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Wake County history makers
2 black women chair top boards
Published Friday, January 26, 2018
by Maria Magher, Correspondent

Monika Johnson-Hostler is the executive director of the N.C. Coalition Against Sexual Assault. She has been involved with the Emerging Young Leaders Program and been a troop leader for the Girl Scouts. She is a mother, a wife of a Wake County schools teacher and the newly elected chair of the Wake County school board.

Jessica Holmes is an education attorney and a graduate of the UNC School of Law. She serves on the board of directors for A Helping Hand Inc. and the N.C. Foundation for Public School Children. She was the youngest person to be elected to the Wake County Board of Commissioners. And she is the newly elected chair of the board.

Johnson-Hostler and Holmes are also African-American. Their recent promotions are the first time that two black women have been named chairs of both Wake County boards.

“I definitely think it’s great, and I’m excited that people are paying attention to it,” Johnson-Hostler said. “Jessica is younger than me, but we’re both also fairly young black women in leadership. But I think it’s also necessary to say that we’re both also qualified. This isn’t just because of the time we’re in, but because we’re actually qualified.”

Board members have said exactly that, and they have praised the qualities of both women, who have led their boards in the past.

“I think, first of all, she’s inclusive of the entire board, and I think she understands how that plays to the success of moving forward,” fellow board member Roxie Cash said of Johnson-Hostler. “Monika works hard on everything she does, and she works hard as chair.”

One aspect that several board members cited for both women was their passion.

“I’ve known her for several years, and she’s incredibly smart, articulate, passionate and caring,” board member Erv Portman said of Holmes. “I think she has a very bright future because I think she’s sincere and authentic, and I think that’s a refreshing change that people really appreciate.”

Portman actually approached Holmes about running for public office.

“Jessica at one point told me I was crazy because I suggested that she run for the county commission,” he said. “She said she was too young, she was too inexperienced, she didn’t know enough people, and it was a crazy idea. I take pride in the fact that I and others encouraged her to do that.”

Holmes said one of the reasons she never considered public office at the time is that she didn’t see many minorities.

“I, like many women, didn’t necessarily see an opportunity for myself in politics because I didn’t see a lot of people like me in office,” she said. “Oftentimes, I’m in rooms where I’m the only woman or I am the only person of color. Initially, I struggled with making sure that my voice was heard and making sure that unconscious biases weren’t impacting my ability to get things done…. I don’t feel that unconscious biases have changed. I feel that I have learned to maneuver around them.”

Turning Perspective into Passion

Both Holmes and Johnson-Hostler have helped focus the conversation on important issues in Wake County during their time on their respective boards.

“Of course, having two women of color being in such significant roles for us to have the ability to impact children is really a beautiful thing,” Holmes said. But, she added, “one thing that many people haven’t highlighted outside of the fact that we are both women of color is that we have very similar backgrounds.”

Holmes said she was the first in her family to go to college, and Johnson-Hostler grew up in challenging circumstances.

“We are uniquely able to identify with students and their struggles, and that is probably not typical of other leaders,” Holmes said. “I grew up on free and reduced-price lunch, and I’m keenly aware of the challenges students face on weekends and extended breaks” for getting food.

Holmes led the initiative to pilot five food pantries in Wake County high schools, and there are now 10 food pantries in 10 high schools and middle schools. Students can go food shopping for a range of items, including fruits, vegetables and meats, which are not typically available in food pantries.

Johnson-Hostler has been working to identify and address inequalities in the schools, including putting a stop to the de facto segregation that has been happening in county schools. The board set into action a strategic plan for addressing inequality about a year ago.

“We are currently living, breathing the strategic plan,” she said. “Our goal now is to go back and look at that and say, ‘Did we address equity in all of these things?’”

The plan looks at everything from the way they hire teachers and principals to whether children are being recognized at the same rates for advanced and gifted classes.

“I think it’s culture – it’s every level – and that’s a big thing for people to grasp onto,” Johnson-Hostler said. “I’m a realist so I don’t think we’ve made great strides in a year, but we have been thinking about it in everything we do.”

Looking toward the Future

Both Johnson-Hostler and Holmes have set their sights high in making positive changes in the county.

“There’s not a system that we can’t not be talking about this (inequality) and ways that we are complicit in these systems,” Johnson-Hostler said. “The sweet spot really is in what feels like chaos and comfortable. If we are comfortable, I promise you it is easier to do more harm than good.”

Johnson-Hostler said she doesn’t know how long she will continue on the board or if she will continue in politics after her time is over, but she knows that she will keep fighting for the issues that are important to her.

“I won’t be here forever. I do believe that more people should be involved in the process, and I do think fresh eyes bring fresh perspectives,” she said. “I was an outsider, and I do believe that was an asset.”

In the immediate future, finding a new superintendent will be one of the primary goals. Johnson-Hostler said she wants to have a new superintendent by the start of the next school year. Former Wake County schools superintendent Del Burns has been named interim.

“She works very hard to make sure everyone is heard,” board member James Martin said. “There are plenty of times in political settings where people like to have quiet backroom discussions, and Monika is very committed to both collaboration among the board and ensuring that we carry out business in public. Those are very key attributes for someone leading in public education. She is not afraid to tackle a hard issue but bring a wise and thoughtful approach to tackling challenging issues.”

Holmes says she has no plans to leave until more progress is made on important issues.

“In some ways, I can’t see myself leaving – at least not until this army comes up behind me of like-minded people ready to carry that torch,” she said. “Until I’m comfortable with where the county is on affordable housing and gentrification, hunger, until there’s a transportation program that benefits everyone – not just a bike-share type program that only benefits downtown Raleigh. Until I feel like we are progressing on some of the issues that we are committed to, I’ll be in the trenches with my people.”



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