LEEANN LANDS: If you’d go ahead and introduce yourself, and then tell me about your relationship to Emmaus House.
ANN FOWLER: My name is Ann Fowler, and I was hired to be the art director at Emmaus house. I grew into the position or increased my position to be the afterschool director as well, and I had a number of different roles with different programs at Emmaus House. As art director, I initially was brought in by the retired Bishop Frank Allan to come in and oversee the Saturday morning art program. That was housed in Ford Hall [at Emmaus House], and although we did start using the building next to it [Ezzard Hall] to serve meals, we expanded the program at one point and did other sorts of art program classes in the other building. That’s how it started, and I was hired by Frank when he was looking for an art director. I had heard about the position because I was on the vestry at the Church of the Epiphany in Decatur. And at this time Claiborne Jones was not the director at Emmaus House; she was the rector at Epiphany. And she and Frank Allan were good friends, and he had come to her and said we need some funding to help refurbish the shack behind Ford Hall. It is just housing a bunch of junk and we need[ed] to clear it out, maybe a youth group could come down there and clear it out and help us turn it into a pottery building. My role on the vestry at that time was outreach, and so that’s how I became involved with that. I was also very interested in outreach projects and the fact that it also had something to do with the arts was something that really was fascinating to me, and a passion of mine. I went down there just to see what the situation was. I had never been to Emmaus House before, but I had been on a mission trip with Elizabeth Allan, Bishop Allan’s wife, and she had described the programs at Emmaus House on our flight back, sitting right next to me. When I heard about that and Holy Comforter, I thought, “Yes, I would really love to visit these places.”
When Frank showed me Ford Hall and this little shack in the back, it was in the middle of the summer, and the interns from Camp Mikell were down there. There it was in the midst of the summer program and it was utter chaos [laughs]. Kids were running in and out, and there was a girl on the front porch who was doing some kind of art project, but Ford Hall looked like a disaster area. Now I know that those kids were doing really great work—I say “kids,” [I mean] the interns from Camp Mikell, the counselors, so I mean, I’m not denigrating it at all. They loved what they were doing, and it was just a different world. But it was chaos. I looked at it and said, “Fine, I’ll gather a group of young people at Epiphany to come down and help out with this building in the back.” That’s when Frank mentioned, “Oh, by the way, we’re also looking for an art director.” At the time I was working as a freelance artist and illustrator and designer. My background at that time was working with children’s clothing, Carter’s, the baby-clothing company. For a year or so I was doing freelance, the market was great. I loved working out of my house. But then 9/11 had hit very recently, and the market was getting a little bit worse, even a few months before that. September 11 was still in my mind, [and] thinking about what Frank Allan had said, and I wanted to supplement my freelancing income with something that was a little bit more steady.
When I first got to Emmaus House it was a ten-hour job, so it was part-time, very part-time. But going back to the day that I went down with the Epiphany kids, we had a great time. I love working with youth. One of the girls found a box that was infested with rats. It was the mother and her baby, her baby rats. She was less squeamish than I was, so I was kind of surprised that she took it with a grain of salt, and all the kids were great. They were fine with it. We had a good experience down at Emmaus House. I would have to say the rodent problem was pretty awful even when I was working down there. It took us a long time to really clean up the place and make it safe for the kids of Emmaus House.
Debbie Shew was the director of Emmaus House when I first started, and she’s now here at the Diocese of Atlanta, in this building [the Cathedral of St. Philip]. The staff included Columbus Ward, Alison Johnson, and of course, Herman [“Shack”] Shackleford, three people from the neighborhood. I thought that was important to have those folks on staff to really know what was going on in the neighborhood. Shack was the one who told me that he admired Austin Ford. When Austin first came to Peoplestown, he made a point of going out into the neighborhood and knocking on doors and saying, “Hi I’m here at Emmaus House, please come on by, this place is for you. We have programs for your kids. Come on by.” Hearing that from Shack made me realize that if I really wanted to build up the art program and make it beneficial for the kids in that neighborhood, I would have to get out into the neighborhood and knock on doors and find out where those kids were. I could see a lot of kids walking around and on the street and in the yards, but I made a conscious effort to go out and knock on doors and talk to parents who were at home. It was very important to me, and I think to the community, that I knew the parents there and got to see what the situation was, because I certainly had never encountered this kind of poverty in a neighborhood. I had been involved in other kinds of outreach efforts, even here in Atlanta, but [never] really understand the day-to-day challenges of people in that kind of neighborhood and what those kids were going through.
Before I went into clothing design for kids, I was an art teacher in Social Circle, Georgia. That school was half white and half black—half African-American—and there was a lot of poverty in that rural community as well, and I knew those families too. Some of my students had no electricity in their homes, so that was an eye-opening experience. But that was very rural, so I was experienced with the rural poverty but this was inner-city poverty. I enjoyed it, I mean, I really, really loved getting out into the Peoplestown community, and that’s one of the things I love the most about Emmaus House. I just love the people down there.
