Elisabeth Omilami’s commitment to justice and to helping people in need took hold early. The daughter of civil rights activist Hosea Williams, Omilami accompanied her father to marches and demonstrations across the south from the 1950s into the 1970s and, along the way, became one of the youngest people arrested in the civil rights movement.
The Atlanta native worked steadily in the theater and movie industries after graduating with a theater degree from Hampton University. She also founded the People’s Survival Theater, one of Atlanta’s groundbreaking theater companies.
After her father died in 2000, Omilami took over his non-profit, Hosea Feed the Hungry and Homeless, renamed it Hosea Helps and expanded its scope from feeding the needy during major holidays to a year-round, multi-pronged humanitarian operation that offers medical clinics, barber and beautician services, rent and utility assistance, clothing distribution and children’s educational programs.
Atlanta Senior Life contributor Mark Woolsey caught up with Omilami recently.
Q. How has COVID challenged you folks and the way you serve the poor and needy?
A. This year we had people who pre registered on our website to drive through and receive enough food to feed their families for a couple of weeks. We had another intake for the homeless to give them bags of food and fresh produce and drinks. So instead of being inside with hot food [and various services] we were outside the Georgia World Congress Center.
Our household impact has increased by 200% both because of COVID and because of our collaborative efforts with community partners and with elected officials who have come to us and wanted us to do drives and distribution in their districts.
Q. How has the methodology of Hosea Helps altered in recent years?
A. We have switched from primarily serving the homeless and unsheltered to serving and training nonprofits and that was a great switch because we were able to increase our services to low-income families throughout the Atlanta metro area. Organizations in cities (Clarkston for example with its high refugee concentration) were coming us to get mass food distribution training and product.
We have expanded into being a food bank, just not a food pantry. We distribute food pallets to community organizations who turn around and take them back into the communities that they serve.
Q. Your group had to scramble to find a new home. What happened?
A. The West End got gentrified. Property values shot sky-high and the building we had been in for 26 years was bought out from under us. We were living as a nomadic organization for two years going from warehouse to warehouse and we finally found the building that we bought (in southwest Atlanta) but it had to be completely rebuilt on the inside. We had a capital campaign where we raised $1.7 million to meet our needs. Right now, we are at the end of the process and getting inspections so we can get our certificate of occupancy.
Q. What’s your take on the Black Lives Matter movement and the resurgence in civil rights activity?
A. It’s very different from the ’60s. I was raised in a way that you took on a thing with a certain purpose and you achieved victory over that thing. Maybe it was employee rights, and you had a picket and a boycott and the management would come in and you’d negotiate and you’d have your victory right there.
Today, they have a lot of energy and [although] I’m proud of them getting out and marching, I don’t feel like they’re focused on a specific goal to achieve, so their marching doesn’t become as impactful as it did when I was younger. I know they want to get laws passed, [but] I think the movement is more about being heard than it is about concrete victories you can point to.
Q. What has changed in Atlanta and what kind of changes would you like to see going forward?
A. I see a lot more higher-income, younger blacks and whites…because of technology or entertainment or sports. I see a lot of money available. What I’d like to see is that money connected to a charitable activity. I know a lot of them have their own foundations and do a lot of good work, but they could be doing more.
People making $50 million a year—are you kidding me? [People such as] a rapper or a football player are wearing my annual budget around their necks when they go out to a club. Do you realize the kind of good you could be doing in a community with that kind of money?
Q. You and your husband put acting on hold when COVID-19 hit. Have you resumed?
A. We just started back up and are shooting in our home studio, doing auditions on video and uploading them. I definitely want to continue my career as an actress because I don’t want to be on salary at Hosea Helps. I want to give to them as my charity of choice. My husband just booked something. I have been auditioning but haven’t booked anything. I am trying to do as much of that as I can which is why we need more volunteers in the organization.
Q. What about the future?
A. We are in the middle of a succession plan. We are praying that our son will be the executive director of the charity. He has been working here most of his life. Just as my father passed it on to me, I will pass it on to him. It’s a legacy.
Q. Will you then retire?
A. We have finally realized that we are not going to retire in the way people normally think. I think we are not going to buy a home in Florida and drink mai tais. I plan to keep working and staying active in the anti-poverty movement until the day I die. I want to teach young people and I haven’t found young people who want to sit and listen. It’s very frustrating and I don’t know what to do about it.