Local healthcare guru and Groundwork Jacksonville CEO Dawn Emerick has been lured away to the Pacific Northwest. Emerick will be the next health department director for Clackamas County, a suburb of Portland and part of the Portland-Vancouver-Hillsboro metropolitan area.

“Oregon as a state is the pacesetter for healthcare policy,” Emerick says, sitting on the front porch steps of her Springfield home. A chance to be on the cutting edge in public health makes the West Coast position an offer she can’t refuse.

Prior to leading Groundwork Jacksonville, and prior to her private consulting career, Emerick served six years as president and CEO of the Northeast Florida Health Planning Council. To Emerick, 48, Groundwork was a natural extension of her strong belief that people’s health must be a primary consideration in all policy-making decisions: Health in
all policies.

But fighting for people and places that otherwise get overlooked is more than just what Emerick does for a living. It’s who she is. Born to an unwed teen mother, raised by her grandparents in a poor neighborhood, then kicked out of her home at the age of 17, Emerick is no stranger to hardship. She’s fought hard to make her way, and remembers what it feels like to be judged, to be put down by others. As a result, Emerick has no patience for prejudice of any kind.

Her next step — leaving a state that refuses to expand Medicaid for working citizens — is a no-brainer for her.

“I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be wonderful, for the next phase of my career, to work for a state that is actually setting the pace and leads healthcare in our country?’”


Breaking New Ground in Jacksonville

Wednesday, May 25 will be the last day of Emerick’s Groundwork gig, which focuses on local environmental health and equitable economic development. Groundwork leaders hope Groundwork will also hail a transformational new beginning of Jacksonville’s urban renewal efforts.

Chairman of Groundwork Jacksonville’s board of directors, James Richardson, says he believes the city is ready to get serious about environmental justice and urban revitalization.

“We have for the first time an entity in place that is willing to work with the community, and involve the community in what’s to be done, and actually complete the projects,” Richardson says.

Richardson says that Groundwork’s partnership with the EPA not only gives the local organization instant credibility; it enables Jacksonville to leverage private and federal monies that the city has been leaving on the table for decades. Jacksonville can also look to other metro areas as models for success, like Groundwork Hudson Valley, in Yonkers, New York.

“I’ve been a resident of this city all of my life,” Richardson says. “I’ve heard people talk about plans — but there’s not been an entity to get it done.”

He contends that Groundwork Jacksonville, chartered in 2013 by the national umbrella Groundwork USA, is that entity. And says its first leader, Emerick, has accomplished her mission.

“We were very fortunate to have landed Dawn as our first CEO,” Richardson says. “She brought a wealth of what we needed … in order to build the infrastructure of a brand-new nonprofit — starting from nothing.”


The Vision

Groundwork Jacksonville has developed a 10-year vision for connecting the city’s neglected, urban neighborhoods through its green spaces. The organization refers to the revitalization project as “Jacksonville’s Emerald Necklace.”

One foundation for the Emerald Necklace is the paved rails-to-trails bike path, also known as the S-line.

The path runs from Myrtle Avenue, up along Durkeeville and Brentwood, then cuts eastward behind UF Health Jacksonville Hospital in Springfield before heading south again, along the Hogans Creek greenway, toward the shipyards where the creek meets the St. Johns River. The future vision for the S-line includes a northward extension to touch the Gateway Town Center area and the North Shore neighborhood.

“It’s not a loop yet,” Emerick says, explaining that the S-line connector is about 65 percent completed.

“Here’s our only urban trail — it’s a natural asset that’s been in our community for 10 years and no one knows about it. Why is that?” she asks.

Then she answers her own question. “These communities have been excluded from the conversation.”

So Emerick started a new conversation about urban development.

Last year, 60 residents conferred with landscape architects on a design plan for the S-line, which deliberately includes destination nodes — the Emerald Necklace’s “jewels.”

The community-driven design recently resulted in recognition by the AIA Jacksonville, the local chapter of the American Institute of Architects. In April, the group gave Emerick a Community Service Award for turning Groundwork’s vision into a ready-to-implement plan.

Emerick also led the collaboration with ETM Inc., the civil engineering firm developing the Shipyards, to include the historic Eastside neighborhood in the Necklace’s design.

“We sat down with ETM and reviewed the Shipyard master plan and wholeheartedly believed that we needed to move the Emerald Necklace boundaries to complement all the activity at the shipyards,” she said.

The Jacksonville Public Market planned for A. Philip Randolph Boulevard is designed to do just that. JPM, situated near EverBank Field, opens in September, occurring in conjunction with Jaguars’ regular season home games. 

Revitalizing urban destination points along the S-line will not only attract more residents from within and outside of the neighborhoods to enjoy the outdoors, Emerick says, it will spur economic development. And Groundwork is already engaging neighborhood residents to create and sustain clean, healthy environments, and it’s pulling in participation from young people throughout the area.