We did start to build up the Saturday morning program, and Columbus was very good about saying, “You know, Ann, we really should have this winter break program for the kids who are out of school during Christmas time.” So we started building up that kind of program. Whenever the school was out, these kids needed some kind of feeding program, really. They needed to have a decent meal during the day. Again, I went back to Epiphany; I tried to get volunteers for that. A lot of kids were coming back from college [on winter break] and needed something to do, so I was never short of volunteers during those vacation times, then and or in the summer. I reached out not only to my own church but to other churches in the diocese as well—Holy Innocents’, Saint Anne’s, the Cathedral, St. Luke’s. A lot of the major churches had a representative down at Emmaus House. But we also had people that knew about Emmaus House and were very willing to come and help out on Saturday mornings.
Then when I started the afterschool program as well, that attracted a different kind of volunteer, obviously. A lot of folks said well, I don’t know anything about art. I don’t feel creative that way. I don’t feel called to do that kind of volunteer work. But I do believe that I could help out with literacy, or just help out with the kids in the afternoons. There were a number of folks that were already retired, former teachers that came and helped out with the afterschool program. The afterschool program came about when Frank Allan could see that I was working way more than 10 hours. In fact, I started working a lot more down there at Emmaus House than on my own art. So it was not only the economics that was a problem with doing the freelance, but I wasn’t generating a whole lot of personal work because I was really devoted to what I was doing at Emmaus House. He found the funds through Work of Our Hands, which funded me partially for thirty hours if Emmaus House could come up with some additional funds, too. They did somehow. It was worked out that I was increased to thirty hours a week. When that happened, I was already working at least twenty or so. When that happened I thought, “Okay, how can my time be best spent here at Emmaus House?”
It was not any big kind of committee study or anything like that, although we did have some workshops to determine the needs of Emmaus House around that time. What became clear was that another afterschool program was needed, especially for sixth graders. The first year that I was there, I started an afterschool program specifically for sixth graders. I knew that I could get volunteers to work one-on-one with kids if I kept the program small. I had a number of objectives in mind, because we had the Study Hall right behind Emmaus House and, of course, it’s a much larger program, and space-wise I knew we couldn’t do that kind of thing. I was only working 30 hours, and I had very limited resources in terms of money and people power. So it was also very important to me that when we did have kids in the afterschool program that it was basically like a tutoring program. Each child would have one adult to work with them on homework; this was my focus going into the program. That kind of changed as I discovered new things working with the kids. We got about 10 kids, and about 8 of the 10 were boys and sixth grade boys. They were a hand full. I could get a good number of volunteers from people in the diocese, but not enough, and I had some Candler students coming over from Candler School of Theology, but that was only on certain nights. This was also a volunteer problem. Sometimes I would have huge chunks of volunteers coming in but then some days I would have nobody. Working with the senior citizens, which I was doing on Monday afternoons—I did arts and crafts with the seniors, Ernestine Burson for one said, “Ann you need to get some folks from the community.”
And I thought that would be a great thing, and so I did ask some of the folks, some of the seniors to help out. I had also taught arts and crafts to the [Alcoholics Anonymous] group down there, too. And I had asked some of the guys that I knew through that program, and that was transformational. That was really a wonderful thing to see Tony be a tutor. A couple of those guys [would] tutor for those kids in the afternoon. All of the kids called me Miss Ann. Some of these neighborhood guys associated with the afterschool program became Mr. Tony and Mr. Ike and Mr. Isaiah. People like Columbus would kind of pooh-pooh that kind of thing—those titles—but it really it made a difference, I know, especially in Tony’s attitude for one. Once or twice maybe a kid might slip and say “Tony” and he’d say, “That’s Mr. Tony to you.” In my culture, I believe everyone is equal and it may not be so important to be called Mr. or Miss or whatever, but for someone like Tony, who might have been struggling in one way or another to have the respect of all those kids, I think that’s important for all of us to see. They loved him too. I mean they would run up to him and say, “Look it’s Mr. Tony,” as we were walking back from the school. It was important to see these neighborhood people interact with the kids, and I think that they were also very good role models for these young children and also good models for people coming from the diocese to see. They were working together as adults to help better the lives of these kids.
I was saying that that I thought it was important to have one tutor per child. There were a couple of things that came up with that. Number one, a lot of kids came in without homework a lot of times. So, my goodness, what are you going to do with a kid for an hour? That too, I think, was a learning experience for us, for us adults and for the tutors. Some of them thought, well, I’m not doing anything. If they’re not going to bring their homework, why am I here? Well, to me and to the kids, it was important for them to have the attention of an adult, the unadulterated focused attention of an adult for one hour a day. A lot of these kids would go home and—and God bless them—their parents, often their mothers who were raising them, or their grandmothers would have two or three different jobs. This was kind of a relief for them so that the mother, when she came home at 8 or 9 or 10 o’clock at night, instead of having to make sure that their children had their homework done, she could focus on having a nice relationship with their kids, “How was your day?” and that sort of thing, and not have to have another task in the evening. A lot of times these homes had maybe five or six other kids in them, or cousins, so the kids didn’t always have an adult really just listening to them. That that is just really so important for any child I think. The adults started to realize that—at least I hope they did.
