Campus News

Showing moral courage

Lifetime Employee Forum delegate James Holman received the inaugural Rebecca Clark Staff Award for Moral Courage.

James Holman

James Holman, crew leader for housekeeping services and a lifetime delegate of the Employee Forum, received an important new award, the Rebecca Clark Staff Award for Moral Courage, on Oct. 12, University Day.

Rebecca Clark, the Carolina staff member for whom the award is named, first began working at the University in 1937 as a maid at the Carolina Inn, where she cleaned and made beds. She was known for her persistence and work ethic. In a 2000 interview, Clark said that she would often have the entire lobby dusted, mopped and vacuumed by 8:30 in the morning.

Rebecca Clark seated, looking out window.

Rebecca Clark

But in the summers, when campus was empty, many maids and housekeepers were laid off. Clark began working at the University Laundry, where she joined the State, County and Municipal Workers of America to advocate for higher wages and better working conditions at the University. Clark became a nurse’s aide for the University in 1953 and was the first licensed practical nurse to work in the campus infirmary.

In addition to her activism and involvement in securing safer conditions for her fellow employees, she also registered African American voters and played an instrumental role in the election of Howard Lee, the first African American mayor of Chapel Hill. She retired in 1979 and died in 2009.

Clark’s advocacy and willingness to speak out about inequalities, despite potential retaliation, are all values that the Employee Forum promotes among its staff, said Employee Forum Chair Shayna Hill. She said the award couldn’t be more aptly named, especially considering the hard work of University staff members that often goes unrecognized.

Holman, said Hill, is an ideal recipient.

“Staff works so hard day after day, even though buildings will not be named after us and books will not be written about us,” she said.* “James is a third-shift employee, and he puts in a lot of extra effort to advocate on his own time. I haven’t worked with anyone else who has that level of commitment.”

Instead of resting during his personal time, Holman can often be found advocating for his fellow staff members at meetings of the UNC-Chapel Hill Employee Forum, UNC System Staff Assembly and State Employees Association of North Carolina.

Through his role as chair of the State Employees Association District 25, Holman was instrumental in securing State Treasurer Dale Folwell’s participation in a UNC-Chapel Hill Health Care Town Hall sponsored by the Employee Forum, Faculty Council and Carolina Black Caucus. Holman also secured the state treasurer’s attendance at a quarterly meeting of the UNC System Staff Assembly to discuss the changing landscape of health care in North Carolina. The rising cost of health care is of significant concern to Carolina staff and faculty and UNC System employees, and having the state treasurer address these groups was an important way to hold state leadership accountable to the people they are elected to serve.

Holman, who has been a member of the Employee Forum for over 12 years and was awarded Lifetime Delegate status in 2019, said it is a special honor to be the first recipient of the Rebecca Clark Staff Award for Moral Courage.

“Moral courage to me means that we should stand up for the rights of all employees without worrying about retaliation from the powers that be,” Holman said.

Holman recalled a time in 2011 when he worked with former University Chancellor Holden Thorp, former University Ombuds Wayne Blair and the late past chair of the Employee Forum Jackie Overton to change the structure of the housekeeping department. “During that time I received a lot of pushback and was labeled a troublemaker,” Holman said. “I have found out when staff members speak out, they are labeled as troublemakers. I am going to use one of the late John Lewis’s statements: ‘Get in good trouble, necessary trouble.’ To me, I was making good trouble.”

Since he joined the Employee Forum, Holman said, he has done his best to be an advocate for all of the staff employees at Carolina — “but especially for those who have some of the most thankless jobs, whose work is done at one of the lowest pay scales on campus,” he said. “The health and safety of the lowest pay workers on campus are very important. I believe Rebecca Clark felt the same way that I feel.”

Holman also cited the indispensability of staff members at the University, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Thousands of people work behind the scenes 24 hours a day to keep this University running as safely as possible,” he said. “The truth of just how essential they are has become obvious to everyone in the last seven months. If that doesn’t take moral courage, I don’t know what does.”

Hill has worked with Holman for five years and has seen first-hand his dedication to staff and employee activism, as well as his tenacity in his commitment to stand up for what is right.

“He has a moral compass that guides him to speak up and ask questions about issues that he feels haven’t been resolved,” Hill said. “He just keeps going, and I couldn’t be more excited for him.”

Hill also recognized the significance of the award being given on University Day, which is one of Carolina’s most special occasions. She said that elevating a staff member on such an important day in the University’s history is a way for the Carolina community to honor the often underrecognized and invaluable contributions that employees and staff bring to the University every day.

“I hope this award sheds light on the people in positions that never get noticed,” she said. “These are the tireless folks that come in and turn the lights on in the morning and then turn them off again at night, and I hope they gain a higher visibility on our campus and in the community.”

* In 1998, the University Laundry building, opened in 1925, was renamed the Cheek Clark Building, in honor of Rebecca Clark and another housekeeper, Kennon Cheek, both of whom provided leadership to, and promoted better working conditions for, their fellow housekeepers during the 1930s and 1940s. The Cheek Clark Building was the first to be named after African American staff.