Sunday Conversation with Joseph Mole, executive director of Emmaus House

Head of nonprofit seeks to change neighborhood for better

Almost 50 years ago, an Episcopal priest founded Emmaus House to serve and fight for the civil rights of the residents of Peoplestown, a neighborhood south of Turner Field. While much has changed since then, many of the challenges confronting the residents remain the same — too little access to jobs, health care, quality education, even food. The neighborhood doesn’t even have a grocery store. The new executive director of Emmaus House, Joseph Mole, talks about the nonprofit’s current strategy to change the neighborhood’s trajectory, including having a voice in the future redevelopment of Turner Field.

Q: Where did you come from and what drew you to the job?

A: I was director of operations and client support services at Cabrini Green Legal Aid in Chicago. Emmaus House had this long history of both services and social justice and advocacy that really caught my attention.

Volunteers read to scholars at Emmaus House, a nonprofit that serves the families and children of Peoplestown in Downtown Atlanta. Photo courtesy of Emmaus House.

Q: How are Chicago and Atlanta different?

A: What you hear about in Chicago is all the violence. I really believe that is a direct outcome of a growing economic divide between the have and the have-nots. I’m glad that the reaction in Atlanta hasn’t been the same. Other than that, I don’t know that the differences are as stark as they might appear. In Chicago, as in Atlanta, there are certain neighborhoods that have been left out of the economic opportunity of the city.

Q: What services does Emmaus House offers?

A: We provide services and support to children and youth in education, the arts and parenting support. For adults, we help people get their Georgia IDs — not having one is a barrier for a lot of people in getting employment. We help connect adults to jobs and employers and public benefits. We also provide emergency assistance to food and clothing.

Q: Can you talk about the social justice piece that drew you?

A: Father Austin Ford moved into this neighborhood and established Emmaus House in 1967. He began working alongside residents as part of the Civil Rights Movement and established the first poverty rights office, which organized both neighbors and volunteers to speak out and demonstrate about policies being formed in the city and region.

Q: What’s changed since the 1960s?

A: We still need people taking to the streets in a productive way. We also need data and information about the people who are impacted. By asking residents the right questions, we can report the reality of our neighborhood and leverage those facts when we speak to groups that hold the power — policymakers, legislators, the City Council.

Q: What are some of the issues relevant to Peoplestown?

A: Access to health care, transportation, how we deal with criminal records, access to early childhood education.

Q: Are the demographics of the neighborhood changing?

A: There is some gentrification happening but not as fast as in places like Grant Park. There is a concern that development could price residents out of the market here. We have the redevelopment of Turner Field on our north and the Atlanta Beltline on our south. Those potentially will bring in a different economic group.

Q: Isn’t that a good thing?

A: If we are involved in the process, it could bring opportunities for the neighborhood. Historically, Peoplestown has not been considered with redevelopment. If Emmaus House and other organizations can get involved early on, perhaps we can work with employers that are going to be part of the redevelopment to secure job opportunities for our residents.

For more on Emmaus House and a Sept. 28 event to promote ways to bring healthy food to the community, go to www.Emmaushouse.org.

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