One day during that first year with the sixth graders, it rained really horribly and one of the boys, one of the sixth graders, brought his two little sisters to the program, his twin sisters and I think another girl along. So all the sudden we had three or four new elementary school kids. I said to the boy, “Why are they here? Why did you bring them?” He was the adult for his household, and for some reason or another his mother had had a new job or was not available. I don’t know if it was a job or not but, but she was not at home. So, he was responsible for his siblings and for some of these other kids in the neighborhood. There was no other place for them to go, and they had been locked out of their home. Those little girls had a good time at the afterschool program so they came the next day and then the next day. I was used to teaching in public schools where you see kids dragging along in the hallways. Of course, they loved art so it wasn’t like I was teaching anything that they didn’t like to come to. But, it really was heart-warming at Emmaus House to see these kids running across the yard saying “Oh it’s the afterschool program.” I could see how much it meant to them, but then all of a sudden my fine program of one tutor per child was blown away because all of a sudden we had all these elementary school kids there. I talked to the Candler students and my other volunteers and I said, “Well, this is mid-year, what do you think about this for the program?” Some of the Candler students said I don’t see how we can turn these kids away. We’ll just work with more kids and this is the way we’ll be. For the rest of that year, some of the Candler students took the elementary kids in the other room in Ezzard Hall because they came an hour or so earlier than the sixth graders and had to be entertained—entertained meaning they were given a snack. We always had the afterschool snacks and activities. They were working at a different level than the sixth graders, obviously. We would have an art project on Wednesday nights. I was also teaching some of the teens over at the [Rick McDevitt Youth Center] across the street. Some of the Candler students stayed for that because they needed to get in certain hours for their program.
That was the first year, and the second year—I believe by that time Debbie Shew had left, and we had an interim director, George Maxwell, who works here at the Cathedral of St. Philip. That was before Claiborne came. I was actually working very hard on these interviews with the seniors and, in fact, if you want any of that information I’d be happy to hand over the [interviews].
LANDS: Tell me about that. I had heard that.
FOWLER: I interviewed, it was either 20 or 21 seniors in the [Senior Strollers] program and asked about their lives and how they got to Emmaus House, how faith had strengthened their lives, and things like that. So all of that is on video. I did not have enough money to get it transcribed [laughs] so it’s all rough footage.
LANDS: Tell me about your design for that project. Why did you start it?
FOWLER: Well, the way I started it was, actually that summer, there were a number of grants available from the Annie E. Casey Foundation through the, I want to say through the [McDevitt Center] (George Epps runs the center across the street), and United Way I think was involved in some regard. (They always had a program going for the older teens over there, and of course I would have loved to have had more older teens in the Saturday program. But I think because we had so many young kids around it just wasn’t too cool to be there on a Saturday morning. They had football and all these other things going on and some of them worked, and so I could understand that.) There were grants that were available and fairly easy to get if you just wrote the application and all of that. I liked working with the community, so we thought what would be really wonderful is to get the stories down from the elders, the senior citizens there, but also bring in maybe five teenagers to help with the interviews, and so that’s what I did. That was the design of the program. And that summer I had those four teens that actually helped out. We went down to the CNN Center and looked at the interview process there. There was a video company that let us come in a look at how they did things, too. A woman up in at Holy Innocents’ actually set that up for us. They interviewed some of these seniors, and it was interesting to see how they started becoming very interested in the interview process, and they went back home and interviewed their grandparents. That was really nice to see that happening. We didn’t get them all done during that summer, so I needed to wrap it up that fall. And so I did not conduct the afterschool program (just during that one semester).
LANDS: So this is probably 2002?
FOWLER: I would think it was about 2002. I finished that project and, in fact, the wall that’s painted down there was another Annie E. Casey grant that that I got. Working with the community to help paint the wall was the next summer I suppose.
Then we started up the afterschool program again in the winter and opened it up to elementary school kids. Just for historic purposes, the pattern to our day was that around 2 o’clock, the intern that was at Emmaus House and I would walk down to the elementary school there in the neighborhood. It was important to me that we have a “walking school bus.” We would go down [and] pick up the kids, [and] walk back up to Emmaus House. I thought it was important for the community to see that this is something that Emmaus House is doing in the community. Also, the kids knew the community, but it was good for me to be a presence out there and to see the other folks that are on the streets. I never felt threatened, at least by adults. There were some problems near the end, but it was from some bullies and that kind of thing going on. But then we let people know and we had protection, but it was from kids. I never felt physically in harm’s way.
They didn’t get enough PE at school so the physical aspect of the walking school bus was important to me and it would wear the kids out a little bit, frankly, by the time that they got up to Ford Hall. That was kind of a pattern to our day. We would come up to the Ford Hall, and then put our jackets and book bags into the cubbies. And then we would sit around a table in the back, and snacks were provided. Here’s my big spiel on nutrition; they weren’t the most nutritious snacks, unfortunately, but they were snacks.