Emerick Sets the Stage

“Dawn has good visioning skills,” Richardson says. “She did exactly what we needed a first-time CEO to do.

“We’ve enjoyed and tremendously benefited from Dawn and are sad to see her go,” he continues, adding that Groundwork is poised to keep moving forward after Emerick leaves.

“She’s done a lot, and fortunately she’s done it with volunteers on the ground who will stay in place and who’ll keep these efforts going.”

Emerick, whose tenure as Groundwork CEO began in February 2015, says she went into the job knowing she’d have to accomplish a lot in a short period of time.

“This is what I do, I build things,” Emerick says. “I knew I could get it up to the level to make it more attractive to a higher-level CEO.

“It was always a short-term commitment. It was a Bloomingdale mission with a Walmart budget. You get one shot to launch it.”

Emerick and Richardson agree that the next CEO will need to continue to engage people on all levels — from neighborhood volunteers to big-money donors.

The goal, Richardson says, is to keep making the project compelling to donors. “Fund development will be critical. It takes money to do the things we plan to do, and we’re looking at the community to embrace our efforts.”

Richardson says that the board will select an interim CEO within weeks, which will buy time for the three-to-four-month-long national search for a permanent replacement.


“Residents Have so much Pride in the Eastside.”

Emerick says she has frequently heard a couple of questions from observers and would-be investors: What the hell are you doing? Why are you investing in that neighborhood?

“My response is, that’s the reason, what you just said; because people like you have access and wealth and privilege and the ability to navigate and move from your neighborhood if you want to. Mobility.

“That’s the reason we’re here. Because everyone else has given up.”

She often hears from business people that the neighborhood she’s serving is “not our market.” Or “that’s not where we want our brand.” Or “that’s not our target audience.”

Emerick passionately disagrees.

“Businesses that are open to taking risks, and open to lifting up neighborhoods, they do it because it’s the right thing to do. They give people the opportunity to demonstrate that they are their market. They are their audience.”

“Call us up. We’ll take you on a tour. We’ll show you the opportunities. We’ll show you the spirit of the community. We’ll show you the drive to be entrepreneurs.”

Emerick cautions business investors to understand the distinction between gentrification and equitable development.

“Investors hear we’re not interested in gentrification, then they think we don’t want economic development. We love economic development.

“We want to make sure that folks who have been in this community generation after generation after generation are not pushed out.”

While gentrification replaces a community’s cultural heritage with new, upscale coffee shops, gourmet grocery stores, and more expensive real estate, equitable development considers the opinions of the people who already live there.

The difference boils down to who gets to define which cultures are more relevant, Emerick says.

“There’s so much vibrancy that has been there and is there. Residents have so much pride in the Eastside.”


A Convergence of Passions

Emerick has no patience for prejudice against poor people, or for people who live in neglected neighborhoods. She was born the third child of an unwed 19-year-old mother with mental health issues.

“My grandparents raised me,” she explains. “My mother was the typical statistic. I should be a statistic.

“We were always very poor. I hated it. I never wanted to be poor,” she says. And she caught flak for hating it, too.

“Even in my household, there was envy with my aunts and uncles about my having a lot of success — a lot of envy and jealousy.

“Prince George’s County was rough,” she says, referring to the county in Maryland where she was raised, just east of Washington, D.C. “My high school was a predominantly urban school. I had a great high school experience, but not a lot of people went to college.

“The president of my senior class ran [for the office] as a joke — and he won. He was the local drug dealer. He was locked up the night before graduation and people bailed him out so he could graduate.

“That upbringing is why I’m passionate about poverty. I’m passionate about the stigma placed on people living in poverty. I hate when I hear people living in poverty are freeloaders.

“[If they are], then I’m a freeloader,” she says.

Emerick was the only person in her immediate family to graduate from college; her aunt, with whom she was raised as a sister, also found a way out of the neighborhood by getting vocational education as a medical assistant.

“She was exposed to this medical world and to Christmas parties and other events and she would always take me. I got to see the other side. I got exposure from my sister. She cultivated that.”

Emerick also credits her grandparents with keeping her busy in ways that “kept me out of the poverty environment,” which allowed her to interact with affluent kids from the D.C. suburbs in nearby Montgomery County, northwest of her neighborhood.

“My grandparents made sure that I was active — I was a pre-elite gymnast — I was training for the Olympics, practicing six days a week. By the very nature of being busy, and being exposed to other families, I got to see what I didn’t have.

“I was competing in the same competition as Mary Lou Retton,” she says, recalling gym meets from the early 1980s in West Virginia.

