violin and piano in ECAC in 2013.
“Nothing was happening, and eventually I was asked to remove my teaching tools,” Johnson continued, alleging that board members still have his extensive music catalogue locked away in their second-floor office.
“I had instruments and a music library that I utilized for workshops. I was told [the ECAC board] was making changes, but it was very vague. It didn’t serve my purpose. They just kept questioning my payments.”
“The Sylvia Way”
After a successful career as a computer scientist, Sylvia Robinson purchased 733 Euclid Street NW out of a desire to create a space that integrated the traditional and non-traditional arts, education, social services, spiritual services, and other offerings.
The building had served as the National Association for the Relief of Destitute Colored Women and Children, which housed and educated orphaned children after the Civil War. Since 2005, Robinson had invested much of her time and resources renovating and maintaining the facility, which had no heating and cooling at one point, establishing a board of directors, and writing grants, among several other tasks. Her work carried on into the Georgia Avenue Community Development Task Force, through which she organized people and businesses in discussions with developers.
Zakiya, Robinson’s life partner from 2012 until her death, said the direction ECAC’s board of directors wants to take 733 Euclid Street NW rejects the essence of what Robinson intended for the space.
“The board wants to run this place like We Works or any other corporate entity, which is not even the whole point of what Sylvia wanted to do,” said Zakiya.
“She was always concerned about community. Nothing that she worked hard to create is at ECAC,” he continued.
“There is no joy in this place. I’m still here and people call me to see if they can come in. I don’t have anything to do with ECAC. They’re calling like I’m in control. They need to start talking to the board and expressing their dismay.”