One of the interns, or one of my volunteers, actually said that it would be really nice if a prayer could be said before we actually get into the program. I toyed around with that for a little bit and I thought, we don’t ask that anyone be any kind of faith coming to Emmaus House, but on the other hand, these were not denominational prayers. I thought it was really a great way for the kids to calm down, to think about who they loved, what they were thankful for, who they were concerned about. It was a good clue for us to also know what was going on in their lives because those prayers are very powerful just to hear who they were praying for. So, we started doing that. After the prayer was said, I would say, “Okay we want to go around the room and I want every kid to say what the best thing that happened today, and what was the worst thing.” The kids at first were all still kind of wild. Elementary school kids are very good at about playing by the rules, and once they got into this habit, they did start being very respectful for what each person was saying. And those were really wonderful and silly things to hear, too. It was a lot of fun.
I usually had a list of the tutors that might be there that day, and I tried to match up a tutor that seemed to fit one of the kids personality-wise. I had former teachers I would try to match with a child that was really having difficulties in school. If I had a really bright student, I might get that person with a college professor who might want to talk about great books or something like that. Some of the neighborhood folks, I match with almost anybody because they were so wonderful in all regards. I don’t know if you’ve interviewed Ms. Burson, or if you know who she is. Ernestine Burson was there kind of as the grandmother of the group, and kind of the disciplinarian because she seemed really harsh, but [laughs] I think she’s really kind of a cupcake, but don’t tell her I said that. [Laughs.] She can be harsh but in a good way, I guess. One of the best volunteers I’ve ever had as was Leon Gates—he was a wonderful, wonderful volunteer, and he volunteered in the art program too. I guess it would have been the third year that that was going on we also had the Atlanta Artist’s Group come in to do art projects with the kids. Again, we were in different buildings at that time just for space, and the kids loved doing the art projects in the afternoon.
LANDS: So what did that group offer that you didn’t, art-wise?
FOSTER: They brought in all their own materials, for one thing [laughs], and I think that the kids needed other people to teach them art. And I think that Atlanta Artists Group from Buckhead needed to get involved with some of the stuff going down in Peoplestown, and just that energy. [There] would be maybe five of them coming in, and they had art expertise, so there were five artists in the room rather than just one. [There were] more adults to be enthused over what the kids were doing, so it was really good I think for the emotions of the children as well. [We] chang[ed] it up a little bit, offer[ed] a little bit of variety in the program. We didn’t do art everyday; it would have been just something that was done on Wednesdays.
I did forget to say, after an hour of tutoring or of homework lessons, then the last half hour was usually spent doing kickball or something like that in the back yard at Ford Hall. So they had a little bit of exercise before we walked them home.
I think that Charlotte [the current art director] has a van now, and I can be all ideological and say my reasons for why I wanted to do the walking. Some mothers, I think, were probably concerned about dogs in the neighborhood. Honestly, we didn’t really encounter dangerous dogs, but I’m sure the mothers are probably much happier, perhaps, that a van is being used. Certainly in inclement weather I would drive the kids home or some of the volunteers would do that, but everything is within a few blocks, so it was never any great hardship. I would have loved the van just to go on field trips; that would have been a great thing, and that was a draw-back when I was there. What else I should cover?
LANDS: Go back to the sixth-grade afterschool program. Tell me, why is that needed? or why are additional afterschool programs needed when Study Hall is on the same block?
FOWLER: Right. That’s a good question. A lot of people would say there’s so many afterschool programs, why one more? There are a lot of needs down there, and I never was hurting for kids to come into the afterschool program. I would have mothers come up to me on the street and say, “Do you have any more openings?” and I would have to actually turn kids away. I had a waiting list. Certainly when we went to the DH Stanton Elementary School, there were a number of vans that picked up kids. I think the Boys and Girls Club had an afterschool program, as did a few others, so these were some kids that probably fell through the cracks—either their mothers didn’t get the application in on time, or they hadn’t thought about it, or they were at home kids without any kind of adult supervision. That’s why there’s always a need for an afterschool program I think. The sixth graders in particular need [the program because] they’ve just come out of elementary school, and they’re going into Parks Middle School, and they’re still trying to find their way. I think Alison thought it was greatly needed because she had a sixth grader [laughs]. I’m sure that’s true; I’m sure there is a great need for sixth graders. I saw that there was a need for elementary school kids; there’s just a need for all of them. The middle school age, even from my experience as a teacher, is that it’s a kind of a different age for kids in that they’re still feeling their way. They can go off in the wrong direction very easily. Of course, that can happen in high school as well. But that’s the first time when they’re really starting to, I don’t want to say act out, but it’s a difficult age I think [with] a lot of insecurities. At that time I would go and visit both of the schools to talk to the teachers when I could. Those teachers did the best they could, but they had huge classes to contend with, and a lot of the kids were not getting the attention that they probably could have used.
