Last Thursday, on her first morning as a Durham City Council member, Dr. Monique Holsey-Hyman pushed back her own travel plans to make time for a constituent.

She was supposed to leave for New York at noon—she’d been asked to speak at one of Columbia University’s commencement ceremonies that weekend and still needed to figure out what she was going to say—but the constituent was asking for her help, and Holsey-Hyman is not one to decline a request for assistance. She could write her speech in the car, she decided.

If you’re reading this, you’re experiencing the result of that first act of service: the constituent was me, and the request was for an interview.

Holsey-Hyman was sworn in last Wednesday. The previous week, she was appointed to finish the term of former council member Charlie Reece, who resigned in March to move to Paris with his family. Twenty-one people applied to fill the at-large seat, and the council chose four exceptionally strong finalists—Nate Baker, an urban planner; Schnequa Nicole Diggs, a NC Central University assistant professor of public administration; Henry C. McKoy Jr., an NCCU business professor; and Holsey-Hyman, a professor of social work who teaches courses at NCCU and Walden University—and invited them for lengthy interviews. After 40 Durham residents spoke in support of their favored candidates at a public comment session, the council selected Holsey-Hyman in an unanimous vote.

During my conversation with Holsey-Hyman, she comes across as she did during her interview with the council: confident, vulnerable, and for the people. She’s polished in appearance—curled hair, manicured nails, pearl necklace and earrings—but speaks with the air of a revolutionary, waving her hands and dropping one-liners in a thick New York accent (“When you cut us, our blood is red like yours,” she told the council during her interview). 

She answers most questions with a story; when I ask about the topic of her Columbia speech, for example, she first tells me about the student, Trina Nurse, who landed her the gig. Before Nurse went to college, she was living in a shelter and cooking on a hot plate with “one on her hip and one in the carriage,” Holsey-Hyman tells me. When Nurse got a scholarship to Columbia, Holsey-Hyman, who works as an external advisor for the university, took her on as a mentee; now, Nurse is graduating with a master’s degree in social work.

“She always says I’m her inspiration, and I’m like, ‘No, you’re my hero,’” Holsey-Hyman says.

Thirty years ago, like Nurse, Holsey-Hyman graduated from Columbia as a first-generation student with a master’s in social work. Her speech will be directed toward 2022 graduates who are the first in their families to complete a degree, she says, applauding their accomplishments while stressing that “being a first-gen person doesn’t define who you are.”

Holsey-Hyman was born and raised in the South Bronx. When she was three years old, her parents divorced and her mother turned to public assistance programs to support her family.

“I’m very humbled to say that I have humble beginnings,” Holsey-Hyman says. “My mother still remembers the first man who gave her a check.”

Despite having limited resources, Holsey-Hyman’s mother always found activites for her four daughters; she would take them to the South Street Seaport to see free puppet shows, guide them through museums, and, most often, bring them along to meetings for public bodies like the the tenant board, the community board, the PTA, the borough council, and the city council.

“That’s where I learned the importance of servant leadership and giving back,” Holsey-Hyman says. “[My mother] always said, ‘I’m gonna fight for what’s right.’”

When Holsey-Hyman watched her mother speak in front of the city council, she says, it made her feel particularly empowered.

During junior high, Holsey-Hyman was placed in a program for gifted students called S-P (“special progress”), which accelerated her schooling and allowed her to graduate high school at age 16. Before and after her stint at Columbia, Holsey-Hyman completed a bachelor’s degree in human services and sociology at the University of New York at Binghamton and an Ed.D. at Walden University.

Holsey-Hyman performed the bulk of her fieldwork in New York. While she was still in school, she interned at Rikers Island, conducting needs assessments for incarcerated women who were separated from their children; upon graduating, she worked her way up the ranks of the Child Welfare Administration before becoming the director of intensive case management at Steinway Child and Family Services, a mental health organization in Queens.

The start of Holsey-Hyman’s career coincided with the beginning of the crack cocaine epidemic, and much of her work became centered around securing housing and facilitating mental health services for children with family members suffering from substance use disorder.

At Steinway, she spearheaded the creation of the first case management program in the South Bronx, transforming a bodega into a community center that supported children who had Axis 1 disorders—anxiety, depression, ADD, drug addiction—as well as histories with child welfare. To launch the program, she secured funding from state and city offices of mental health and knocked on residents’ doors to get their buy-in. By leading this project, as well as a subsequent expanded program that offered 24-hour services for mental and physical health, housing, and case management, Holsey-Hyman says she learned “what it takes to get resources in a community.”