“I didn’t know who she was. All I knew was that everybody — after her routine on the floor — the entire arena erupted. Next thing you know, she’s in the Olympics. That’s where I was navigating.”

Her navigation was interrupted when, at the age of 17, her grandparents threw her out of the house because they learned Emerick was dating an African-American boy. She moved in with her future in-laws, whom she still calls family, despite her eventual divorce from their son.

Emerick credits her then-boyfriend’s mother, Jean Williams, for the encouragement she needed to keep going when her family evicted her. But she was also motivated to prove that her grandfather — whom she knew as “Dad” — was wrong about her. Emerick was determined to show him she could succeed.

And she did.

Emerick graduated with a degree in physical education, minoring in sports medicine. “I always wanted to be a nurse,” she explained, “but Frostburg State University didn’t have a nursing program.”

She married her high school sweetheart during her junior, and his senior, year of college. After graduating from the rural Western Maryland college in 1991, she moved to Jacksonville, where her husband was already working. Their firstborn, Natasha, was three months old. Soon they would have two babies.

The family’s future looked bright.

Until it didn’t.


“Demonizing Poor People is Very Personal to Me.”

Emerick was working as a health educator in Duval County when both her husband’s fledgling career and the couple’s marriage went south. She was pregnant with her son R.C. at the time.

She recalls losing her health benefits along with the marriage before giving birth to R.C., with her best friend, Pam, by her side in the delivery room.

“I had no insurance. I was on Medicaid. No one would see me because I was too far along. I finally found a doctor and had one visit before he was born.”

To make matters worse, Emerick’s coworkers were harassing her about having bi-racial children. No stranger to racism, Emerick thought it best not to have photos of her children on her desk. But she did wear a locket, with a photo of her daughter inside. One day, a white coworker asked if the locket had a photo in it. After Emerick showed her the picture, the sidelong looks, the coolness, and the gossip ensued.

Emerick says her coworker said, “She’s got a chocolate baby in there.”

“I’ve got two kids I’ve got to support and I’m being lambasted by racism,” Emerick recalls. “For the longest time, I didn’t bring my kids in [to work with me]. I wouldn’t.”

She knows, though, that others have it worse. “My plight is not anywhere like an African-American person’s.”

Asked whether she still runs into racism, she quickly answers in the affirmative.

“People think it’s safe because I’m white,” Emerick says.

“They know me as being with Al and Dylan.” Al Emerick came into her life in 1994. The two later married and had Dylan, now 17. Al and Dylan are white.

The difference now, she explains, is that she’s in a better position to challenge racism.

“Now I can say, ‘Hey, that’s inappropriate, let me show you a picture of my children.’”

Emerick says that the work she does now is a reflection of the challenges she has faced in the past.

“Demonizing poor people is very personal to me.

“When I was with [Natasha] as a single mother, I had nothing. I was getting food stamps and a daycare subsidy. And I thank God. Here she is, graduating with her master’s degree from Purdue.

“During that time, I took advantage of the tuition assistance and got my master’s degree. I knew education was going to be my way out, and I could support my two babies.”

Her love of research and her work with Hubbard House, Jacksonville’s domestic violence shelter, led to a thesis that shed light on the factors that enable abusive men to benefit from interventions. Her penchant for data analysis would ultimately help her succeed in a leadership position with First Coast Service Options, a large, multi-state, medical services management organization.

Later, as her career in the nonprofit arena expanded, Emerick would earn a doctorate of education at the University of North Florida. Her six years with the Health Planning Council of Northeast Florida, where she served as president and CEO, thrust her into the public arena as a formidable, successful leader in the community.

The childcare subsidy she received all those years ago, she says, is what allowed her to keep working early in her career.

“I can’t fathom sometimes when there’s such judgment on people who just need a little help. I thank God for Medicaid. I thank God for the childcare subsidy. What was I going to do?”

Emerick says that although poverty is the “centerpiece for dysfunction in neighborhoods,” society would rather not examine it or, many times, not even acknowledge it.

“We don’t want to invest in it, we don’t want to talk about it. We put walls on our interstates so we don’t see it.”

Or, in the case of Eastside, we build a cloverleaf ramp to a highway — smack dab in the middle of a community. The route to the Jacksonville Public Market press conference in March was blocked by A. Philip Randolph Boulevard’s west end closure, an alternate route around the stadium was also blocked; the streets had been cut into dead-ends when the highway was built.

“When I see the spirit of the Eastside, I see how they’ve been left behind, or discarded or judged,” Emerick begins, shaking her head, “there is this symbolism of my personal … ”

Emerick stops, wiping her eyes. She catches her breath, and continues.

“You just don’t give up. When people judge or tell you you’re not good enough, you keep rising. You keep fighting to be relevant.”

About EU Jacksonville

october, 2021