When she was a high schooler in the tiny eastern North Carolina hamlet of Maple Hill, Jessica Holmes ’06 saw the UNC campus as beautiful and the students as superhuman. “They were who I aspired to be,” she said. A Carolina Covenant scholarship gave Jessica the chance to break through difficult circumstances, to build a life for herself that she didn’t even know to dream of growing up.
In her law practice and as a Wake County commissioner, Jessica — the first in her family to go to college — has dedicated herself to creating opportunities for others to break molds and exceed the expectations of their ZIP codes.
She decided on a career in politics in the third grade, when a worker at a domestic-violence shelter in Wilmington where she and her mother and four siblings were staying offered to take her to visit Washington, D.C., over winter break. As they stood in front of the Capitol, her new friend said, “This is where people make laws to help you and your family.” Jessica pressed to find out more and learned that most members of Congress were lawyers.
“That settles it,” Jessica recalls thinking. “I’m going to be a lawyer.” And she never wavered.
During her junior year at Carolina, Jessica’s work-study placement was at UNC’s Center for Civil Rights. There civil rights rock stars of the legal world Julius Chambers ’62 (LLBJD), Ashley Osment ’87 (’95 JD), Jack Boger ’74 (JD) and Anita Earls took her under their influential wings. Jessica continued to work at the center during law school, and after she passed the bar, she joined the Southern Coalition for Social Justice as a community organizer.
She traveled anywhere and everywhere in North Carolina, equally comfortable speaking to five people in a rural church basement or 150 in an auditorium, making arcane topics like redistricting relevant to their lives. People responded to her direct communication style and appreciated her willingness to listen to and learn from anyone.
In 2012, she began practicing law at the N.C. Association of Educators. She served on the board of A Helping Hand, a nonprofit that assists the elderly and disabled, and she was appointed to the board of the N.C. Foundation for Public School Children, where she recently finished a term as chair.
Before the 2014 election, several people urged her to run for the Wake County Board of Commissioners. She repeatedly explained why she didn’t fit the prototype of the older, all-white board, until one of her mentors asked, “Don’t you think people in your stage of life deserve representation? Don’t you think a woman, a person of color, someone who’s not wealthy should have a role in government?”
She took on the challenge and, at age 29, became the youngest commissioner ever elected in Wake County. Two years later, commissioners voted her their chair. Up for re-election this year, she is running unopposed.
As a commissioner, she has fought for government to be responsive to all constituents. She secured sufficient county financial support for Smart Start to serve every low-income child on the waiting list for the early-childhood development program. Recalling how embarrassed she was as a teen to have anyone know she was on the free or reduced-price lunch program, she instituted food pantries in five high schools with the highest poverty rates to let teens and their parents discreetly shop for their families. The pantries were so successful, nine more schools have them now. As a side benefit, school counselors can help parents who shop at the pantries connect with other services and update them on their children’s academic progress; thus, parents can stay more involved in their children’s education.
In an initiative called Ban the Box, Jessica worked to move the question about criminal record from the first page of a job application to the end, so that employers wouldn’t automatically reject an applicant who had once been arrested. She also pushed for a job-skills training program inside the Wake County Jail.
When an apartment complex changed hands and the new owner refused to accept rent subsidies, Jessica challenged county staff to come up with housing for tenants who would be forced to move. She met with tenants herself to review options and helped them fill out new applications.
For all the people who helped Jessica along the way, she has repaid them tenfold by assisting the most vulnerable. Her life path has inspired many children whom society has left by the wayside. She sets policies to show them that their tomorrow doesn’t have to look like their today.