Women Working To Do Good

WWTDG: Kristina Bilonick, Building Community Through Art

It’s only two blocks east and a few blocks south. Google Maps says it only takes 13 minutes to walk from my house to Kristina Bilonick’s Pleasant Plains Workshop, though I have pretty long legs so I think I could beat Google Maps there. It’s close. Walking there though, less than two blocks from my house, I already began to feel a little out of my element. I was straying from my daily route from the metro stop to where I live, and guys sitting on street corners and stoops hollering at me weren’t making me feel at ease. Like a lot of major cities, many of DC’s neighborhoods are in varying states of revitalization and going as little as one block can mean stepping out of your comfort zone. At times it seems easier, even safer, to stick to your own neighborhood. Kristina Bilonick is working to change that.

About a year and a half ago Kristina opened the Pleasant Plains Workshop. Nestled in a small brick building, it’s not traditionally what one might expect to find on Georgia Avenue, a corridor known for having a lot of barbershops and liquor stores. Kristina’s workshop serves as a studio, shop, and gallery focusing on exposing local artists to the public for free.

“I feel like bringing something new was something the neighborhood was craving,” said Kristina. “I think people were excited about having a fun little shop. There’s other shops here, but nothing quite like this with independent local artist work on display.”

Being a part of the neighborhood, even though it’s a small one, was always something Kristina had in mind.

“This particular ten block radius, this neighborhood, is called Pleasant Plains and that’s why I named my place Pleasant Plains Workshop,” she said. “I wanted to use the name of the neighborhood because I felt like people didn’t realize that there’s a neighborhood right here.”

When Kristina opened her shop, and moved into the apartment above it, she reached out to connect with local organizations, including the Georgia Avenue Taskforce.

“It sounds scary, but it’s not,” said Kristina. “It’s a coming together of ideas and thoughts. I knew that by opening up a business I would be involved in the community, but it was a really quick way to meet a ton of neighbors and other business owners and we started brainstorming things we could do together and help each other out.”

The Georgia Avenue Window Walk is one project that developed. Placing art installations in vacant storefronts, the project works to beautify the area while exposing residents to Georgia Avenue culture and local artists. They also hope to entice developers into the area.

The Georgia Avenue task force believes in the revitalization of the neighborhood, but wants to ensure that the voices of residents are being heard in the process. Kristina is doing this by bringing art into the equation. The next show at Kristina’s shop will be a project that examines DC’s changing landscape. Called “In Our Hood” it will feature local artwork and she hopes will spur important conversations about gentrification.

“Everyone can say what they’re feeling and so we’ll have a bunch of different perspectives on view,” she said. “It’s to talk about something that everyone is already talking about in their own homes and get it out there. Hopefully we’ll have a creative and constructive dialogue about it because I know it can be really polarizing, but there are actually ways that people can meet in the middle.”

Knowing how powerful art can be for a community, Kristina has become a cheerleader for the DC art scene. Literally. In September, Kristina began a community-building art project called DC Cheer! She said she was constantly hearing people say negative things about DC and the art scene here.

“It’s not what DC is known for,” said Kristina. “But that doesn’t mean we can’t have a thriving art scene, so my idea for DC Cheer! was to let’s make our voice be unified and louder. Let’s cheer on other DC artists.”

Kristina now leads a rotating squad of artists and art enthusiast. They practice a few times before an event and then don some peppy cheerleading gear and perform at galleries and other venues that support DC artists.

“It’s completely ridiculous. Our moves our horrible,” said Kristina. “It’s almost like that commercial where that guy has his own pep squad following him around.”

Kristina’s many projects vary, but they all explore what the city could be, without losing what the city has been. Through art she’s helping DC develop, while simultaneously preserving it’s distinct culture. By making the voices of the people who have been there all along visible, she’s drawing people like me out of our own neighborhoods and into new places.

There’s a delicate balance between new and old involved that’s not easy to find, but Kristina manages by taking things one small step at a time. Right now her work may only directly affect a small neighborhood and small population of the city, but the community building and economic impact will ripple far beyond Pleasant Plains and DC’s art scene. Her advice for making a difference – “Start with your own block and radiate outwards.”

Women Working to Do Good is a series that Hello Giggles and the White House have been collaborating on. We will bring you stories of women in communities across the United States who we think are stars in their own right. Whether they are young entrepreneurs, active community organizers, or making a difference in a single life or community, we think these women are amazing and want to share their stories with you! Each story will also be featured on the White House blog, and we are working together to bring more strong female role models to the forefront.

If there is a woman in your community who you think should be honored in this series, email us at wwtdg@hellogiggles.com!

 First two images  by Brian Tropiano. Third image by E. Brady Robinson