In 2006, after one of her sisters died of breast cancer, Holsey-Hyman was seeking a change in both scenery and routine. She’d always wanted to become an educator, and she was drawn to Durham’s vibrancy, diversity, and arts scene (“I’ve seen more Broadway plays here than I’ve seen in New York,” she says). After landing a job as an assistant professor of social work at Shaw University, Holsey-Hyman bought a house near Southpoint Mall and put down roots in the Bull City.

During her 12 years at Shaw, and now at NCCU, Holsey-Hyman has gone to great lengths to invest in her students, both inside and outside of the classroom.

“If they’re not in my class, I’m knocking on their door,” she says. “We need you to stay.”

Though her tactics have earned her a reputation for being a “little crazy,” she says, they’ve paid off—she’s won over 25 awards and honors for her achievements as an educator, and at the public comment session for the at-large council seat, several of Holsey-Hyman’s former students took the podium to describe how she has changed their lives.

One student, Allison Murrow, said she was “overwhelmed with trepidation” when she started the master of social work program at NCCU; she had recently entered recovery from substance use disorder and was struggling to see her own self-worth.

“I was full of shame and guilt and had lost, in large part, the ability to believe in myself,” Murrow said. “Broken and afraid, I was fortunate to take one of Professor Hyman’s courses my first semester. She immediately began to pour hope and life back into me.”

Through Holsey-Hyman’s support, Murrow became empowered to use her experiences to help others and is now employed as a social worker at an alcohol and drug center.

“She’s a visionary with a heart of service,” Murrow said. “She believes in the future of this city and sees its youth as those who hold the key to its success.”

Four days after speaking at the public comment session, Murrow graduated from NCCU with a master’s in social work.

Beyond her professional work, Holsey-Hyman’s “heart of service” is evident in her civic engagement experience; she has held positions on the Durham Mental Health Board and a number of improvement teams for local public schools and currently serves on Durham’s Citizen Advisory Council and Board of Commissioners Social Service Board.

“When people say to me, ‘What do you do for fun?’ I’m like, ‘I’m on the DSS board,’” Holsey-Hyman says, laughing. “But really, I get something out of helping people. That’s what makes me tick.”

That’s why she applied to join the council, she says—she loves to help people, and she’s good at it.

Holsey-Hyman’s top priorities for Durham are affordable housing, youth programming, and crime reduction. Her husband, stepfather, and younger sister are all current or retired police officers, and she says this proximity, paired with her social work experience, has helped her to gauge the resources and initiatives needed to keep residents safe.

She’s a strong proponent of community policing and believes law enforcement departments should have social workers on staff to deal with mental health and domestic violence that officers aren’t trained to handle. She also wants to increase resources for formerly incarcerated people who are reentering the community.

During her interview with the council, Holsey-Hyman voiced support for Shotspotter, a gunfire detection alert technology that instantly notifies police of the location where a shot has been fired. Council members recently voted to bring Shotspotter to Durham as a pilot program, though the vote was divided; three dissenting council members shared deep concerns with how the technology has been deployed in other cities, citing an incident in Chicago where police shot and killed a 13-year-old boy after responding to a Shotspotter alert.

Holsey-Hyman told me that she needs to do more research on the technology to assess how it might impact Durham but thinks it’s “amazing” that it can track gunfire with such precision.

“I’ve lived in the projects,” Holsey-Hyman says. “It’s a culture; you’re not going to get people to tell you, ‘That’s where the shot came from.’ It would definitely help us to know where things are happening.”

Councilman Leonardo Williams says the council couldn’t have gone wrong with any of the four finalists—he says he hopes that the other three candidates will run in the next election, especially Baker, whom he describes as a “wealth of knowledge”—but they felt that Holsey-Hyman’s set of skills would best augment the council’s existing expertise.

Last winter, when Durham’s Braswell Apartments were sold to new owners and its tenants were given just 30 days to relocate, Williams says the council was unable to support the tenants who asked them for assistance.

“The county takes care of social services, so all we could say was, ‘Oh, well, go to the county,’” Williams says. “That didn’t sit right with me.”

The council wasn’t just in need of a social services expert, Williams says—“we were also missing a bit of tenacity.”

When he listened to Murrow speak about Holsey-Hyman’s role in propelling her to success, Williams knew that this candidate had the tenacity he’d been looking for.

“We tend to be a bit transactional,” Williams says. “But who’s gonna take the resources that we pull together and make them transformative? That’s what we were seeking.” 

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