LANDS: Let me ask you a basic question about art education. I’m not well read in this area at all, so this is an honest question that I want to explore. So, why arts? Why bring an arts program into Peoplestown? What were your objectives and what did you see happening with the kids?
FOWLER: That is a good question, because certainly a lot of people would say, “If this kid can’t even read, why should we be teaching him pottery?” I think it actually goes to the basic need—it goes to critical thinking, for one thing. Actually there are a couple of wonderful things the arts can bring to any community. When a child is working in pottery for instance, or painting or doing some wood turning or dance or music, when they have that sense of accomplishment, it helps build their confidence up. They’ve made a thing of beauty where there once was none, and that carries over. For the kids to be working with their hands and making pottery—using that [example] because it was one of the most instant forms of gratification—glazing and seeing the whole process. It was an easy way to learn, and an easy way to be creative with the critical thinking and the problem solving that goes on as an artist, the choices that are made—do I make the walls this thick? do I pinch this nose? do I draw this eyebrow? Those kinds of processes [aren’t] encounter[ed] a lot in daily life, maybe in business. For those kids, a lot of going to school is just kind of like following the rules. They don’t really get to make choices an awful lot, so for them to have the power to be making choices and living with the consequences, seeing that pot crack because the walls were too thick or something, but learning from that and making the next bowl be beautiful. They’re learning patience as well as sticking with something.
The other thing was, not only for kids, because when I was working with the AA group . . . some of those guys, male and female, would be making crosses, and I remember one guy looking at it when I had pulled it out of the kiln, and he said “I made that? I made that?” I said “Yeah! Yes, of course you did, Larry, this is yours!” And he almost had tears in his eyes. For him to have a success in something made a dramatic difference in his life at least at that time, so that was a beautiful thing. I’ll share something that a seminarian once said to me when he was down there teaching in the pottery room— I wouldn’t say teaching, he was helping out. He said that the art program was a great leveler of folks because we would sit at a table and we’d all be just creating our own stuff, and it didn’t matter what kind of degree you had, how much education you had, how much money was in your pocket, who your parents were, where you lived. Larry, Isaiah, Sheneisha and I were all creating our own stuff—we’re all equal. Sheneisha is probably making something better than I’m doing, and that’s okay. I think everyone could feel that because all of a sudden the conversations could turn to anything, and we felt comfortable talking about politics or home life. Anything could be brought to that table and there was none of this, “Oh, I’m helping you, I’m the benevolent person gracing your presence and you’re beholden to me now.” That was not part of it at all. It was all of us just working on a common activity, and a shared sense that we were doing something beautiful and positive. I always like to have music playing, too, when we were creating things, so that also helped to add to the atmosphere. I do think that that was one of the reasons that the arts program was popular, and I always had requests from adults as well as kids for more.
LANDS: How’d you come up with the AA idea?
FOWLER: Actually, I’m a recovering alcoholic, but there was a need there and I knew the guys that were just kind of hanging around. They had meetings in Ford Hall at one time and actually the JVs—the Jesuit Volunteers—at one time were kind of liaisons with that group, when Debbie Shew was there. I think by the time I left that had kind of fallen to the wayside. My father had been to AA meetings, and the idea of someone being present in an AA meeting who wasn’t really in AA was not usually done. But there’s so many things that aren’t usually done down in Emmaus House [laughs], and in that community it’s “whatever.” The AA group was getting money from the Annie E. Casey Foundation, too, for different projects. Sometimes they would ask me as part of this grant [to] come in and teach something or have a project or something like that. Again, it was a way for me to get to know the community better, but also I could just see the benefits for art in their lives. One of the people at Work of Our Hands said, “Oh I hate it when people use the word art therapy.” But art can be therapy for everyone. It’s a wonderful thing to be engaged in, no matter who you are. And so to bring it to that community, I thought was just very important.
LANDS: My next question will take us off on a tangent. You’re the first person I’ve talked to who has been directly involved in the Annie E. Casey grants, and so I want to hear about your specific projects, like the wall. What was that about? What did you want to achieve, and then how was that realized? Tell me about getting people out there to paint.
