Newark mourns the passing of Wilhelmina Holder, education activist and ‘community mom’ who empowered parents

Wilhelmina Holder, right, whose children and grandchildren attended Newark schools, encouraged fellow parents to fight for their children’s rights. (Courtesy of Kaleena Berryman)

Wilhelmina Holder, a leading education advocate and parent organizer in Newark who counseled students and superintendents alike, has died, her family announced Sunday. She was 70 years old.

Wilhelmina Holder (Courtesy of Omayra Molina)

A Newark Public Schools graduate whose children and grandchildren also attended Newark schools, Holder 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 to task one moment and crack a joke the next, Holder was known by some as the “community mom” for her devotion to the city’s children.

“There’s an African proverb that I strongly believe in,” she said during an online forum in 2020. “When they want to measure the wellness of a community they ask: ‘How are the children doing?’”

A retired paralegal, Holder found her calling as an organizer championing the rights of Newark children and families. Over the years, she served as a PTA leader, founding member of an organization that trains parents in education advocacy, president of a high school parents group, and co-director of an afterschool program that helped thousands of Newark students prepare for and apply to college. 

“The Newark Public Schools mourns the passing of Mrs. Wilhelmina Holder who proudly served as an advocate for parents, students, local control, and the ongoing efforts toward the continuous improvement of the district system she loved,” Superintendent Roger León said in a statement Sunday. “We are eternally grateful for all that Mrs. Holder did and for everyone she assisted along the way.”

Omayra Molina, Holder’s goddaughter whom she raised beginning when Molina was 14, said Holder believed that everyone has a role to play in improving the world around them. Putting that belief into practice, Holder spent many evenings after work attending school board meetings and parent organizing sessions, often bringing her children along.

“She just gave relentlessly, effortlessly,” Molina said. “Even if she was dead tired, you would never know.”

Holder’s commitment to service and education 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 her family.

“She was a part of everybody,” Molina added on Sunday, as tributes to Holder flooded social media. “A lot of people are calling me like, ‘I know that’s your mom, but that’s the community mom, too.’”

The oldest of six children, Holder grew up in Newark’s Central Ward. As a teenager in July 1967, she witnessed the civil unrest in Newark that left 26 people dead.

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“We lived under our bed,” she told WNYC last year. “Away from the windows, as we watched our neighbors being targets by the police. We weren’t shooting each other; we were shot by the police.”

She graduated from Weequahic High School in 1969 and later raised three girls — one her biological daughter, and two others her “bonus children,” Molina said. All three girls attended West Side High School, where Holder became PTA president. 

One year, Holder arranged for the 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. “Sunday morning, 153 children and 8 parents showed up.”

Even after her daughters graduated, Holder continued to stay closely involved at West Side. When 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 said. “Another school year! Here we go!”

In the early 2000s, she was one of the original members of the Abbott Leadership Institute, which the attorney and activist Junius Williams helped to establish at Rutgers University-Newark. The organization, which has enrolled hundreds of Newark parents and young people, provides free leadership training focused on education advocacy.

Kaleena Berryman, who until recently led the organization, said Holder encouraged her and countless other parents to become outspoken leaders.

“Her message was always: You are your child’s greatest advocate. Have high expectations and fight for your children,” Berryman said. “When we speak, part of it is her voice.”

Holder also was president of the Secondary Parents Council, which brings parents together to push for improvements to Newark high schools. And, with Lyndon Brown, she co-directed the High School Academic Support Program for more than two decades. During that time, the group helped prepare well over 5,000 Newark high school students for college through free SAT prep, essay-writing workshops, and college tours. 

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During the panel discussion in 2020, Holder said that Newark students are “more than capable” of excelling in college and beyond. However, because of systemic racism and a lack of resources, some students will not reach their full potential unless they receive extra support.

“I want to charge the entire community to get involved — the parents, the pastors, the churches, the nonprofits, the city, the elected officials, everybody,” she said. “I believe in the genius of our children of color, and that needs to be cultivated and nurtured.”

At a state legislature hearing on education in 2012, Holder issued a similar challenge to lawmakers. At the hearing, she said officials needed to more meaningfully involve parents in efforts to improve the schools. Until their demands were met, Holder added, she and other parents would keep showing up.

“They’re not leaving,” she said. “We want to make sure that our legacy — my grandchildren and great grandchildren that I may or may not see — are able to be the next senator, the next governor, the next president, the next superintendent.”

Last year, Holder received an award honoring New Jersey residents whose service has made a difference in their communities. In an interview for the occasion, Holder said that working with young people and watching them flourish had been its own reward.

“That people trust me and believe in me and give me an opportunity to share their lives,” she said. “There’s no greater joy.”

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