Wilhelmina Holder, a prominent Newark education advocate and parent organizer who advised students and superintendents, has died, her family announced Sunday. She was 70 years old.
A graduate of Newark Public Schools whose children and grandchildren also attended Newark schools, Holder has spent decades working to improve the city’s education system and empower parents and students to do the same. A constant presence at school board meetings, where she would call officials one moment and crack a joke the next, Holder was known by some as the “mum of the community” for her dedication to the city’s children.
“There’s an African proverb that I strongly believe in,” she told an online forum in 2020. “When they want to measure the well-being of a community, they ask, ‘How are the children ?'”
A retired paralegal, Holder found her calling as an organizer advocating for the rights of children and families in Newark. Over the years, she has been a leader of the PTA, a founding member of an organization that trains parents to advocate for education, president of a high school parent group, and co-director of an afterschool program that has helped thousands of Newark students to prepare and apply for college.
“Newark Public Schools mourns the passing of Mrs. Wilhelmina Holder who proudly stood up for parents, students, local control and continued efforts for the continuous improvement of the district system she loved,” said Superintendent Roger Leon in a statement. Sunday. “We are forever grateful for all Ms. Holder has done and for everyone she has helped along the way.”
Omayra Molina, Holder’s goddaughter whom she raised from the age of 14, said Holder believes everyone has a role to play in improving the world around them. Putting this belief into practice, Holder spent many evenings after work attending school board meetings and parent organizing sessions, often bringing her children with her.
“She just gave relentlessly, effortlessly,” Molina said. “Even if she was dead tired, you would never know.”
Holder’s commitment to service and education has inspired her children: Today, Molina works as an attendance counselor at a Newark school, another of Holder’s daughters works as a classroom aide, and the third is a social worker. . But Holder’s impact also extended far beyond his family.
“She was part of everyone,” Molina added on Sunday, as tributes to Holder flooded social media. “A lot of people call me like, ‘I know she’s your mother, but she’s also the mother of the community.'”
The eldest of six children, Holder grew up in the central district of Newark. As a teenager in July 1967, she witnessed civil unrest in Newark that left 26 people dead.
“We lived under our bed,” she says says WNYC Last year. “Away from the windows, as we watched our neighbors being targeted by the police. We weren’t shooting at each other; we were shot by the police.
She graduated from Weequahic High School in 1969 and went on to raise three daughters — one her biological daughter and two others her “bonus kids,” Molina said. All three girls attended West Side High School, where Holder became president of the PTA.
One year, Holder arranged for students to attend a weekend college fair. A few days before the event, the school said it could no longer provide transportation, so Holder and her husband chartered a bus themselves.
“We signed the contract on Saturday,” she recalled in an interview years later. “On Sunday morning, 153 children and 8 parents showed up.”
Even after her daughters graduated, Holder continued to remain closely involved with the West Side. When the students returned to school this fall after more than a year of remote learning, Holder greeted them as they entered the building on their first day back.
“Welcome, welcome, welcome” she says. “Another school year! Here we are!”
In the early 2000s, she was one of the original members of the Abbott Leadership Institute, which lawyer and activist Junius Williams helped establish at Rutgers University in Newark. The organization, which has enrolled hundreds of Newark parents and youth, offers free leadership training focused on education advocacy.
Kaleena Berryman, who led the organization until recently, said Holder encouraged her and countless other parents to become outspoken leaders.
“His message was always: you are your child’s greatest advocate. Have high expectations and fight for your kids,” Berryman said. “When we speak, it’s partly his voice.”
Holder also served as president of the Parents’ Council of High School, which brings together parents to lobby for the improvement of Newark’s high schools. And, with Lyndon Brown, she co-directed the high school tutoring program for more than two decades. During that time, the group has helped prepare more than 5,000 Newark high school students for college through free SAT prep, essay-writing workshops, and college tours.
At the roundtable in 2020, Holder said Newark students are “more than capable” of excelling in college and beyond. However, due to systemic racism and lack of resources, some students will not reach their full potential unless they receive additional support.
“I want to ask the whole community to get involved — parents, pastors, churches, nonprofits, the city, elected officials, everyone,” she said. “I believe in the genius of our children of color, and that needs to be nurtured and nurtured.”
During a state legislature hearing on education in 2012, Holder issued a similar challenge to lawmakers. At the hearing, she said officials need to engage parents more meaningfully in efforts to improve schools. Until their demands are met, Holder added, she and other parents would continue to show up.
“They’re not leaving,” she said. “We want to make sure that our legacy – my grandchildren and great-grandchildren who I will see or not – can be the next senator, the next governor, the next president, the next superintendent.”
Last year, Holder received a price honoring New Jersey residents whose service has made a difference in their communities. In a meeting for the occasion, Holder said working with young people and seeing them thrive has been his own reward.
“That people trust me and believe in me and give me the opportunity to share their lives,” she said. “There is no greater joy.”