FOWLER: That was a great experience. I always found Columbus to have really great ideas for the community, because that’s what he does best. He’s a community organizer [laughs]. He would always bring it up in our staff meetings that the Annie E. Casey grants are coming up, and I think the first year I just had missed it. I saw how easy it was to get money, and money was one of those things I was always looking for. He’s the one that said, “That bus stop out there, that wall is atrocious.” Well, he didn’t use the word atrocious, but he said it’s really awful— something needs to be done to help clean that up. I think that George [Epps] had suggested it, but never was able to get something off the ground. I didn’t realize it, but I guess I’m kind of a community organizer, too, now! [Laughs.] I think some people there had said, “If Ann can get in on it, maybe something can happen, maybe she can get some folks together.” I thought, “Okay, well, let’s try that.” I love painting murals, and this is a big project and I want to involve the community. And I think that’s important for these grants. I started to think of a way that I can get community help easily, but also have something that represents the community as well. [Laughs.] I proposed this design: a person’s hand print and their name, to be done by people from the neighborhood. I think we started it—well, it was a year-long process because the wall was cracking. There were ants that were coming out of it. I think people still hang out there, but it was known as some place that if the police drove by, they’d stash their gun or drugs in the bushes there. It was really unsightly, and I’ve got pictures before and after. The first phase of it was just kind of clean[ing] it up, and then I needed to somehow fill in the cracks. There was a big watershed mural that was painted on DeKalb Avenue up in Lake Claire near Decatur. It was being started around the same time, so I went and I talked to the guy that was painting that. Of course, he does that professionally and has done it around the country. He gave me a list of the kind of paints that you should use, and where to get them, and some websites to go to for instructions. So that’s how I got my technical information. How I got the wall plastered, or fixed up and redone, was, I was standing out there shaving it away, sanding down the rocks, or the surface, and one of the street people in the neighborhood walked by and said, “Do you need some help?” I said, “Sure! I could use some help.” He said, “Well you know, I used to this kind of as a living when I was in construction.” So he helped mix up the mortar and fill in all the cracks. He did such a great job. It was much better than anything I could have done. This is the beauty of the neighborhood. I got to talk to him, and he was still doing some construction work, and that sort of thing. I don’t know how old he is. He’s older, and he had been to prison, and all this is just coming out as we’re working side-by-side—the great leveler of backgrounds. I said, “What were you in prison for?” He said, “Oh, I killed a man.” And I was like, “Okay.” I would trust this man with anything. He became like my right-hand person on that project, especially in those early phases. I would say, “Can you just watch these things while I go get us lunch?” And he would watch it. At one point there was some graffiti being etched into the wall, and he would chase teens off and that sort of thing. I love that man, he’s just wonderful. I would never have guessed that we’d be working side-by-side with someone with that kind of background, and I thank God that I had that experience. That was the first phase.
The second phase was painting the wall, and by that time it was summer and I had some summer classes. I [told] some afterschool kids, “When you’re done with your homework come out and help me paint.” So they painted the white part of it, and then we glazed it. And then I painted the big logo. And then we had some volunteers do tape work. I was thinking design-wise, what’s easy? Well, straight lines because all you need is tape. Then, for maybe two or three Saturdays, I would come during the art program but instead of going up to Ford Hall, which already had plenty of volunteers taking care of the classes, I would stand out on the street and anyone who would walk by, I’d say, “Would you help me paint this wall? You can have this square. All the squares were already painted, [but] I said, “what color square would you like to have?” They’d say, “Oh I like the blue one.” And I’d say, “Well, what color would you like your hand?” I had some other volunteers helping out, too, young and old. They would take shifts, and those were some long days and exhausting. I took everyone’s picture, and they would sign their name, and then they would get a paint brush and a hand, and some of them are very creative. May Helen Johnson has a multi-colored hand, and it’s beautiful. As days went by people would say, “Look, there’s mine,” and “I want to be near your square.” They would come up and want to have a part of that—that was the idea, to really, really involve the community. It was a great way for me to, again, see what the street life was like, just passing by. It was great.
LANDS: Was the ultimate goal of the seniors video project simply to gather the stories?
FOWLER: It was to gather the stories and make one final video production. What happened was, I had like 20 hours of video, and I didn’t have time to edit that all down into something tangible. I had some great footage from Ethel Mae Mathews for the 40th anniversary of Emmaus House in 2007. I had told Claiborne I would help organize that ceremony. I said one of the best things we could do to honor Ethel Mae Mathews is to show a video of her. I had some friends of mine who were video people at Epiphany edit it with their young son, and we showed it that night. I don’t know if you’ve seen a copy of it, but we could give that to you. It’s five, eight minutes long, and it kind of encompasses her life and some of the things that she’s said about Father Ford. It was nice.
LANDS: I knew that existed, but I haven’t seen it actually. Let’s talk about what could be done on that. We’re right at an hour. Are you okay time-wise?
FOWLER: Yeah, I’m fine. I’m fine.
LANDS: You’ve commented a few times that a lot of the people who are coming out of more privileged communities benefit from this experience of seeing Emmaus House, or being in Peoplestown. Could you flesh that out? It sounds like you’ve reflected on that some. What are your observations about that?
FOWLER: I think it’s very important for people to experience life down there, and I know some folks would not be comfortable with that. I just came back from a trip to Jerusalem. Before that trip, I’d read the Bible. If you’ve never been to Santa Fe and you read a book on Santa Fe, you have these images. But once you’ve visited a place [and] actually walked the walk, then anything in print becomes more real to you. I don’t want to be critical because I think what Emmaus House does is very important. I think that it’s important not only to bring the community to Emmaus House, but Emmaus House has to go out into the community. I think that a lot of times people feel comfortable just driving their car down, parking on Hank Aaron Drive, coming up into one of the buildings, do[ing] their hour of volunteer work and then go[ing] away, back up to wherever they live. I think that happens most often when it’s a garden project or paint[ing] something for Emmaus House. In some sense, the youth group that I brought down the first time [did] a typical youth kind of project or mission project where people come in and fix something up and then leave and feel good. Those kids might have encountered something else just by seeing the conditions [and] finding the rats; that’s a positive spin on that sort of thing. Not everyone lives in a very nice place that doesn’t have rodents and that sort of thing.
