When Sondra Phillips-Gilbert grew concerned about the dilapidated state of the Rosedale Recreation Center in 2006, she set her sights on having it renovated.
Phillips-Gilbert created the Rosedale Grassroots Organization and invited other community groups and citizens into her home to formulate strategy. Six years later, on May 25, she was among a group of city officials and activists who spoke at the ribbon-cutting ceremony for the new Rosedale Community Center. Last month, she spoke again, along with Mayor Vincent Gray, when the Rosedale Library, built as part of the recreation complex, was officially opened.
“I still can’t believe it and I’m still in awe,” she said. “It took a community to come together to do that. I feel very proud about that. I look out every day at the center and also feel very proud that I had something to do with that.”
Her activism became more official on Nov. 6 when Phillips-Gilbert was elected Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner to represent ANC 6A07 in Northeast. Born in Las Vegas, Phillips-Gilbert grew up watching her mother work as a community activist. She moved east in 1979 to attend Howard University, where she majored in political science and Black politics and minored in sociology. A few years later, she began working at the D.C. Department of Human Services (DCHS), where she remains.
Phillips-Gilbert said she fell in love with Rosedale more than 20 years ago when she was single and looking for an affordable home. She and her husband, Edward Gilbert, still live in the home, now with their sons Edward Phillips-Gilbert, 10, a fifth grader at Two Rivers Public Charter School, and Christian Phillips-Gilbert, 14, a freshman at Eastern High School.
Her activism dates to 2003, when Christian was a student at Gibbs Elementary School.
“I became an advocate for the parents,” she said. “The school conditions were unsafe. There was mold, mildew and decay…Parents were concerned for the health of their children. We had a lot of children at the school who had asthma.”
After the conditions were revealed in a television news investigative report, city officials ordered the renovation of Gibbs and other schools, she said.
She was at home appealing her dismissal from her job at DCHS when she focused on the rec center, which was in need of repair. She worked with the Rosedale Citizens Alliance, Pilgrim A.M.E. Church, Peace Baptist Church and the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, known as ACORN.
She also reached out to then-councilman Harry Thomas, who was chair of the committee with oversight of the D.C. Department of Parks and Recreation. “He opened the door for us,” she said. “He said he was impressed because he had never dealt with an organized community group before.”
She also credits for helping former Mayor Adrian Fenty, whom she met during one of his walks through the community. “I know they talk bad about him, but I supported him because him because no other mayor had ever walked my community and listened to my concerns,” she said. “He said, ‘I’m going to make sure you get your community center,’ and he did.”
After a few more stops and starts, construction began in late 2010.
The center features multipurpose rooms for arts, crafts and exercise, a playground, an NCAA (National Collegiate Athletic Association)-sized basketball court, a football field and a swimming pool. The library has 15,000 new books and DVDs and top-of-the-line computer equipment, she said.
Phillips-Gilbert said her work is not yet done. She wants the library renamed in honor of the namesakes of two library kiosks that have closed—activist R.L. Christian and John Mercer Langston, the first dean of the Howard University Law School.
“I’m a resident, a stakeholder, a mother and a concerned citizen,” she said. “We all have responsibility to advocate and look out for our community…You have to take care of home.”