The next step up is to develop a relationship with someone down there. Driving down, getting out, going up the steps, sitting with somebody and talking and finding out that this child is upset and you can’t figure out why they’re upset, so you talk about different things. Finally, it comes out that their mother was arrested last night. It’s very hard to sit down and try to conjugate verbs if that that’s going on in their life. I think that helps people understand the problems of poverty in this country. When they have those kind of relationships at Emmaus House and can go away from that, [and] when they hear a news story or something about that part of town, they don’t immediately label that person as [someone who] deserves to go to jail, or deserves to have whatever law is thrown at them. They might think twice or they might get concerned, even better. “I hope D’Angelo is not in that neighborhood,” or “I know someone with that same last name I wonder if that’s part of the family.” I think it helps people become more empathetic. I think that it just really helps folks understand the human race a whole lot better; we really are all the same. A mother up here in Buckhead—although physically there might be a lot of differences and a lot more privileges—has the same kind of concerns as mothers down there in Peoplestown. They want a better life for their children, they want their children to be safe, they want them to have a good education. Those kind of struggles go on down there. And just for people to understand the commonalities, I guess, between all of us is helpful.
LANDS: You ended up leaving Emmaus House. Tell me about that.
FOWLER: That’s actually taken me a long time to process. I got burned out very badly. Part of that was a problem on my part for not setting boundaries and not knowing what was healthy. I mean, I love Emmaus House and I still do but it was hard for me to turn it off when I went home. I love Claiborne. I think she’s a very good director for Emmaus House. Certainly, all of the physical improvements of the place can be attributed to her. She made the building safe for everyone around there. She’s a great fundraiser. She really has enabled Emmaus House to do a lot of projects that it never could do before. A lot of programs are going on [and we] used to wonder, “Will Emmaus House be here in a few years?” People feel safe donating money, giving money to Emmaus House because they know it’s going to go to a good cause—it’s a good place to donate money to.
With all that comes a lot of new programs, and a lot of expectations. I needed help with volunteers, and Stephanie had been hired and that was great. Stephanie Coble is really a great volunteer coordinator, and something that Emmaus House really needed. But I wasn’t seeing the benefits of that too much in the art program. There were a lot of volunteers being funneled to all these other programs. But because I was so organized before, I was able to get a lot of those volunteers for my programs. And all of a sudden that seemed to be siphoned off a bit. I felt even more burdened. Again, I think the majority of the problem was the fact that I was not setting boundaries. I talked to some of the counselors down there, and I knew that that was the problem, but it’s hard to remedy that when you’re in the situation itself. I think I [should have asked for] a three month leave or something like that, but I couldn’t see that then.
LANDS: You needed renewal.
FOWLER: I needed renewal big time.
LANDS: I’m going to ask your opinion, since you have extensive experience with the afterschool program and the students there. I ran this by Gene Ferguson as well. One question I have for this project is, what am I going to do with this oral history project? Just leave it sitting there for other people to use? or should I do something with it? I think that especially with the change in presidential administration, this new focus on community organizing might be an opportunity to integrate the history of community organizing and neighborhood-based work into curricula, whether it’s afterschool programs, or school, or through arts and performance. What do you think about that? Is there a story here at Emmaus House that would be important to kids?
FOWLER: That would certainly be a great topic, and over the years Emmaus House certainly has been a center of community organization. Columbus would be a wonderful person also to tap into. There’s an evening down there—I think it was called Peace Night or something or Peace Walk, and it’s done around the country. They would do it from DH Stanton Elementary School and I think walk up to Four Corners. I didn’t know how great and how professional Columbus was as a march leader until he had that megaphone. Here we are just like a bunch of people, teachers and little kids. He had those chants down. It was as though we were at a Civil Rights march in the 1960s. He knew how to group us together, even though it wasn’t like we were marching in Washington or anything like that. All of a sudden, in one night, I could see his history almost. So, yes, you have to tell that story. It would be very important, and probably one of the most important things about Emmaus House, because there’s certainly a history there that I don’t know about. I hear the names and occasionally meet the people, but I wish I had seen that puppet show that Charlotte had put on [about Ethel Mae Mathews and Father Ford]. It sounds like a wonderful idea.
LANDS: I can send you some pictures of it. It was sort of the way you describe the first day of coming to the place. [Do] you know Mary Stuart. . .
AF: Mary Stuart Hall? Yeah, she works here.
LANDS: Yes, and I interview her tomorrow. I was interviewing Debbie Shew, and Mary Stuart came into the office and invited me down to the Saturday Arts program. They were practicing one day and finishing the little puppet theatre. It was as you described it—chaos. You have to be sort of in it for a while to see any kind of organization to it, but then it sort of makes sense and you know what’s going on. But your first reaction is that it’s just sort of, everybody is everywhere, and [laughs] so that was a blast. I was able to go down for two Saturdays and really experience the arts program there, and then see the puppet show. Everybody gathered—I think it was the last Saturday this summer—so it was the sort of a celebration, but it was really neat, and it was really interesting to see that story told that the kids performed this story. Austin Ford was a character, and he’s depicted as going door-to-door, gathering people, and the people’s reactions of “no, I can’t join a union for welfare mothers, I’ll lose my job.”
FOWLER: That’s exactly how the story is.
LANDS: I asked where the script come from, and they pointed to the video, and that’s how I knew about your video project. I had heard that you had done interviews, but I didn’t realize it was part of that larger Annie E. Casey initiative down in the NPU. We could get the video transcribed and I think we could also duplicate them if you would be willing to let them go for awhile.
FOWLER: Oh, absolutely! You know I’ve always said that you know if anyone ever wants to do anything with these senior videos, and I told Mary Stuart just as a conduit down there, because I only kept them because I was afraid they’d get throw out down there. So, yes, I would love for someone to do something with them.
LANDS: I don’t know if they’re ready today or not but what we can do is figure out a way that we can arrange for duplication [and] get them transcribed. The transcription may take awhile, but if there’s no impending project and deadline, we can do that. And then if you would consider perhaps depositing them at the Auburn Avenue Research Library with the rest of the oral history collection.
FOWLER: Actually, I was going to suggest it.
LANDS: That would be great.
FOWLER: If it’s okay with Emmaus House, but I think that’s a much safer place for them to be.
LANDS: Well, even the duplicates you could still keep as your project, but you have a duplicate collection down there that could be accessible. You hit that community that we wanted to hit; I’ve only been able to sit down with two seniors so far. Then my idea was sort of similar to yours in that I thought maybe the teenagers actually would benefit more from doing the interview process themselves. So if you’ve done this with the 20 videos, let’s see what we can do with that project already rather than reinventing the wheel.
Did you have any kind of sign off with the participants in the project?
FOWLER: I’ll have to go back and look. I thought that I would have but now that I think about it, perhaps not.
LANDS: If you weren’t going to give the interviews away or donate them, you might not have.
FOWLER: I think that it was all towards this one particular Annie Casey project, and they obviously knew it.
LANDS: What did we miss about Emmaus that you think I should know about?
FOWLER: I don’t know what to add. I think Emmaus certainly has a rich history, and through all of its faults it has always at least tried to do the right thing and try to be good and try to help the community. [With] so many agencies, you wonder where your money is going to, but that particular place has had so many people who love it and has had so many people working down there, volunteering down there that have done so many incredible things. We may never know how much people have benefited from it. For instance this recent tragic shooting in the neighborhood of, I guess it was two boys. . . actually the one that died was in one of my summer classes, and of course I knew the Johnson boy. That obviously affects the neighborhood down there. And I went to the funeral, and that was an amazing thing to witness, just the sheer numbers of people that were there paying their respects. I was at a vestry meeting asking for money to go to Haiti and to start a mission trip down there. One of the guys on the vestry, a young man who I’d never met spoke about the shooting, because he had been a Camp Mikell counselor many years ago and had been living in Ford Hall. We talked about the experience of being down there and relationships to people. That shooting had an incredible impact on him. He went down to the vigil that was taking place that week. To think of all the lives that Emmaus House has impacted like all of those counselors that were at Camp Mikell for so many years.
That was something that was very moving for me when I would go up with Emmaus House to do the one-week up at Camp Mikell in Toccoa. What an exhausting week. There was one child that was crying, there’s always children crying, “I want to go home,” and I felt like, “I want to go home, too.” I never liked camp as a child, so I knew what he was saying. But then as the week went on and I started swimming with the kids, it was so much fun. Like I said, it was exhausting. I was glad when Saturday rolled around. But to see those kids get back on the bus to go back to Peoplestown after being up in a beautiful setting in nature, having so much fun. They were crying. They were all in tears, even these tough boys and tough girls—some of those girls were pretty scary, too. To see the counselors also hugging these young kids was powerful. That bus is rolling away and all the kids are hanging out waving, and the counselors are out waving—and I’m getting choked up just remembering it—and everyone’s just in tears. It was really something I’ll always remember. And the next year, I saw the kids waiting for that Camp Mikell bus during the last week of the summer. The bus comes down at 12 o’clock or something during the day, but they’re out there at like 7:30 in the morning, and they’re all lined up on that cement wall in front of Emmaus House. The neighborhood is all there. They don’t want to miss that bus to go up to Toccoa, to Camp Mikell. I’ve seen the best in people and the worst in people down there, so it’s an amazing place. Yeah.
Interview with: Ann Fowler
Interviewed by: LeeAnn Lands
Location: The Cathedral of St. Philip, Atlanta, GA
Date: June 3, 2009
Transcribed by: Caitlin McCannon
Edited by: Stephanie McKinnell, LeeAnn Lands